A Visit to Jedwabne, Part Three
Large blocks of stone are arranged to suggest the outline of the former barn where the Jews of Jedwabne were burnt. As I look at it and walk inside the space, even I have to wonder how 1,600 hundred people could fit into this space. It seems impossible. Tadeusz is telling me that the number is still a large controversy, but that the killing of the Jews in Jedwabne went on throughout the day and that many were killed before the barn burning.
Until early summer 2001, a small memorial stood here with an inscription stating that 1,600 Jews were murdered in this space by the Germans. Since the end of World War II, the Polish historical narrative has insisted that the awful acts that happened here were committed by Germans. When Jan Gross’ book Neighbors came out in Poland in 2000 it stirred up an intense national debate. Every Pole I know read the book. Most people, including Tadeusz, at first couldn’t believe that the perpetrators were not the Germans but locals. Jan Gross’ book changed that view for many. On July 10th, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, publicly apologized for the pogrom in Jedwabne at a commemoration ceremony and unveiling of a new memorial, where Tadeusz and I now stand.
I’m looking around, trying to imagine the horror. The landscape is so flat! I don’t see any woods around here! The only way to hide would be in the fields. A line from the play comes to my mind, “I can still hear their screams. It was awful." Tadeusz has taken these words from a witness to the pogrom, a Polish woman, who was interviewed in Agniezska Arnold’s documentary Neighbors. I was watching the documentary the day before our trip to Jedwabne. The memory turns the witness’ face - full of wrinkles sixty years later - into a pained grimace.
I can’t help but think about my grandfather, who in 1944 was taken to a concentration camp in Jasenovac, run by the Croatian fascists called Ustashas. Towards the end of the war, as partisans were encroaching on the camp, the surviving prisoners were put into train wagons to be taken away. But since the war was close to being lost, instead of moving the prisoners, the Ustashas supposedly doused the vans with gasoline, locked the prisoners inside and burnt them. My mother got this story from another survivor, but she doesn’t really know if that’s the truth. Like so many millions of WWII victims, my grandfather lost his identity, was turned into a number, and none of us, his descendants, know exactly where, when, or how he died.
As I’m thinking about my grandfather, I’m walking across the road to Jedwabne's former Jewish cemetery. There are no grave stones left here. The grave yard is overgrown by wild trees. I am trying to walk there but I can’t. It’s a jungle. In the not too far distance, I notice the well maintained Catholic cemetery. Yes. Neighbors. I’m profoundly sad.
Photos: Catholic Cemetery in Jedwabne, Overgrown graveyard