A Visit to Jedwabne
The terrain from Warsaw to Jedwabne is a flat, boring landscape, but the conversation in the car is lively. Tadeusz is talking about faith and free will, free choice and destiny, and how these seemingly contradictory notions mysteriously coexist in our lives. These are the themes that permeate the text of the play. In Our Class, Tadeusz touches on the biblical story of Isaac, Abraham, and Sarah, which he brings up as we are driving towards Jedwabne: “In the Jewish interpretation, the story gives a deeper meaning to suffering and suggests the absolute necessity for faith. The Polish Catholic Church sees in the lamb Jesus who was sent as the lamb to be sacrificed instead of Isaac, and thus Jesus resolves the conflict between free will and destiny. This is of course nonsense,” adds Tadeusz, who was brought up in a Catholic family but is now lapsed. Then he adds, “Some conservative Rabbis explain the whole Holocaust as the deeper meaning of fate, as God’s will.”
Our driver is driving a white Skoda car, which was built in the small town of Mlada Boleslav, where I was born and lived for nineteen years. I haven’t sat inside a car made in the factory that employed half of my town’s population (including my mother) since my father drove it during my first visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990, my first trip since my emigration in 1976.
“Is it true that the Polish women in Jedwabne wore the fur coats of their Jewish neighbors when going to church after the pogrom?” I ask. Anna Bikont mentioned this to me. Tadeusz smiles, “Well it was July, so not the next day. But, yes, later. Also, the priest demanded that people who had taken Jewish property in the looting pay taxes on them to the church.”
“Small towns in Eastern Poland had large Jewish populations before the war. Some towns were 40% to 60% Jewish. After the creation of the Polish Republic in 1918, the Catholic Church started to build enormous churches in these small towns, to compete and impose a Catholic presence.” The idea, according to Tadeusz, was that the churches were going to be the largest building in any city and when one looked up from one place to another there were only steeples of other churches to be seen. “The steeples are supposed to be like beads creating a rosary in the sky”, says Tadeusz.
It is hard to live under an occupation. Afterwards, It is hard to deal with the choices people made in order to survive the occupation. How does one judge those who collaborated with the two occupiers, German and Soviet? I can only imagine that for the Jews the Soviets must have been a lesser of two evils. But the Soviets during thier occupation in 1939-41 were brutal. They killed or sent to labor camps many Poles and Jews. We know now that both Jews and Poles collaborated with the Soviets. How did this affect the town when the Germans forced out the Soviets and became the new occupiers in 1941? In Jedwabne, Jews were blamed as the only Soviet collaborators. According to Tadeusz, this notion still prevails among many of Jedwabne inhabitants.
As we approach Jedwabne, we hit road construction. Tadeusz thinks that the work is being done because of the approaching 70th anniversary of the massacre. Politicians, and for the first time a high ranking representative from Catholic Church will be in attendance. However, the mayor of Jedwabne refuses to participate.
When we get into the town, our first stop is at Jedwabne’s school. It’s a very hot summer day, and Tadeusz says, “The weather today is the same as during the pogrom.”
Picture: The school in Jedwabne