Saturday, September 12, 2015

How Hatred is Inherited - This is the realm of Witnessing and Peacemaking. How do we serve this?

Below are excerpts from a review of "A Crime and the Silence" by Anna Bikont, publ. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pages.

"In Poland - not only the murderers, but also the rescuers—who risked their lives to save Jews—remained terrified to talk: Well over half a century later, they still feared their neighbors."

"Jedwabne is a small town in northeastern Poland. In September 1939, Hitler invaded the country, and Jedwabne came under German occupation—before being passed to Stalin a few weeks later and incorporated into Soviet Belarus. After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Red Army withdrew from Jedwabne, and the Wehrmacht returned. A window of semi-anarchy opened, created by two totalitarian regimes carrying out modern social engineering projects in a not-very-modern space: Jedwabne was rural and impoverished. A third of the townspeople could not read or write.

In early July 1941, as they were still setting up their occupation regime, the Germans gave local Poles a few days to “self-cleanse” the town of Jews. “Self-cleansing” began with rapes, stonings, drownings, killings by farm tools. On the morning of July 10, 1941, Polish townspeople drove the Jews from their homes to the market square, where they forced them to pull the weeds from between the cobblestones. It was a scorching midsummer day. Jewish men were made to destroy the nearby Lenin monument, to carry a large piece of it on two wooden poles into the square, and then to proceed into a barn distant by a few hundred meters. Inside the barn, Poles killed the men and flung pieces of Lenin on top of the corpses. Then some 40 men herded the several hundred remaining Jews—now including women, elderly people and small children—into the same barn. “Some were herding their own schoolmates,” said a woman who was there that day. A short, heavy man named Józef Ekstowicz doused the barn with gasoline; someone lit a match and the barn burst into flames. Babies were tossed inside...."

"The confrontation between Poles and Jews is only one of three dramatic confrontations at the heart of this book. The second is between the generation that took part in the war and the generation that was “graced by a late birth.” How do grown children accept—or not—that their fathers were murderers? Ms. Bikont arrives in late autumn 2000, as if an intruder at an involuntary psychoanalytic session: a whole town experiencing the revenge of the repressed. This intrusion is the third confrontation: between intellectuals from the city and peasants from the countryside. Ms. Bikont comes to the provinces as if to a foreign country. A schoolteacher in Jedwabne tells her: “The only accepted life model here is to put money in the tray on Sunday and then drink all week, beat your wife, and moan about the Jews.” That the anti-Semitism virulent in the middle of the 20th century continued into the 21st was for Ms. Bikont a moral shock.

Not only the murderers, but also the rescuers—who risked their own lives to save Jews—remain terrified to talk: Well over half a century later, they still feared their neighbors. Yet they lived with them and had done so for a long time. This book leaves the reader haunted by the intimacy of the massacre: Women were raped by their own classmates, hundreds of people were burned to death by their own neighbors, and the few survivors who remained spent the rest of their lives among their families’ murderers. Even Stanisław Ramotowski kept doing business with one of the murderers “because there wasn’t another smith who shod horses as well as he did. ‘But I wouldn’t look at him or he at me; he kept his head down.’ ”