A Conference at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
By T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert



A Conference at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

By T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert

Washington, D.C.--A conference at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2001, produced predictable, if not entirely satisfactory, results, seeking a form of reconciliation between the Polish and Jewish communities at all costs. As with similar such events, the conference title, "Confronting the Holocaust in Poland," at least mildly suggested the outcome. The "confrontation," weak as it may have been, emanated from the allegations contained in the book "Sasiedzi" ["Neighbors"] by Jan T. Gross.

 The audience was composed of many more Jews than Poles, at a ratio estimated to be at least ten to one. Each speaker was recognized with at least polite applause, but the loudest rewards were bestowed upon anyone who clearly posited Polish perfidy in the Jedwabne incident.

The general tenor of the discussion was that it would be cathartic for Poland to admit its wrongdoing and beg forgiveness, thereby somehow cleansing itself of national guilt for wrongs against the Jews.

The Discussion PanelModerator for the event was Stanley A. Blejwas (far left), Professor of History at central Connecticut State University, who quit the Polish American Congress after it voted (unanimously except for his abstention) to retention of the cross near the Auschwitz concentration camp. Participants in the panel, in the order of their presentations, were (l. to r.) Antony Polonsky, the Albert Abramson Chair of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University; Jan T. Gross, "Sasiedzi" author and Professor of Politics and European Studies at New York University; Piotr Wrobel, Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada; Alexander B. Rossino, a scholar with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Pawel Machcewicz, Director of the Research and Education Office, Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw, Poland; and Andrzej Paczkowski, Professor at the Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, and Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

Prof. Blejwas began the "conference" with the parable from the bible about the Good Samaritan and its admonition to "love thy neighbor," an obvious, though strained, attempt to make a connection with Gross' book. It is unlikely the Gross had the parable in mind when he titled his writing.

 Antony Polonsky may have been the only true scholar on the panel, utilizing facts instead of prejudice. He has participated in numerous other discussions regarding Polish-Jewish relations, including a more divided gathering last year at the Yeshiva in New York, and always attempts to present a documented, unbiased opinion. In this case, he not only dared to challenge the view that Poles are anti-Semitic, but agreed with Norman Davies that the Polish view of Jews not differ significantly from that other Europeans. Moreover, he saw the position of Jews in prewar Poland as that of other citizens, whose poverty was due to being part of an underdeveloped country. Then, as they came to see themselves as a separate ethnic group, their situation deteriorated by reason of the depression, the impact of the rise of German Nazism and the nationalistic division with the Polish government. Nevertheless, they were not subject to specific or legal discrimination, even while such actions were being taken in neighboring states.

 Polonsky, Gross and WrobelIn contrast to Polonsky, Jan T. Gross, author of "Neighbors," is comfortable using prejudice instead of facts. In a distortion typical of his book, he stated that Jedwabne was the story of one half a town murdering the other half, implying that the town's whole Polish population was involved in the deed. Not to be undone by the actuality, he then averred that the Holocaust is still absent from the curriculum of Polish schools, so Poles remain ignorant of Jewish suffering during World War II. This writer did not attend school in Poland, so he cannot attest to the classroom experience, but he has seen and purchased many books in Poland, even during the communist occupation, about the Holocaust and Polish Jewry, indicating that there was no dearth of knowledge about those events. He then made a pointed slam directed specifically at the President of the Polish American Congress, saying that "it is anti-Semites, not Jews, who give Poland a bad name." Naturally, that "dig" brought gleeful applause from the audience.

Describing himself as the "troublemaker in the crowd," Piotr Wrobel expressed dissatisfaction with the methodology employed by Gross, whereby witness testimony substitutes for documentary evidence. He reminded the panel that the testimony of Shmul Wasserstejn, upon which Gross heavily relied, was considered as relatively unimportant by the Jewish Institute in Poland in its 1966 text regarding the Jedwabne incident. Unfortunately, Prof. Wrobel was not as vociferous a "troublemaker" as might have turned the discussion more decidedly toward factuality.

Mr. Rossino, a younger man interested in truth who was obviously lost among this grouping, attempted to demonstrate the overbearing influence of the SS, and even the German Army, in the Jedwabne area at the time of the murders. The Germans, he explained, believed the Bolsheviks to be aided by Jews and were anxious to incite ethnic tensions. Instigating pogroms was an SS responsibility and information was collected in areas where anti-Semitism might be infused due to the Jewish involvement in the communist occupation. Rossino concluded that "It was the SS which struck the match and lit the fuse," but this clear indication of German underpinnings for the Jedwabne incident was ignored by both the other panelists and the audience. Not surprisingly, although he had presented more factually substantiated information in a shorter time than anyone else on the stage, the speaker received only a smattering of applause.

Rossino and MachcewiczPawel Machcewicz of the Institute of National Remembrance said the discussion of Jedwabne was "the most important public debate in Poland in 1989." As Wrobel, he found fault with the methodology, saying one should be critical of eyewitness sources. Perhaps the least favorably disposed toward Gross of the panelists, he stated that the author ignored the role of the Germans and failed to appreciate the impact of Jewish collaboration with the Reds, citing revenge as a part of the interplay. He concluding by saying that the book was a start toward discovering the truth and would undoubtedly require amendment. Nevertheless, he fell short of withholding judgment until his own Institute's investigation had been completed.

The final speaker was Andrzej Paczkowski, who delivered a rather esoteric description of the various views held by Polish analysts. His primary point was that the communist regime was destructive to a realization of the true past, thereby leaving the door open to acceptance of the Gross perspective of Poles as victimizers.

Polish Ambassador GrudzinskiPre-chosen "commentators" were then called from the audience to deliver their observations, which can be summarized here in relatively few words. Professor Engels suggested that the degree of planning evident in the Jedwabne incident indicated to him that there was substantial German involvement. Mr. Abe Brumberg was most clearly distinguished by labeling everything with which he disagreed as "idiotic," a scholarly approach, indeed. The final observer's remarks came from a Timothy Snyder, whose credentials were not given, but who was a Polish American. He praised the coverage of Jedwabne in Polish papers as far beyond anything seen in American papers and revealed that Poles were well informed about the issue.

Discussions at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum do not generally allow for questions from the floor in matters involving Polish-Jewish relations, the powers that be apparently fearing what the public may say or ask. Written questions were collected and sorted by Professor Blejwas, those few chosen for use being so bland as to be unworthy of exposition here. Nevertheless, the question period gave Machcewicz the chance to say that the Institute of Remembrance was looking into more alleged Polish anti-Semitic activities, Polonsky the opportunity to speculate on a different Jewish life in Poland had the May 3rd Constitution survived, and Gross the pleasure of denying that the death penalty for assisting Jews was no excuse for Polish failures.

Finally, Polonsky came to the fore again by refusing the suggestion that the death camps were placed in Poland because of some pre-disposition toward anti-Semitism on the part of the Poles. Instead, he explained, the camps were constructed on Polish soil because that is where the greatest number of Jews were to be found and because Auschwitz was the hub of the German rail system. In a fitting, though somewhat amazing finale, Polonsky stated that what happened in Lithuania, Romania, Ukraine and Belarus was more sinister and on a far larger scale than anything that happened at Jedwabne. The scholar among the group had placed the issue in a more proper perspective.


T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert, Polonia Today, 0000-00-00