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.”
When the Russian army arrived in January, 1945, the survivors were finally able to leave their hiding places and all but Szmul left for Lomza. One night they heard that the Partisans were planning to come harm the Jews. The men in the house left and hid, leaving Ms. Antosa alone because they believed that these men would do nothing to a Christian woman. The men who arrived supposedly had taken part in the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941. When they couldn’t find any Jews, and she wouldn’t tell them anything, they beat up Ms. Antosa until she was black and blue all over. She was so terrified that she would get killed that she decided to leave for Austria with Szmul and some of the other Jewish survivors. They had to stay in a displaced people camp in Linz. Ms. Antosa got very homesick and wanted to return back to Poland. Szmul accompanied her back to make sure she was safe.
Ms. Antosa’s brother, who lived in Cuba, sent him money and Szmul helped the family buy a house in Bielsko, a village not too far from Jedwabne. Once, at the market, Ms. Antosa ran into the men who beat her up; she felt threatened, and the family moved again to a small town close to Warsaw.
In the nineties she was invited by her Jewish friends to the States. Szmul saw her again for the first time in thirty years. He started to invite her every year to Costa Rica. When he was dying in 2000, he asked for Ms. Antosa to stay with him. She came, stayed by his bedside and held his hand as he died.
Anna Bikont is a journalist who writes for Gazeta Wyborzcza, Poland’s second largest newspaper. It was founded in 1989 by a group of journalists and activists from the underground democratic opposition press as the platform for the first democratic parliamentary elections. Adam Michnik - an intellectual and close friend of former Czech President Vaclav Havel from the time when they both were leading dissidents in communist Poland and Czechoslovaki - has been Editor-in-Chief from the beginning. Michnik was a prominent member of the democratic opposition in the '60s to '80s.
After Jan Gross’s book Neighbors was published in Poland in 2000, Anna Bikont started interviewing witnesses of the Jedwabne massacre for the Gazeta Wyborzcza. She became so passionate about her investigation into Jedwabne’s troubled past that she ended up spending four years of her life interviewing: the few survivors and their relatives, now living in the United States, Israel, Costa Rica, and Argentina; the people who risked their lives to hide and save them; and the perpetrators of the violence. She also closely researched old newspapers, letters, trial documents - many facts that often seemed completely contradictory. Her work resulted in the book We in Jedwabne, which is being translated into English and will be published next year by Yale Press.
I ask her what she thought about the relationship between the Jews and Poles in Jedwabne before the war. Agnieszka considers it a big problem that in Jedwabne Poles and Jews lived next to each other without too much contact. ‘The first question I always ask in my interviews is if they had ever visited the house of a Jew. The answer is always the same: no, never. And when you don’t know your neighbor,’ Agnieszka continues, ‘when they are only the Other, a small gossip can grow into something horrendously huge because people don’t know the reality of their neighbors' lives.’
But Agnieszka admits that the reasons for the lack of relationships between Poles and Jews are complicated. She suggests that eating food together is a basic socializing act. ‘Just imagine: a Jewish girl is visiting the house of her Polish classmate. She is offered a cup of tea, but she can’t have it because it’s not kosher. Can she have a cookie? No, she can’t. She can’t eat anything at her classmate’s house. The next time she is not offered anything and perhaps later she may not be even invited to visit.’ Agnieszka tells me that two years ago her best friend converted to Orthodox Judaism. She is supposedly very dear and close to Agnieszka. But now they can’t have a meal together because her friend can eat only kosher food. They still love each other very much but they don’t see each other as often as they used to in the past.
Kasia Kubin, a young woman who had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I are meeting the documentary filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold. Kasia’s English is perfect and she translates flawlessly.
Agnieszka Arnold was the first artist to touch on the subject of Jedwabne Jews. In her documentary Neighbors, Agnieszka interviews witnesses, participants and survivors of the massacres of an estimated 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne and 800 in Radzilow and other nearby villages. She finished the film in 1997 with no hope that the documentary would ever be broadcast. She started to show the film to her friends, and to whoever wanted to watch. This is what inspired Jan Gross, who saw the film, to do his research and write the book Neighbors, using the same title with Agnieszka's permission. After Jan Gross’s book was published in 2000, Agnieszka’s documentary was shown on Polish National Television in 2001 and viewed by two million people.