Jedwabne - the Victory of a Lie
By Paula Stern
9/2/2011, 12:09 PM
Paula SternPaula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical...
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Forgive me for this post...but I just can't ignore something that was reported in the news today. This isn't about Elie...who was named after one of my husband's uncles - his mother's brother, who was murdered by the Nazis shortly after his wedding. This isn't about Shmulik, who carries the name of another uncle, who collapsed in the forests of Europe and died. But it touches me...something that happened today...and so, I write.
A memorial to Holocaust victims was desecrated in Poland today. I saw the picture and recognized the monument immediately. It was in the tiny town of Jedwabne. Population approximately 3,100 in August, 1941 when the Polish villagers collected their 1,500 Jewish neighbors and murdered them all in a single, bloody attack. One Jewish family had been warned and fled; 2 other young men were able to escape to bear testimony to what their neighbors did. One was a 15-year-old boy. Fifteen, like my Davidi. The boy's father didn't remember, when the neighbors came and forced them from their home, if he'd locked the house. Go back, he told the boy. Go check and then catch up to us. He ran back to the house and then, as he returned, he began to wonder why. Instead of joining the slow moving line of Jews, the boy stayed hidden and watched. Watched as they locked the Jews in a barn...and set it afire. Their neighbors, 1,500 Jews.
After the war, the Poles erected a monument that said, "In memory of the 1,500 Poles murdered by the Hitlerites." No, the Germans had not yet arrived on that miserable day in August, 1941. The Jews, were murdered by the Poles because they were Jews. But the Poles couldn't keep the secret forever. There were those who knew the truth and remembered the hatred.
Finally, after decades of work, the Polish President came to Jedwabne to correct the wrong. The sign, the lie, was erased. They were Jews who were murdered in Jedwabne and they would be remembered as Jews. Finally. And so the memorial was replaced with new words. "In memory of the 1500 Jews who were murdered." But the lie continues, doesn't it? They admit the "Hitlerites" didn't do it...but don't admit they did - at least not on the memorial that stands in Jedwabne.
On a tour of Poland with my oldest daughter in 2004, they took us to Jedwabne as part of an 8-day tour. It is impossible to visit concentration camp after concentration camp, cemetery after cemetery, without breaking down. Why? I demanded. Why do you let them get away with this? The guide answered that were they to put, "To the 1,500 Jews murdered by their neighbors" it would be desecrated. Well, today, it was desecrated anyway.
One of the guides listened and then added that he had been in the town in 2001 when the new monument was unveiled. From the row of houses, he said pointing into the distance, someone put a stereo in the window and began blasting music to disrupt the ceremony. The president of Poland had come, even the Chief of Police of the land - to take part in the ceremony. The Chief of Police sent someone to make them close the stereo. Finally it was quiet and they were ready to begin.
And then, from the other side of town, "the Church bells started ringing, and ringing, and ringing. They had to send someone else to stop them," he explained. I once wrote, "Everyone has a breaking point. It is the point at which you simply feel you cannot take anymore. You cannot cry more, you cannot feel anger and you don't want to feel sadness. You feel that your heart hurts, and you don't want to feel that either." I broke in two places during my visit to Poland. One was in Jedwabne.
I broke at the thought that the hatred of World War II had survived the war and still lived on. I broke at the thought of a half a town rising up to murder the other half, and of a country that would hide this horror generations and generations after.
The truth is denied, even today, by omission, and by the vandals who tried to erase, yet again, the actions of hatred that define this small town. Not a word is written on the monument about who murdered the Jews. Until the sign is correctly written, until Jedwabne recognizes that it was their hatred that murdered their fellow townspeople, the name and town of Jedwabne will carry its shame and we will remember. To the 1500 hundred Jews murdered by the people of Jedwabne out of hatred and anti-Semitism, may your memory be blessed. To the town of Jedwabne, may your town be remembered in shame and to those who vandalized the monument, may all the work of your hands be as cursed, may your souls be cursed for your desecration.
You can read about my other breaking point, if you like, here.