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This article focuses on problems of remembering a painful and still contentious historical past and examines the interaction between remembrance and reconciliation initiatives undertaken by local communities, on the one hand, and state-sanctioned national commemorations on the other. Using the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre of Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne in northeast Poland during World War II as a case study, the article argues that interference from the "outside"--in this case by groups holding political power, the media and intellectual elites--is detrimental to local remembering.
In 2000, a small Polish publishing house (Pogranicze), published a book by Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish-born political scientist at New York University, entitled Neighbors, which described how Poles had killed 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors in the small town of Jedwabne in July 1941. The book was highly controversial and within a few months it had sparked an intense debate throughout Polish society on Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. This reexamination of Poland's wartime history resulted in an investigation into the Jedwabne massacre, which was conducted by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN); it also led to an official apology for the massacre, issued on the sixtieth anniversary of the events. This reassessment of Polish national values and cultural traditions, taking place while the Polish government was negotiating accession to the European Union, attracted much attention in the Western media and was also the subject of many academic discussions and publications. (1)
This article joins the existing literature on the subject, but proposes to look at the debate on Jedwabne from a new perspective, since scholarly analyses of the Jedwabne controversy have so far tended to concentrate mainly on Gross's book itself, the historical accuracy of his account, (2) and on situating the Jedwabne massacre in the broader context of Polish--Jewish relations during the war. (3) A small number of academic enquiries have also focused on the national debate on the massacre and the motives that lay behind the responses of various Polish political groups to the debate. (4) This article, however, will address the impact of official, state-sponsored re-remembering and the media treatment of Polish-Jewish relations on the reconciliation work undertaken by small local communities. It will focus on the question of whether forms of historical memory that are generated and implanted from "above," rather than located in memorial sites and social practices, can have a constructive input in the formation of a new, postcommunist Polish national identity. In order to discuss these issues the article analyzes the Jedwabne community's response to Gross's book and investigates the events leading to its boycott of the official sixtieth-anniversary commemorations of the massacre.
The Jedwabne debate was conducted under the heading "Oczyszczanie pamieci" (Cleansing the memory), originally the title of one of the first articles published in a Polish national newspaper on the Jedwabne massacre. (5) This term was used extensively as the Poles were invited to reexamine their collective memory and investigate their collective guilt and responsibility for any wrongdoings committed against their Jewish neighbors during World War II. This concern for Polish memory was expressed for the most part by democratically elected politicians. Even if inspired by admirable goals, the role of politicians raises complex questions. Can memory be cleansed? Whose memory exactly should be purified? Is it the memory of the generation that can remember the Nazi occupation or the memory of the generations who can remember only what they were taught to remember? What does cleansing the collective memory of the Polish-Jewish past actually mean?
If we adopt the term "collective memory" as understood by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the cleansing of memory could be identified with its reshaping. (6) Since viewpoints and attitudes of Poles in a democratic Poland have changed, memory, in order to remain relevant, has had to be adapted to the present needs and aspirations of the nation. If the past is to be employed in the construction of a new postcommunist identity, then the process of thinking about the past must now employ a different set of values and ideas. There is, however, a danger in the equation of collective memory with continuous reconstructions of the past that are adapted to the needs of the present. This approach, as Barry Schwartz has pointed out, questions continuity in history and underestimates the importance of core values and national traits that are passed on to successive generations. (7) There is also a more fundamental problem with collective memory that goes beyond the field of critical theories of memory--the appropriation of collective remembrance by groups in power and state-sponsored commemorations and rituals, which has attracted the attention of critics of notions of memory. Idith Zertal, for example, warns that memory that is exploited and manipulated can lead to hatred or, even worse, can justify aggression and prevent true, genuine remembering. (8) Similarly, Pierre Nora sees a danger in memory's becoming, instead of a liberating and emancipating force, an instrument of exclusion and an impulse for war. (9) In turn, Jay Winter suggests that a distinction should be made between commemorative projects which are often "created far from the center of political power" and "originated within civil society" and the appropriation "by groups in power who feel they have the right and the need to tell us through commemoration how to remember the past." (10) This distinction seems to be particularly crucial in a country like Poland where many groups that were silenced or discriminated against under communist rule are still trying to recover their past. This article intends to test the notion of the appropriation of local commemorative projects by groups in power by analyzing the case of Jedwabne and the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre.
THE MEMORY THAT MUST BE CLEANSED
Jedwabne is a small town in northeastern Poland, some nineteen kilometers from the city of Lomza. The town, which has less than 2,000 inhabitants, cannot be viewed as a success story of postcommunist economic transformation. According to official statistics, unemployment for 2000 reached 14 percent, but the more accurate figure has been estimated to be much higher, about 40 percent. (11) Before the fall of communism people found employment in a knitting factory, a farming cooperative and a huge textile plant in Lomza, which employed 3,500 people. However, none of these places survived the switch to a market economy. Even if some of Jedwabne's citizens were prepared to uproot themselves and move to more prosperous parts of Poland, they would be unable to sell their properties. Krzysztof Godlewski, the mayor of Jedwabne at the time of the Jedwabne debate, commented: "Probably people feel they are worse off than before 1989. Areas of poverty are getting bigger." (12)
The majority of today's inhabitants are people who were born in Jedwabne, or moved there, after World War II, and their knowledge of the town's history is limited. Many would find it difficult to imagine that before the war half of the town's inhabitants were Jews. Sixty years later there is only one Jewish woman (a convert to Catholicism) living in the town, and the only remnant of the once vibrant Jewish community is an old, ruined cemetery and a stone monument commemorating the murder of 1,600 Jedwabne Jews in 1941. There also remain former Jewish properties, but only the original inhabitants of the town and their families would be able to identify them.
On 23 June 1941 the Wehrmacht entered Jedwabne, replacing Soviet forces that had occupied eastern Poland for the previous twenty-one months. A few weeks later, on 10 July, the Jewish inhabitants of the town were rounded up and burned alive in a barn. The massacre was attributed to the Nazis and the number of victims was estimated at 1,600. But this version of the events was questioned by one of the survivors, Szmul Wasersztajn. He testified before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok in 1945 that it was Poles who, on the orders of the Germans, had herded Jedwabne's Jews into a barn and burned them alive. In a subsequent trial by the communist authorities in 1949, twenty-two local residents were charged with collaboration in the crime, and eventually eleven were sentenced. Over a decade later, local ex-servicemen from the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD) commissioned a memorial stone commemorating the massacre with an inscription that read: "The site of torment of Jewish people. The Gestapo and the Nazi police burnt alive 1,600 Jews on 10 July 1941."
Although almost absent from Poland's official historical record, the massacre remained very much alive in local oral tradition and among Jewish survivors from the region. In 1966 the bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute published an article about the extermination of Jews in the Bialystok region, which indirectly suggested that the local population was involved in the Jedwabne killings. A year later, the regional Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes started a new investigation but once again concluded that the Nazis had burned the Jews. In 1980 a memorial book of Jedwabne Jews was published in Jerusalem and New York: it included eyewitness testimonies, which held Polish neighbors responsible for the massacre. Nor was the incident forgotten in Poland. In 1988, a periodical entitled Kontakty published a report on Jedwabne that tried to establish, through conversations with elderly inhabitants of the town, what had actually happened on 10 July 1941. …