There are few sites as divisive and emotionally stirring as Jedwabne, especially when dealing with contemporary Polish-Jewish relations.
Jedwabne is the name of the town where a group of around 40 Polish citizens rounded up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a wooden building, and burnt them alive—mercilessly murdering the children along with their parents. According to the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland, at least 340 Polish Jews were murdered there. This all happened on July 10, 1941, exactly 80 years ago this past weekend.
Sadly, however, with no end of historic proof, eyewitness accounts and even Poland’s former president apologizing for what happened, there are still those who refuse to believe that this took place at the hands of Poles—not occupying German Nazis. Some have concocted a slew of odd conspiracy theories to explain the massacre.
Growing up as a Jew in England, I would have thought that Jedwabne was typical of the Polish attitude toward Jews during World War II. It was my mistaken understanding that the Poles were just as bad, if not worse, than the German Nazis themselves.
Over my last six and a half years of working on the ground in Europe with my foundation (From the Depths), and from spending a great deal of my time in Poland, I now understand something else to be true—something very difficult to put into words and something incredibly unpopular for both Jews and Poles alike.
Four years ago, on July 10, 2017, standing in Jedwabne, my thoughts were clarified.
Let’s start with the not-so-obvious fact that not every Polish man was Jan Karski, and not every Polish lady was Irena Sendler (two Polish Christian heroes of the Holocaust). To be sure, it is definitely true that there were many remarkable people in Poland during the war—in fact, it’s by far the country with the most recognized Righteous Among The Nations, those brave non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the war and on whose behalf my foundation now works day and night to support. But we must also remember the not-so-isolated violent incidents and pogroms, such as Jedwabne and Kielce.
We must remember. And as Mr. Edward Mosberg, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor of multiple concentration camps and the honorary president of my foundation, often says: “We can never forgive, it’s not our right to. Only the dead can forgive.”
Jewish school children pose for a portrait in the 1930s in Wizna, near Jedwabne, Poland. New research revealed that members of the Polish community killed their Jewish neighbors July 10, 1941 during World War ll despite previous claims that Nazi Germans were entirely responsible.Laski Diffusion/Getty Images
But we as a Jewish community have to get over any hatred we may harbor of Poles and Poland. It doesn’t help us, and it doesn’t benefit anyone.
Israel has few better friends on the international stage, with Poland a constant ally in the United Nations, military training programs and more. There is no need to embellish and claim that Poland is undergoing a “Jewish revival” of sorts, because it’s not. But Poland is one of the safest places for Jews in Europe today, notwithstanding a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric over the past few years and a government that does little to quell it.
As for the notion that Poles “were the worst” during the war—I simply cannot understand it. The guards at concentration camps were Ukrainians and Litvaks; in cities like Kaunas, Lithuania, some locals butchered Jews, their women watched while holding children to the windows to get a better view, and then afterward sang the national anthem in celebration. For sure, in Poland there were collaborators and bad individuals, but not enough to judge an entire nation. According to even the harshest estimations, most Poles simply tried to stay alive under harsh German Nazi occupation.
The last survivor from the city of Jedwabne, Itzhak Lewin, who I had the honor to be with at Jedwabne four years ago, said something that rings true: As with everything in life, there is always a balance; you cannot have good without bad. A great deal of his friends and family were murdered by Poles in the massacre in Jedwabne, yet he was also saved by Poles who hid him and some of his family members just five kilometers away from the killing site.
We cannot and should not forgive those who committed the most repugnant and abhorrent crimes against our people. We must forever remember those we lost. However, we must also understand how to move forward. We must work to improve our future and focus on the good. Focus on those who did something a lot harder than killing or giving up their neighbor—those who risked their lives and the lives of their loved ones in order to save their neighbors. That is how I choose to move forward.
Jonathan (Jonny) Daniels is the founder and chairman of From the Depths, a nonprofit run entirely by millennials dedicated to Holocaust memory and memorial, with a focus on supporting the last living Righteous Among The Nations.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.