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.


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.

Poles often invoke the spirit of tolerance that existed at that time as the quintessential characteristic of Polish rule throughout the centuries, and thus as the ultimate refutation of the often-heard charge of "traditional Polish antisemitism." Poland was indeed an exceptional haven for the Jews who lived during this golden age. Yet the contention that this tolerance is emblematic of the broader history of Polish governance is, alas, a myth. Of the three pillars on which the Kingdom of Poland rested -- the crown, the gentry, and the Roman Catholic Church -- the last was the most mired in primitive, bellicose anti-Judaism, the forerunner of modern antisemitism. During the sixteenth century, Jesuits began arriving in Poland. As the main carriers of Counter Reformation zeal, they stimulated a powerful heightening of anti-Jewish sentiment. Catholicism began to be seen as the ultima ratio of Polishness, and religious tolerance was supplanted by suspicion and hatred of "others" -- of whom the Jews became far and away the most threatening species. By the seventeenth century, poisonous anti-Jewish books and pamphlets began to proliferate, replete with references to Jews as "social parasites," as "insects eating Poland from within," as spies for foreign entities, and as "God's plague." In 1764, the autonomy previously granted to Jewish communities was abrogated "in perpetuity." New laws restricted Jews' right to practice their trades in certain places and banned them from various professions.

Political antisemitism grew from that point on. The nineteenth century brought valiant pleas for understanding and tolerance by several distinguished writers, but to no avail. As the century drew to a close, antisemitism's main champion became Endecja (the National Democratic Party), whose leader, Roman Dmowski, advocated the forceful "polonization" of other ethnic groups inhabiting Poland, such as Ukrainians and Belarusians. As for the Jews, only their total expulsion from the Polish realm would do. "All Poland's troubles," wrote Dmowski, "are the result of centuries of Jewish invasion. If we want to be a great nation, we must get rid of the Jews." Some of Dmowski's epigones maintain that he was not a racist. Not true: Dmowski, who considered the Jews "a race totally alien to us," representing a species of "immanent evil" that no one and nothing could ever change, was the closest approximation to a pure racist that Poland ever produced. His malignant influence persists to this day.

Dmowski's Endecja gathered strength in the years leading up to World War I and bestrode Poland's political map during the country's interwar independence. Its hostility to Jews was shared, to a lesser or greater extent, by nearly all the other political groups, with the exception of the Polish Socialist Party and the minuscule Communist Party (in which Jews never composed more than 20 percent of the total membership, contrary to popular perception). Poland was not a totalitarian country, but by the late 1930s its politicians were borrowing more and more features from Nazi Germany. On the one hand, Jewish creativity -- political, cultural, religious -- flourished during these years as never before. Yet at the same time, as the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz recently wrote, "Polish antisemitic obsessions ... [already rampant in the 1920s] reached the level of a psychosis and eventually of total insanity."

World War II, which brought immense suffering to Poland's population, intensified the prevailing antisemitism. Many Poles reacted with indifference if not tacit approval to the systematic slaughter of their Jewish fellow citizens, who were still seen largely as treacherous and hostile. Many Poles -- the so-called szmalcownicy, from smalec, meaning grease -- extorted money and jewelry from Jews seeking refuge outside the ghettos.

At the war's end, the meager remnant of Poland's Jews was subjected to harassment, physical attacks, and pogroms. Although several intellectuals -- Communists and non-Communists alike -- published incisive essays on the history of Polish Jews and on Polish-Jewish relations, this genre did not survive the 1940s. The ruling Communist Party became, its formal ideology notwithstanding, the heir to the National Democrats in its vehement nationalism and obeisance to Moscow as the guarantor of Polish security (an article of faith in Dmowski's writings). It introduced its own antisemitic measures, stifling any candid discussion of Jewish problems or Polish-Jewish relations. Some bona fide historians, including anticommunists, participated in this conspiracy of silence and prevarication, thus feeding the myths of Polish generosity toward Jews and of exclusive Polish victimhood.


New myths compounded old ones. Nazi policies were declared equally lethal to Jews and Poles, thus obliterating the essential distinction between a population slated for complete eradication and one treated brutally yet allowed to survive. Nearly all references to Jews were expunged from the country's textbooks, and Poles en masse were portrayed as having helped the Jews during the occupation. (A number of Poles did indeed admirably aid the Jews, always at great risk to themselves; others helped only for money. Most reacted with either schadenfreude or indifference.)

In 1968, an officially sponsored antisemitic campaign forced nearly 25,000 Jews -- the majority of those still in Poland -- to leave. Some went to western Europe, some to Israel, and some to the United States. Thus Poland, home to more than three million Jews in 1939, became "the country of anti-Semitism without Jews."

It was not until decades later, following the demise of Communist rule, that conditions began to improve. Jews who had lived for years as Gentiles rediscovered their Jewishness and gradually found the courage to assert their identity. Clubs, schools, and courses in Hebrew and Yiddish emerged, and Jews organized themselves, on the prewar model, into legally defined communities. Some young Poles became interested in Jewish history and literature, and several of them authored impressive scholarly works. The process was slow, uneven, and above all confined to a small part of the country's intellectual elite.


The atrocities of Poles against Jews recounted in Neighbors produced initial reactions ranging from outright rejection to pained disbelief. In large part, popular responses were colored by the persisting images of Jews as outsiders, if not enemies, and of Poles as innocent martyrs and victims. Virtually every scholar, journalist, economist, and politician interviewed for this article confirmed the strength of these images. "When the first reactions to the revelations about Jedwabne appeared," said Bronislaw Geremek, historian and foreign minister from 1997 to 2000, "it seemed as if we were in for another of those familiar exercises in self-defense, for another passionate cry that 'we are not guilty,' that 'the world is against us,' and the like. It took some time for these first waves of indignation to subside -- though of course not to disappear -- and for a serious debate to take shape."

Wiktor Kulerski, historian and former deputy minister of education, commented, half ironically, half sadly, on the shock many Poles felt when confronted with evidence that they "were not the immaculate and holy beings they thought they were." From within the Catholic Church, Michal Czajkowski, a distinguished priest and professor of theology, made similar remarks.

The news about the massacres was particularly shattering to Poles not prone to self-exculpation. The sociologist Hanna Swida-Ziemba provided an example in an influential essay that reflected her changing attitudes. Fifteen years old at the time of the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which brought death to more than 40 Jews and injury to another 60, Swida-Ziemba wrote that she "thought it an isolated incident." Gross' book led her to see that "the criminal reflexes of Polish society directed against Jews were not incidental occurrences, but were nourished by widespread attitudes." And she no longer believed that pre-World War II "antisemitism belonged to the distant past, a past washed clean by the war and by the horror of the Holocaust." Rather, there was a direct link between prewar and postwar antisemitic violence; indeed, "prewar attitudes engendered the monstrous brutalities during and after the war."

Her essay also dealt with other fixations: the preoccupation of certain of Gross' critics with the exact number of victims burned in the barn in Jedwabne; the attempt to identify a cause of the massacre in the collaboration of a few Jews with the Soviet forces (part of a widespread attitude that conflates communists with Jews); the malign curiosity in Polish society about certain people's Jewish roots; the antisemitic slanders propagated by the Catholic Church. Indeed, her essay encapsulated the entire range of issues articulated in the debate generated by Gross' book.

The literary scholar Maria Janion joined the debate with an essay titled "The Polish Maccabees," which addressed the supposed Jewish cowardliness and "innate aversion" to military service. Janion reminded readers of Jewish participation in the wars against Tatars, Cossacks, and Muscovites in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and again in the Polish struggles for independence in the nineteenth century.

Another writer, Janusz Majcherek, refuted the conventional notion of Polish tolerance and Polish moral superiority over oppressive neighbors. Majcherek cited instances of mean-spirited, venal, and xenophobic behavior, quoting a 1927 prayer: "At Thy altars, oh Lord, we offer this plea /Poland from Jews forever set free." In another essay, Andrzej Kobos concluded, after a painful review of pertinent historical data, that Gross' judgment was correct:

The burning barn was a tool of genocide, differing from the German gas chamber only in that it was more capacious, technically more efficient and employed only once for murdering Jews, half a year earlier than the first mobile gas vans appeared in the Nazi extermination camp Chelmno.

Still another writer, Jerzy Slawomir Mac, rebutted the smug assertions that Poland, unlike other occupied countries, produced no collaborationists, no traitors, and no quislings. On the contrary, said Mac, quite a few Poles actually served the Nazi cause, and others were ready to serve. It was only "Hitler's decision that he could do without Polish allies" that put an end to their hopes.

Although the supporters of Gross' book have grown more numerous and outspoken, its detractors, despite all the evidence, are at least as widespread and vocal. Emanating mostly from right-wing nationalist groups, they blatantly deny any Polish responsibility for the massacres, claiming that Gross harbors an "anti-Polish" (i.e., pro-Jewish) bias, and probably communist sympathies to boot.

Between these two extremes fall the moderates, who grudgingly acknowledge that some of Gross' charges are valid but fault his methodology, accusing him of ignoring or minimizing relevant evidence. Tomasz Strzembosz, professor of history at Warsaw University and a leading critic, has waged a relentless campaign to show that the massacre in Jedwabne was retribution for Jewish complicity in the Soviet army's arrest and shipment of Poles to the Soviet Far East, all the while piously denying that he is justifying the carnage. But at the same time, Strzembosz claims that the Gestapo planned, orchestrated, and carried out the massacre, with support from some Polish criminal types (23, by his latest count, although he fails to explain how he arrived at that figure). Gross, he says, knew of the Germans' role but suppressed it. Strzembosz appears oblivious to the contradiction: either the perpetrators were Poles driven to murder by the misdeeds of the Jews, or they were Germans, but not both. Still, he remains in high regard among Polish nationalists, who consider him their spokesman and guru. And residents of Jedwabne, according to an article by the journalist Anna Bikont in Gazeta Wyborcza, have referred to Strzembosz with awe, citing him as an unimpeachable authority.

Other historians have also criticized Gross, faulting him for not consulting all the available evidence and questioning his count of victims. (It is hard to resist the impression that many of the objections, including the absurd charge that Gross is not a historian but a sociologist -- he is both -- stem from a desperate need to deny the stark, embarrassing truth). In response, Gross has written that the disputed figure of 1,600 fatalities was cited in every source he consulted, and it was even inscribed on the Jedwabne memorial erected some years ago. Moreover, he never claimed that the figure of 1,600 was absolute, only that it seemed the most likely total.

This year, the hypothesis of German culpability was finally laid to rest in a study by the Institute of National Memory (IPN), a government-sponsored body charged with examining all evidence relating to "crimes against the Polish people," which had been looking into the crimes in Jedwabne and the two other towns discussed by Gross. The IPN's chairman, Leon Kieres, a widely respected lawyer, delivered the institute's initial report in parliament in late December. Then on July 9, the eve of the anniversary of the massacre, the investigating procurator Radoslaw Ignatiew announced that the investigation had proved that although Germans helped bring Jews to Jedwabne, it was Poles who committed the carnage. Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, has officially requested that the Jedwabne memorial stone identify the perpetrators as Poles, and although Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski has not denied the request, he has asked for patience as the nation digests the "bitter findings" of the commission -- as, he says, it must.


Polish politics in the past decade or so has been characterized by, among other things, a noisome and noisy group of right-wing "patriots" and antisemites, whose differences of opinion on many subjects are eclipsed by one unifying theme inherited from Endecja -- namely, that the Jews constitute a parasitic growth on the Polish body politic. The largest of these groups is the League of Polish Families (LPR), which holds 37 of the 460 parliamentary seats. Although this is not in itself a large number, the LPR's views are shared by many Poles in and out of parliament, including the pathetic remnant of the old Solidarity movement. The strength of these groups can also be gauged by the country's many popular nationalist newspapers and periodicals, some sponsored or otherwise supported by the poisonous, antisemitic radio station Radio Maryja, headed by the Catholic priest Tadeusz Rydzyk.

After Kieres delivered the IPN's report, he came under ferocious attack from the rabid nationalists in parliament. Antoni Macierewicz of the LPR accused Kieres of "falsifying history, failing to prosecute Nazi and Communist crimes but instead placing the responsibility for Nazi crimes on the Polish nation, as in the case of Jedwabne." Another LPR deputy, Antoni Stryjewski, derided the memorial service held in Jedwabne in July 2001, where Kwasniewski had apologized to the Jews, as little more than a piece of Jewish chutzpah. Stryjewski also called on Kieres to resign from the chairmanship of the IPN to make way for "a real Pole." The rest of the deputies listened to it all in complete silence. A few days later, however, a scorching open letter signed by 750 distinguished Polish intellectuals denounced both the "fascist" speeches and the parliament's shameful silence.

Currently, the dire state of Poland's economy is providing grist for the mills of the right-wing nationalists. The unemployment rate stands at 18 to 20 percent, and surveys show that half of those workers with jobs fear dismissal. Tadeusz Kowalik, the economist and former adviser to the Solidarity movement, recently published a stinging report on the explosive economic conditions. Kowalik wrote that Poland's newly introduced market economy has led to a change in the relationship of forces in favor of employers, while the number of people living below the poverty line is three times higher than in Great Britain. Income differentials have skyrocketed. The very idea of a welfare state has been attacked with disastrous consequences for a large part of the population.

Kowalik's critics maintain that his social democratic predilections lead him to overstate the negative impact of change. Nevertheless, there is no disagreement about the basic facts he marshals.

Moreover, the Catholic Church has played an enormous role in the history of Polish antisemitism, as the major purveyor of medieval myths such as the "blood libel" (the story that Jews used Christian blood in baking their Passover matzos) and the charge that the Jews were "Christ killers." Although the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965 led to some positive changes, a substantial remnant of old attitudes persists. Cardinal Jozef Glemp, for example, refused to appear at the memorial in Jedwabne; he would not, he said, apologize to the Jews until the Jews "apologized to the Poles for their sins" (including their supposed collective role as Communists). Henryk Jankowski, priestly confessor to former President Lech Walesa, is a notable source of vile antisemitic slurs, such as the contention that Jews dominate the government. The Church has told Jankowski not to meddle in politics, yet it continues to shelter him and others like him. The Church has also declined to withdraw its support from Radio Maryja, despite the denunciations by many Poles, including Catholics, of the station's vulgar antisemitic broadcasts.

To be sure, the picture is not uniformly bleak. In addition to the memorial service at Jedwabne, the Jews received a public apology in May 2001, at a dramatic ceremony in a Warsaw church attended by many Church dignitaries.

Father Czajkowski, who attended the Warsaw ceremony, characterizes the clergy as divided into two wings: a majority that adheres to past practices and behavior, and a smaller, "open" group that advocates change. The latter includes prominent reformers such as Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Griezno, one of Poland's oldest dioceses; Father Adam Boniecki, editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, a weekly Catholic journal; and the Jesuit priest Stanislaw Musial, the author of scathing works on antisemitism in the Church and in Polish culture. As long as the balance tilts in favor of the traditionalists, however, the prospects are not bright for any fundamental attitudinal shift among the faithful. Czajkowski, despite his request, was refused a meeting with Cardinal Glemp.


After two years of tempestuous debate sparked by Neighbors, and now after the IPN verdict, what can be said of the results and of the implications for the future? Not surprisingly, antisemitic feelings, stereotypes, and myths remain strongest in the rural population, comprising about 40 percent of Poles, whose grievances are especially plentiful. Still, plenty of hasty anti-Jewish invective can be heard in urban society as well, as any visit to a local grocery store will reveal. As for residents of Jedwabne, Bikont has reported that for a long time they were gripped by an unshakable certainty that the Jews themselves committed the massacre under the orders of the Gestapo, a phantasmagoric belief inspired and encouraged by the local priest, Edward Orlowski. At the Jedwabne memorial ceremony, Kulerski recalled, a hostile atmosphere reigned: "The crowd was sullen, and as we walked toward the memorial stone, people in the houses along the way turned on their radios as loud as possible, just to show us what they thought of the whole thing." The popularity of Radio Maryja, the chauvinistic, antisemitic yellow press, and the meretricious writings that still pour out from historians such as Strzembosz make clear that one of the ugliest strains in Polish popular culture is still very much alive.

When the IPN released its final report on Jedwabne, Rabbi Michael Schuldrich, religious leader of the Warsaw and Lodz Jewish communities, declared with obvious satisfaction that "the debate, a test of how Poland dealt with its soul, is over, and Poland has passed the test." Such optimism seems premature, unfortunately. Although Gross has been clearly vindicated in all his major conclusions, his critics stick to their guns. However much the debate over his book helped promote a welcome change in Polish self-consciousness, centuries-old beliefs, myths, and passions are not about to vanish. Thus, Macierewicz of the LPR attacked the IPN report as a "document directed against the Polish people," and Strzembosz continues to claim that the report, in noting that the Germans cleared the way for the slaughter, supported his view of German culpability. This is plain mystification: Gross himself said that the Germans "gave permission for the massacre," but it was the Poles who killed, drowned, and burned their neighbors.

But things are changing. The latest public opinion surveys indicate that most people now believe Poles committed the Jedwabne massacre and similar atrocities -- a signal change from previous attitudes. The demonstration against Kieres' detractors drew an unprecedented number of people taking a stand against antisemitic cant. And the government is addressing certain educational deficiencies that contribute to antisemitism; new textbooks being prepared are meant to supplant existing misinformation and distortion.

Admirable individual efforts are also multiplying. Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, director of the NN Theater in Lublin, is engaged in the recovery of Jewish life there; his efforts include mounting various exhibits and producing plays translated from Yiddish. At Marie Curie University in Lublin, Monika Garbowska, a Polish literary scholar, heads the recently founded Department of Jewish Studies. A recent reading of Yiddish poetry that she had translated into Polish found a sizable and enthusiastic audience. Jewish musical fetes in many Polish cities -- above all in Krakow -- attract thousands of delighted participants. A young Krakow historian, Piotr Trojanski, has coauthored a forthcoming textbook on the Holocaust. He believes progress is being made in the teaching of Jewish history, though there is much room for improvement in the selection of books by individual schools and the level of support from the Ministry of Education.

Maciej Geller, professor of biophysics at Warsaw University, together with Jerzy Jedlicki and other prominent intellectuals, heads a group known as Open Republic that organizes lectures, seminars, and other activities addressing racism, ethnic prejudice, and censorship. In politics, Krzysztof Godlewski, former mayor of Jedwabne, was recently honored with an award (named for Jan Karski, the Polish courier who tried to inform Western leaders of the ongoing Nazi Holocaust) for openly condemning the massacre and arranging the memorial ceremony. At the time, townspeople branded him "anti-Polish" and a toady of the Jews, and forced his resignation. Godlewski says he is happy to welcome Jewish guests from abroad, so they can see "that we are not all cut of the same cloth."

It is premature to assess whether enough is being done to undo the effects of all the myths and misinformation fed to generations of Poles. But indicators suggest movement in the right direction. In the words of the eminent Polish historian Henryk Samsonowicz, "the discussion about Jedwabne has been very useful for Polish society. For [only] a healthy society can examine critically its own history." Disclosure of the massacres in Jedwabne and other towns, and the ensuing discussion, are a barometer of how decisively Poland can free itself from the discredited heritage that stands in the way of its becoming a truly pluralistic democracy. This much-desired prize is what the debate is ultimately all about.


You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Abraham Brumberg is former Editor in Chief of Problems of Communism and an essayist for numerous publications. He wishes to thank Jerzy Halbersztadt in Warsaw, Wlodzimierz Rozenbaum in Washington, D.C., and Joanna Beata Michlic in Jerusalem for their assistance in locating material for this article.
  • More By Abraham Brumberg