Book review

The Debate about Neighbors

Samuel Crowell

The publication of Jan Tomasz Gross' Neighbors in Poland in the spring of 2000 elicited strong protests in the author's native country. Many considered the book, a meditation about a massacre of Jews allegedly carried out by Poles in the summer of 1941, an accusation of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. When Princeton University Press published Neighbors in English translation in April, similar reactions from outraged Polish nationalists could be heard in the United States. Conversely, there was gloating in certain Jewish quarters, since the book, in its depiction of Jewish suffering at the hands of malicious Poles, served to reinforce longstanding prejudices many Jews continue to harbor against the Polish people.

The debate has tended to focus largely on the facts of the massacre, which in turn shape the secondary debate on the massacre's implications. That there was a massacre no one really disputes. Yet there has been sharp criticism of Gross, not only for his lack of qualifications to write history — he is a sociologist who teaches political science in New York City — but also because of some unusual departures from accepted historical method that Gross inarguably makes. Some critics have even fastened on Gross' Jewish paternity: although his mother is Catholic, Gross left Poland in 1968 during a state-sponsored “anti-Zionist” (in fact, anti-Jewish) campaign, and one could surmise a connection between that trauma and this book. Recently, the debate has been heightened following excavations by the Polish Institute of National Memory, a newly created agency designed to investigate the recent past and hand down OSI-style indictments, and these excavations have revealed some serious factual inaccuracies in Gross' account.

Nevertheless, to attack Gross' book for its historiographical deficiencies is to miss the point of Neighbors. To begin with, it is not structured as a work of history, being little more than a medium length journal article — some 35,000 words — in which Gross uses the setting of a burning barn in Jedwabne as a backdrop for delivering several pronouncements about the nature of Polish-Jewish relations. Neighbors seems not so much intended as an historical inquiry as it is an appeal to conscience, a call for Poles to confront their past as actors rather than as victims.

Of course, many will bridle at the attempt to use an isolated incident for the purposes of making general observations about a people, an incident which was in any case hardly typical of Polish-Jewish relations. In that sense, Neighbors certainly passes the Goldhagen test of making vast and offensive generalizations based on limited data. On the other hand, hyperbole is a useful device to draw attention to a problem, and, when the problem in this case is the recriminatory nature of Polish-Jewish relations, perhaps it could be justified. To be sure, there will still be those who feel that Gross should have also called the Jewish people to self-examination: his failure to achieve such balance is the weakest aspect of the book.

Still, given the hysterical nature of the debate, with fevered expressions of chauvinism from both Polish and Jewish sides, there seems little doubt that books that attempt what Neighbors claims to are needed, if Europe is ever to recover its underlying unity and sense of purpose.

The Story

Gross' book is built around a series of allegations concerning what transpired in the Polish village of Jedwabne, in the northwest corner of present-day Poland, not far from Bialystok. In the fall of 1939, Jedwabne was among the territories annexed by the Soviet Union, as part of the secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Given Jedwabne's small size (about 3,000 inhabitants), its composition (approximately half Jewish and half Roman Catholic), its impoverishment and agricultural base, it could be said that Jedwabne was typical of probably hundreds of small villages throughout Eastern Europe.

The period from 1939 to 1941 was a difficult one for Poles in the regions annexed by the Soviet Union. Soviet rule was accompanied by widespread “expropriation” of the “bourgeoisie.” During the twenty-one months of occupation the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, arrested and deported well over a million Poles, including some tens of thousands of Polish Jews, most of who disappeared into Siberia. It is important to note that Gross, in an earlier book, Revolution from Abroad, was quite clear about the extent of Polish suffering during this period: this should be kept in mind when evaluating the apparent lack of objectivity in Neighbors. Another feature of the Soviet occupation, very relevant to reconstructing the events in Jedwabne, is the fact that there was widespread cooperation between elements of the Jewish community and the Soviet occupiers, which could easily have led to ethnic hatred. However, this aspect of the Soviet occupation, forthrightly described by Polish historians, including, in his earlier book, Gross, seems deliberately downplayed, and indeed, with the claim of implied Polish gentile complicity with the Soviets later in the book, turned upside down.

With the Soviet occupation as a setting, Gross describes how matters changed following the German invasion of the USSR in June of 1941. According to several eyewitness accounts, beginning on June 25, several “town hooligans” began to harass the Jews of Jedwabne in several ways, mainly through beatings and robberies. According to Gross, the culmination of these anti-Jewish actions came on July 10, 1941, when the Jews of Jedwabne — numbered at 1,600 by the author — were rounded up in the town square by their Polish neighbors, beaten and subjected to various indignities, and then finally marched to a nearby barn, where they were locked in and burned alive.

The Backlash

One of the first criticisms of Gross' book was that it relied largely, but not exclusively, on a single deposition describing the pogrom, as well as testimony from a couple of postwar trials which that deposition generated. The trials were held in Communist Poland during the late Stalinist period (1949-1953). For the most part, Gross depended on the deposition of Shmuel Wasserstein (Szmul Waszerstajn), a Jedwabne Jew, who, according to some sources, was a member of the Polish secret police (Security Office, or “UB") during the time of the postwar trials. Furthermore, Wasserstein was not strictly speaking an eyewitness, since he was hiding in another part of town during the massacre. While several Poles were convicted of participation in the events of July 10, 1941, there were several acquittals, and no death sentences were ever carried out.

One of the mysteries to Gross is how Wasserstein's deposition — originally drafted in April 1945 by a Jewish agency in Warsaw — could have led to a trial by the Polish state in a backwater town four years later. It seems likely that, if Wasserstein was indeed a member of the secret police by this time, the impetus for the trial could well have come on his initiative. On the other hand, the general unwillingness of the state authority to pass judgment on Poles for their conduct during the German occupation would be a likely explanation for the light sentences. Certainly, one of the most unusual things about the postwar Jedwabne trials is that, while held, they generated no spectacle of retribution: they were, in effect, show trials with no show. Bearing in mind that trials under Communist systems invariably contain an element of political “education,” this is most unusual.

Another criticism of Gross is that he failed to consult records in other archives, specifically, the records of the German Einsatzgruppen, known to have been active in the area at the time, for his account of the massacre at Jedwabne. Gross has been the target of several barbs for this research failure. Such criticism, however, presupposes that Gross' intent was to exhaustively reconstruct the events of the massacre. That this was not the case can be clearly seen from an endnote entry (p. 210f.) in which Gross admits that, while he relied on Wasserstein's April 5, 1945, deposition (numbered 301/152), a later affidavit, also by Wasserstein (numbered 301/613), describes the deaths of fifty Jewish youths at the cemetery (which lay directly behind the burning barn). Clearly, the second deposition suggests a rather different massacre, at least in terms of scale, yet Gross has chosen not to explore these discrepancies.


Perhaps in anticipation of such criticism, Gross makes an unusual appeal about the nature of eyewitness evidence about two-thirds of the way through his book. He writes:

I suggest that we should modify our approach to sources for this period. When considering survivors' testimonies, we should be well advised to change the starting premise in appraisal of their evidentiary contribution from a priori critical to in principle affirmative. By accepting what we read in a particular account as fact until we find persuasive arguments to the contrary, we would avoid more mistakes than we are likely to commit by adopting the opposite approach, which calls for cautious skepticism towards any testimony until an independent confirmation of its content can be found. (pp. 139f.)

This reads as an extraordinary appeal to ignore the most basic canons of historiographical practice, but the wording also suggests that Gross had in mind specific practices of Polish historians in ignoring eyewitness testimony.

It should be said that the issue of eyewitness testimony is a problem of twentieth-century history writing, for the greater democratization of societies has created a situation in which virtually anyone's narrative of a historical event is considered historiographically valid. It is an issue particularly dear to revisionists, since so many of the events revisionists dispute — in particular the narratives concerning “extermination camps” in which three million were gassed and burned — rest almost entirely on eyewitness accounts. This has even led a few revisionists to the position that all eyewitness testimony should be declared invalid and ignored as much as possible.

Yet this approach seems both extreme and misguided. Eyewitness testimony is a very valuable tool to the historian attempting to reconstruct events. The key issue is the basic credibility of what the eyewitness narrates. If an eyewitness describes a massacre of Jews in a small Polish village, whether it be by Polish marauders or by the Gestapo, then the event might well have occurred, since it does not strain credulity. The problem with the “gas chamber” narratives is not that they are based on eyewitness testimony, but rather that the testimony offered is incredible on its face, and can only become credible if there is an underlying mass of credible documentary and forensic evidence. Of course, the entire point of Holocaust revisionism is that this underlying evidence does not exist.

Excavations and Motive

In May 2001, the Institute of National Memory conducted excavations of the site of the massacre, that is, in the area of the burned-out barn and between the barn and the former Jewish cemetery. The results offered confirmation and contradictions of aspects of Gross' account. In the first place, the excavations revealed the remains of a statue of Lenin that the Jews had been forced to remove from the square, a detail which tallies with several accounts. On the other hand, while the total number of bodies could only be estimated, due to Jewish complaints of desecration, it appears that no more than 200 or 250 people were killed in the massacre of July 10, 1941. In addition, some ammunition of German manufacture was discovered at the site.

The data have been interpreted variously by the partisans in the debate. The presence of German ammunition, for example, has been taken as proof that the killings were carried out by the Gestapo, although that doesn't very well explain why so many people in the area seemed to have no difficulty in admitting that Poles carried them out. Even the defendants in the 1949 and 1953 trials, who later claimed to have been tortured during their confinement, did not generally dispute the claim that at Jedwabne Poles killed Jews, while Germans were not involved. Moreover, German ammunition was widely used throughout Eastern Europe during this time, and thus the presence of German bullets is meaningless: recall that the NKVD used German ammo at Katyn.

The presence of the Lenin statue is rather more significant, for it strongly suggests that the massacre was carried out in revenge for perceived Jewish participation in Soviet rule, and the deportations these engendered. Indeed, it is hard to find any other explanation, and the presence of the statue also tends to refute one of Gross' main arguments, that the violence of the Poles against their Jewish neighbors was not due to rationally explicable motives, such as intergroup competition, class resentment, or even revenge, but rather to such superstitious causes as deicide and the blood libel. (Towards the end of the book Gross charitably offers theft as a possible quasi-rational motivation.)

The estimation of only 200 dead has been taken as vindication by Polish nationalists, who consider this reduction to have somehow removed the blot on Polish honor cast by Gross, as though the mob murder of 200 people is significantly less a moral stain than the murder of 1,600. Here we should emphasize that, patriotism apart, no good can come from attempting to explain away mass murders. The proper aim of rationalization is to help us understand the causality of tragedies such as Jedwabne, which otherwise run the risk of becoming mystified or two-dimensional: but understanding can never be equated with justification.

In reality, the excavations raise more questions than they answer. We can summarize the matter as follows: It appears that about 200 Jewish citizens of Jedwabne were murdered in 1941 by their Polish neighbors in retaliation for real or imagined collaboration with the Soviets. After the war, a monument blaming the deaths of some 1,600 Jedwabne Jews on the Nazis was erected in the town. At the same time, trials were held in which Polish defendants admitted to their exclusive role in murdering the Jedwabne Jews. The forensic evidence does not contradict this general narrative.

However, if only 200 Jedwabne Jews were killed, what happened to the rest? If they fled with the Soviets — as seems likely — why were the Nazis blamed for killing all 1,600? Why would the Communist government present essentially two different stories to account for the absence of Jedwabne's Jews, who in any case were not killed there? These are difficult questions, but they may conceivably again go back to what might have been a complex of competing interests in the late 1940s and 1950s.

We can imagine a situation in which Soviet and Polish Communist governments would be willing to ascribe any population losses to Nazi conduct. The absence of Jews or even ethnic Poles from Jedwabne or elsewhere could be explained away by accusations of Nazi mass murder. In this way, one could avoid facing the more politically incorrect but more likely explanations that the missing people were either deported or forbidden to return home by the Soviet Union or had escaped to freedom in the West. On the other hand, we can also see the desire of Polish Jews who survived the war to see a measure justice or revenge meted out. In sum, while the events of July 10, 1941, seem rather clear in outline, the delineation of Poland's historical memory of the war years since then seems to have been a much more complex and competitive process. Perhaps further study will reveal that Neighbors itself is a part of that process.


As noted above, Gross' book has been severely criticized for its historiographical deficiencies. Yet, in our view, such critiques tend to miss the point of Gross' book, which was not so much meant to be historiographically precise as it was meant to force the Polish people to confront their legacy of anti-Jewish thoughts and deeds. There are several reasons that lead us to the conclusion that this was the main purpose of Neighbors.

First, we should always keep in mind that Neighbors was originally published in Polish for a Polish audience: this means it can only secondarily be construed as yet another entry in the Holocaust literature so common in the United States. However, recognizing this fact means that we have to try to read the book the way a Pole would be expected to read it, as an intimate commentary by a former fellow citizen about a common past. Under those circumstances it is hard to support the argument that Neighbors is just another anti-Polish diatribe. To be sure, the publication of the book in English elicited precisely such anti-Polish stereotypes, but that is not relevant in determining Gross' original intent.

Second, Gross concedes that the events surrounding the pogrom in Jedwabne may well be inexact; yet this observation was relegated to the endnotes, which simply emphasizes the extent to which Neighbors is meant as a call to conscience among his former Polish compatriots, rather than a work of history. In the same way, the frankly one-sided nature of Gross' appeal also tends to diminish the book's claims.

Third, Gross emphasizes that witness testimony should be accepted as true a priori: the normal strictures of historiographical skepticism should not be applied. To non-Poles, and particularly to revisionists, this argument must be viewed as breathtakingly broad and naïve. On the other hand, if it is seen as a response to attempts to deny, diminish, or to impute to others every wrong in modern Poland's undeniably contentious history with the Jews, it is at least understandable. If there has been a habitual tendency among nationalist Poles to refuse any responsibility for mistreating Jews — and the controversy over Neighbors suggests that is the case — then a reminder that one should not be quick to dismiss eyewitness accounts, especially if they are otherwise credible, can only be salutary.

Fourth, Gross argues in Neighbors for diminishing the extent of Jewish-Soviet collaboration in the crucial period of 1939-1941, even though he has conceded the extent of such collaboration elsewhere. Instead, he attempts to argue that non-Jewish Poles were as involved, if not more involved, in collaboration with the Soviet occupiers. What this suggests is that, for this particular argument, and for the proving of this particular point, Gross sought to invert the issue of collaboration in order to avoid the typical apologetic reaction in which an anti-Jewish pogrom would be explained away as a consequence of collaboration.

Fifth, in a related vein, Gross argues, towards the close of Neighbors, that the true facilitators of the hated Communist regime in Poland were not Jews, but anti-Semites, inasmuch as the kind of Jew-hating opportunists who would have taken part in the Jedwabne massacre were precisely the kinds of individuals who would have amorally served the postwar puppet government. Again, such a reversal of stereotypes is of little use in assessing the responsibility for Jedwabne, but it makes sense if the purpose of Gross' book is to remind his former countrymen of a famous wisecrack by a noted American philosopher from the wetlands. Nevertheless, Gross' implied “We have met the enemy, and he is you” doesn't have quite the rhetorical and moral force as Pogo's “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

One of the most striking things about Neighbors is that it has reminded us of the extent to which many nations, particularly in Eastern Europe, have tended to interpret the Second World War through a very strict prism of self-interest and chauvinist pride. Holocaust revisionists are well aware, for example, of the tendency of Jewish historians to interpret Jewish history in such a way that the Jewish people are always the innocent victims of someone else's wickedness; but we tend to forget that this tendency toward apologetics is common to many Europeans. In fact, the only European nation that does not engage in such chauvinist representations of its own history is Germany, and that is only because any change to the Nuremberg narrative is considered “revisionism,” so that, in effect, Germans are not entitled to articulate a self-serving narrative of their past because by so doing they would encroach on someone else's self-serving narrative. On the other hand, the arguments between Poles and Jews about what happened at Jedwabne are nothing less than this.

An argument can be made for the need for Germans to tell their side of the story, if only to balance out the relentless anti-Germanism of the other narratives. However, historical revisionism, and Holocaust revisionism, should be dedicated not to simply allowing each nation's partisans a voice, but to constructing a narrative that is at once true but which also attempts to reconcile the competing patriotisms of different peoples. To do this, revisionists need to continue their work in separating fact from fiction with regard to the Holocaust story. But they also need to have studies that will challenge the different peoples of Europe — including the Jewish people — to give up parochial and chauvinist myths about the past.

Thus, as a call to Gross' former countrymen to alter their idealized vision of the past, Neighbors might have served a purpose, and even have been of some service to revisionism. Yet, in this book and in other recent writings, Gross has shown a tendency to engage in apologetics — in his case, Jewish apologetics — that distort, indeed, undo the message he wishes to impart. Poles, no less than Germans or Jews or Americans, should be willing to heed the call to responsibility for their own history that Gross' book represents. But to make such a call without at least touching on the history of Polish-Jewish hostility and competition from both sides is simply to pose one species of chauvinism in place of another. For this reason the moral appeal of Neighbors remains seriously impaired: never a work of history, it ultimately fails even as a polemic.

About the reviewer

Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a “moderate revisionist.” At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German, and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher.

Bibliographic information


Samuel Crowell
Title: The debate about Neighbors (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: May/June 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 3
Location: page 41
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.