A few weeks ago, the Polish government approved a new law, making it illegal to associate Poland with Nazi crimes. Basically, saying or writing something like “Polish death camps” is now punishable by law. However, that contradicts actual events surrounding the Jedwabne Pogrom.
Why did they make this law, you may be asking? The answer is a bit tangled. The Polish government, back in the World War II, wasn’t really pro-Nazi. Their territory was forcefully occupied by Nazi soldiers, and therefore, a part of Poland was under the Nazi law for a while. They didn’t really surrender to them, neither did they approved of this invasion.
So when the media says “Polish death camps,” it essentially means that Poland was a Nazi country and their people, including past and current governments, do not like it. They also argue that Poland was a victim of Nazi crimes and that they never participated in them, but the information about the Jedwabne Pogrom says quite the opposite.
Jedwabne Pogrom Controversy
The word “pogrom” recalls the persecution of ethnic groups but is mostly associated with anti-Jewish violence. It’s a Russian word and literally translates to “harm.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister rejected this law a few weeks ago, because it cleanses some Polish crimes against the Jewish community, including the Jedwabne Pogrom.
This Polish town had a Jewish population of 1.500 people, established since the 18th century. The Polish-Jewish relations were good, even though gentile Polish were a visible minority, at least until September 1, 1939, when the Nazi German troops invaded Poland.
The problem started when Germans occupied Jedwabne which then, thanks to the German-Soviet Boundary Treaty, which was fundamentally a part of the Nonaggression Hitler-Stalin Pact, became a Soviet territory.
The Jews welcomed Soviet soldiers. The Red Army was seen as a protector of Poland, but their presence encouraged the birth of privileges and punishments to solve some ethnic and religious conflicts among the population. Gentile Poles were being deported, arrested and even killed by the Soviet secret police until 1941 when German forces overran Soviet occupations, and their Nazi propaganda assured that Jews were supporting Soviet soldiers to get rid of non-Jews.
Poles and Germans Jointly Killed Jews in Jedwabne
Jews were generally seen as a privileged elite (not just in Poland, but most of Europe). On the morning of 10 July 1941, due to what had been happening in Jedwabne, gentile Pole villagers surrounded the town along with German paramilitaries and joined the slaughter of at least 300 Jews.
On that day, Jews were forced to pull down a statue of Lenin and some other leftovers from the Soviet occupation. They were then taken to a barn, clubbed and stabbed to death, some were even burned alive.
It is inevitable to question if Poles were actually forced to do that, considering that practically the whole extension of Poland was under Nazi control. According to several investigations on the subject, the Jedwabne Pogrom was certainly influenced by Germans but executed by Poles.
Jedwabne Pogrom: The Destroyed Image of a Victimized Country
Polish identity is built on top of collective suffering and something that we could call a victimization during WWII. That is why this new law against the association with Nazi crimes is so popular among them.
However, the Jedwabne Pogrom wasn’t properly investigated until 2001, when Jan Gross, a Polish-born US academic, published a book called “Neighbors,” describing the massacre. Gross even declared that this anti-defamation law empowers a regime based on xenophobia, nationalism, and antisemitism. His words highlight the Polish feeling of separation between gentiles and Jews, even though they were all Poles who went through the Holocaust. Gentile Poles feel and speak of the WWII as something that happened to “others”, meaning, the Jews.
This is important to the understanding of the Polish identity; they do not feel responsible for any pogrom and certainly feel attacked when history books and the media associate their nation with Nazi crimes.
But the truth is, some of them did wrong, and even though they were blinded by resentment and hate, Poland is not a white or black country when we talk about antisemitism.
Meanwhile, this new Polish law is on its run. The Polish League against Defamation most recently accused the Argentinian newspaper, Página 12, for intending to harm the Polish nation and the defamation of Polish soldiers for publishing an article about the Jedwabne Pogrom.