Poles and Jews

COMING TO TERMS

When Jan Gross' Neighbors first appeared in Poland two years ago, with its grisly account of the July 10, 1941, slaughter of 1,600 Jews in the small northeastern town of Jedwabne, it sank like a stone in a sea of indifference. The book depicted a horrifying daylong slaughter, during which Jews were knifed and drowned, their throats slashed, and their babies stomped to death. At the end of the day, the remaining Jews were herded into a barn that was set ablaze. The perpetrators were not Nazis, recent research has confirmed, but Polish residents of Jedwabne, plus a few stragglers from nearby villages, drawn to the barn by curiosity and the promise of easy loot.

With a few exceptions, the media in Poland were eerily silent about Neighbors for nearly six months. Then, prompted by a long-delayed article in Poland's largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, the press exploded with articles, reminiscences, and essays. One prominent journalist characterized the debate inspired by the book as "the most important discussion of the decade," after which "nothing will ever be the same -- neither Poland nor Polish discussions, nor the next decade."

Only a full awareness of the magnitude, longevity, and tenacity of antisemitism in Poland can explain the enormous impact of Gross' disclosure of the Jedwabne massacre and two similar atrocities. Antisemitism has of course existed in many other countries, and often with more harrowing results than in Poland -- Nazi Germany being the most obvious example. What has distinguished Poland, however, and made the problem there so striking, is antisemitism's durability and fierce resistance to change.

TRAGIC HISTORY

Jews have lived in Poland since the ninth century. For nearly 200 years from the late fourteenth century onward, they enjoyed an array of religious and political freedoms, sometimes receiving royal grants of extensive legal, social, and religious rights. By the mid-sixteenth century they were allowed to organize a central body, called the "Council of the Four Lands." Its members, elected by local Jewish communities, oversaw the religious, social, and legal institutions of the entire Jewish population in Poland. This council represented the highest form of Jewish autonomy in the history of European Jewry.

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