In order to show how human beings inflict their worst brutality upon those they hold the most in common, Russell Jacoby in his recent book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present described a massacre during the early years of WW II in which the townspeople of Jedwabne, Poland brutally humiliated, tortured and murdered its entire Jewish population on a warm July afternoon. According to Jacoby, what made this bloody massacre so horrific it was committed not by members of Hitler’s SS or regular German army units but by the town’s Polish civilians. In an orgy of bloodlust, Jadwabn non-Jewish population turned on its Jewish neighbors with whom they had lived with for years and without assistance but merely tacit approval from the occupying Germans, killing them all.
After the massacre received widespread attention on its 60th anniversary in 2001 it was the subject of two documentaries and a book by NYU Professor of Politics and European Studies Jan Gross. His book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland probably due in no small because of the horrific slaughter it portrayed, would elicit a great deal of attention, including a nomination for the National Book Award. After finishing it this morning at the neighborhood coffee shop I’ve concluded that Neighbors, considering the horrific and senseless pogrom it depicts, is an engrossing and surprisingly readable account of one of the Second World War’s most brutal and personal massacres.
Gross bases much of his book on the evidence and testimony that was presented during the trial of the accused perpetrators convened by the ruling Polish Communists in 1949. Like any decent historian Gross augments this with additional material taken from archives, letters and various personal accounts. By analysing and scrutinising the evidence, Gross claims the town’s Jews were not only murdered by Jedwabne’s non-Jewish citizenry and not the German armed forces, but the motivation for their murder was not some Nazi imposed ideology but sadly the area’s own deep-seated antisemitism.
While the author’s depiction of the pogrom recalled in Neighbors seems credible, there seems to be some debate over not only the scope of the massacre but only its perpetrators. Contemporary forensic research and other investigations have to put the numbers killed around 300-400 as opposed to the 1,600 as claimed by Gross and others. There also seems to be some evidence that points towards an active role played by German armed forces in the massacre. No matter the what happened however, it was horrific and wrong.
As I sat reading Gross’s book I found myself trying to describe his writing style. With his straightforward, unadorned, direct but effective way of writing, I kept thinking of prolific medical writer Berton Roueche. A frequent New Yorker contributor and author of 20 books, to honor his passing in 1994 his former magazine fondly described his writing as not even having a “style,” therefore giving it a distinct style onto its own. I think I could consider Gross’s writing style to be much the same.
Lastly the final 25 pages or so of Gross’s book contain old photographs of the town’s pre-war Jewish residents. Sadly in his book Gross points out that most if not all of the personal accounts of the Shoa came from survivors or those who lived long enough like Anne Frank to record their stories. Besides putting a human face on the War’s tragedy, perhaps in a small way the inclusion of these photos allow the murdered a belated opportunity to add to the historical record their testimonies. Even if it’s a mute one.