A Visit to Jedwabne, Part Two
The school has been closed since the 1990s. The windows are boarded and a wild tree grows on a small balcony above the boarded entrance to the building. A school photograph of the future murderers and victims of the Jedwabne pogrom, standing next to each other, smiling for the camera, inspired Tadeusz to make the fates of the ten classmates the center of the play. The schoolyard is overgrown with nettles. I’m taking pictures for Marsha Ginsberg, the set designer of Our Class. We will be finalizing the design for the Wilma production as soon as I’m back in Philadelphia. Tadeusz is telling me that in the late thirties the school hired a Jewish teacher, but many of the Polish students sabotaged her classes, and she was fired after a while.
We are slowly walking towards the main square where in 1941 the majority of Jews were first assembled and forced to pull weeds from between cobblestones. The square has been turned into a park named after Pope John Paul II. It is dominated by a huge church which, according to Tadeusz, was built over a long period of time. In 1937 the town ran out of money and forced the Jewish community to pay for the roof. This fact is mentioned in Our Class.
In front of the church is a memorial built in 2002, a year after the memorial was erected for the Jews burnt in the barn. The memorial in front of the church is dedicated to the Poles from Jedwabne who were deported during the Soviet occupation (1939-41) and died from hunger and cold in Siberia. It doesn’t mention that many Jews were deported to Siberia as well. I can’t get rid of the impression that this memorial is competing with the Jewish one over who is the bigger victim, over what death is worse, burning or freezing to death.
The town is unremarkable. There are many new houses. Tadeusz tells me that many of the citizens went to the US to make money and when they returned they rebuilt their houses. I’m surprised that I see no posters for cultural events anywhere. I just came from the Czech Republic where I had spent a week in a town of a similar size. There were announcements for concerts, theaters, and readings all over the place. Here there is nothing. Tadeusz tells me there is no culture in the town, no art. Tadeusz thinks that if there were culture in the city, artists would have to address in their work what had happened here. According to Tadeusz, the locals talk about the pogrom only in the pub when drunk.
A few men look at me as I’m taking pictures of the house where the Rabbi lived, and another one, in front of which, according to Tadeusz, Jakub Katz was killed. Tadeusz tells me that even now people are still afraid of foreigners taking pictures. He smiles, “they are worried that you might be Jewish, related to the former owners of the house, and now you will want it back. But seriously,” he adds, “this fear still exists in the town and is rekindled by the local priest.”
We are walking on a street that at the edge of town turns into a dirt road; it leads us to the former barn where the Jedwabne Jews were burnt by the locals. It’s very hot and sweat is pouring over our faces. In front of us are green fields; a horse is hiding in a shadow of an old tree, it’s a perfect pastoral picture. The scene could be very similar to the day when the Jewish population was led to the barn.