A Poor Christian Looks at Jedwabne

Abp HENRYK MUSZYŃSKI: The commandment we share with the Jews says, "Thou shalt not murder." We must admit that we did not keep this commandment.


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Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na Jedwabne /
Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na Jedwabne /

The interview with Archbishop Henryk Muszyński appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny No. 12/01 as part of a supplement focusing on the debate around the Jedwabne massacre; at that time, Tygodnik also published articles by Jan Tomasz Gross, Halina Bortnowska, Father Michał Czajkowski, Maria Janion, Aleksander Klugman, Gabrielle Lesser, Alina Margolis, Wojciech Stanisławski, and Joanna Tokarska-Bakir as well as conversations with Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Leon Kieres, Tomasz Szarota, Michał Głowiński, and Norman Davies. The massacre at Jedwabne, carried out by the Polish inhabitants of a village against their Jewish neighbours, took place on 10 July 1941 - more than 300 were killed or burnt alive, encouraged, “one may assume" by the Germans (findings of the investigation carried out by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN); in his book, Neighbours, Jan Tomasz Gross gives a figure of 1600 people). The publication of Neighbours triggered one of the greatest debates in the history of the Third Republic, leading to a revision of the exclusively heroic image of Poland’s past. The Polish Catholic Church also participated in the debate: a penitential service was held at Warsaw’s All Saints Church, during which the Polish Episcopate asked for God’s forgiveness for the crimes committed against Jews (see Father Adam Boniecki’s article in this volume). No bishops attended the memorial service at Jedwabne organised by President Aleksander Kwaśniewski - the Polish Episcopate’s sole representative was Father Adam Boniecki (see the article by Tygodnik Powszechny’s editor-in-chief in this volume).

FATHER ADAM BONIECKI AND MICHAŁ OKOŃSKI: In a letter published by the Episcopate eleven years ago on the anniversary of the announcement of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, we read, “Unfortunately that same land [Poland] has become in our century a grave for several million Jews. This was neither by our will nor by our hand." After the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book about Jedwabne, does this last sentence remain valid?

ARCHBISHOP HENRYK MUSZYNSKI: The Holocaust really was not carried out by our hand, nor was it by our will. This sentence has been questioned, unfortunately, by many Jews. But in the same letter this is also clearly stated, “If even one Christian was able to help, but did not extend a helping hand to a Jew in a time of danger, or caused his death, we are required to ask our Jewish sisters and brothers for forgiveness." The discussion around Gross’s book is the consequence of those words. I am not a historian, so it is difficult for me to assess the extent to which Neighbours is one-sided, tendentious, or incomplete. The sources are fragmentary, which certainly makes it difficult to reconstruct precisely what happened in Jedwabne on that tragic day of 10 July 1941. But the fact is that thanks to Gross’s book, an important debate has begun, and it can have far-reaching consequences for Polish-Jewish relations. It is also good that the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) is continuing its investigation, which will help us - of this I have no doubt - to arrive at the full historical truth. But regardless of whether it turns out that 1,600 or 160 Jews were burned, a crime is still a crime. Someone said, and this pained me greatly, that it’s enough to cross out one zero from the number of victims Gross gives in his book. You can’t talk like this because - I repeat - a crime is a crime regardless of the number of victims. Before God, every person is unique and irreplaceable.

For any crime, it is the direct perpetrator who is answerable; but those who are connected to him by religious or national ties - though they bear no personal guilt - cannot feel themselves to be free of moral responsibility for the victims of this murder.

The direct perpetrators of the crime were the Polish residents of Jedwabne...

I would make that statement more precise: some Polish residents of Jedwabne. I think that the current residents of the village feel rightly sensitive about such general statements.

Instigators and Perpetrators

No honest historian can examine that tragedy in terms of Polish-Jewish relations alone. The way in which the crime was carried out - burning people alive - is analogous to similar crimes perpetrated by the Germans against Jews and Poles. And that indicates that the inspiration came from somewhere else.

Szmuel Wasersztajn, the main witness cited by Gross, speaks point-blank about an order given by the Germans, though he adds, “Even though it was the Germans who gave this order, Polish hooligans took it and carried it out in the cruelest possible way."

Both the indirect perpetrators and the instigators bear moral responsibility for the crime. As a Bible scholar, I want to refer to a scene from the second book of Samuel. David sends Uriah to the centre of the most furious fighting so that he will be killed. David is not the direct murderer, but it is to him that the prophet Nathan comes to announce, “You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword. You murdered him by the sword of the Ammonites." David’s intention was to kill Uriah, but he used someone else to do it.

Of course, this is not a justification for the indirect perpetrators, but you have to think about this in the process of reaching the full truth. In the moral sense, those who mandated and instigated the crime can, like David, be called murderers. It took the voice of the prophet, though, for David to hear: You are a murderer. David, ignoble in sin, became great in acknowledging his guilt with the words, “I have sinned before God." Only when he stood before God and man in full truth did he hear the anticipated,

“The Lord has remitted your sin." Every crime not only produces guilt before man, but also concerns God Himself, for it represents a violation of the laws He established.

One could say that the Germans have come to terms with their own past, that they have taken responsibility for the Holocaust. For Poles, information about the participation of their compatriots in the murder of Jews comes as a shock...

Poles cannot take responsibility for the Holocaust, because it was not their doing. But when it comes to the participation of our compatriots in the murder of Jews, the drama lies in the fact that the historical truth that was falsified by Nazi ideology was falsified a second time by communist ideology. Something similar happened with Katyń, when the Soviet crime was ascribed to the Germans, and also with Auschwitz, where the number of Jewish victims was reduced. We were ordered to pray at some monuments, and forbidden to pray at others. That’s why, when I saw on television that the old monument in Jedwabne had been taken down, I saw it as symbolic of the beginning of the end of the era of falsification, instrumentalisation, and ideologisation of the truth. Because the truth has been instrumentalised. The truth was that which served communist ideology...

Antagonism of Suffering

That is one aspect. Another is the psychologically understandable resistance to the recognition that Poles - victims of Nazism - could also be culprits. We are indignant and outraged when we are reminded that we looked on the tragedy of the ghetto with indifference, not to mention upon reading Gross...

In the consciousness of Poles, as in the consciousness of Jews, the idea that we were the victims of Hitler’s Nazism was and is deeply rooted.

I can speak for the generation that survived the war. During the period of German occupation two basic categories were distinguished: perpetrators and victims. And we and the Jews were victims. But one must say here right away: not in the same way and not to the same degree. The Jew was under sentence of death and was supposed to die; the Pole could survive as an Untermensch. Nevertheless, when Jews emphasise the exceptional nature, or the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Poles are offended. It is difficult for them to accept that Jews suffered more than anyone else or to understand how for example the murder of an entire Jewish family differs from the murder of a Polish family for hiding Jews, when both were carried out by the same people as an integral part of the same criminal plan. Thus is born the antagonism of suffering.

However, the discussion around the Jedwabne incident can serve as a turning point and blunt the antagonism. In his interview with the Catholic Information Agency (KAI), Rabbi Schudrich said that Jews were not only victims, but that there were among them “bad people who harmed others" - acting in the service of the communists or even the Nazis. This is said by a person who is innocent himself. This is for us a great challenge: to be capable of acknowledging and saying exactly the same thing about the joint responsibility or even the shared guilt of those Poles who, in point of fact, took part in the crimes. Without this recognition, the cleansing of memory that we having spoken of often lately cannot happen. And we have an additional reason. The golden rule, which summarises the Gospels, says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." We have the moral right to expect others to apologise only when we ourselves do what Christ expects of us.

We must ask forgiveness

We recall the expectation that the German bishops would apologise to us, although they were not SS-men...

The analogy is very far removed. Nazism was, to a great degree, the work of the German people and was the state ideology. The murder in Jedwabne was committed by Poles, but not in the name of the Polish people. We cannot confuse these two situations or apply collective responsibility in any way other than in a moral way, appealing to solidarity and community of nation and faith. We are proud that so many Poles were among the Righteous among Nations. But this is not the whole truth about Polish behaviour during the war...

And another question. The Polish bishops said to the Germans, “We forgive you and ask forgiveness." We cannot say this to the Jews, because this would mean putting them on equal footing with the Nazis. Here, we can only say, “We ask forgiveness." We say to God every day, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." This does not mean that the Lord God forgives to the extent that man does. Quite the opposite: we take part in God’s forgiveness, the Lord God forgives us, and this obliges us to forgive. In some sense Rabbi Schudrich has met us half-way, pointing out the absolute necessity for us to make a request for forgiveness. This need is urgent as long as a few of the victims of this crime, or relatives of the victims, are still living.

To receive God’s forgiveness, everyone who has committed a crime or a sin against another must stand in full truth before mankind as well. There is no other way to achieve forgiveness. Such gestures have enormous significance. I remember the consecration in Kielce in the 1980s of a Jewish cemetery where there were matzevahs that the Nazis had not managed to destroy. As the chairman of the Subcommittee on Dialogue with Judaism, I made my way to Kielce in the full consciousness that I would stand in a place where a crime had been committed by many Poles. The Jews interpreted my presence not only as an expression of my sharing in their pain, but also as some form of redress. An American woman came up to me and said, “Thank you Bishop. You are the first person on communist ground to call what happened here a pogrom." Because it was referred to officially as “the incidents" or as “the Kielce events."

Repentance and shame

Archbishop, you have spoken about falsification by communist ideology, but it was the communist security services that conducted an investigation into the Jedwabne case, and a communist court that passed sentence

on the participants in the crime. We ascribe the fact that no one spoke about this for half a century to the rather natural tendency to keep silent about shameful things...

After reading Neighbours, I had the impression that the trial in the Jedwabne case was a farce. How can you fairly judge twenty people in one day? In any case this was not the ruling of an autonomous and independent court; rather, it was truth in the service of ideology. Of course, it is not easy to admit to participation in such a monstrous crime. Perhaps the shame and the pain that we feel today as Poles is a form of self-cleansing and redress. Of course, this takes courage.

The indictment from that trial reads,“... that on 25 June 1941 [the error in the date is itself compromising] in Jedwabne in the Łomża district, obliging the authorities of the German state, they took part in the seizure of about 1,200 persons of the Jewish nationality, these persons then being burned as a group in the barn of Bronisław Śleszyński." So, the court declared that it was the Germans who burned them...

On the one hand, it was “truth in the service of ideology," and, on the other hand, it was the self-defence reflex on the part of those who were conscious of themselves as victims. The entire wartime generation experienced persecution at the hands of the Germans. Only a handful acted as persecutors.

Nevertheless, in many reports from the occupation period, the Pole appears to the Jew as a threat. Michał Głowiński recalls a scene in which two ladies in a café are wondering aloud whether the boy at the next table is a Jew or not. Not to mention the expressions everywhere in the underground press of the time of satisfaction that the Germans were

settling matters with the Jews. Simply put, those who hid Jews were hiding them not just from the Germans but also from Poles...

You have to take into account the reigning atmosphere of terror at the time. Rescuing a Jew in Poland and, for example, in Holland did not have the same consequences. Here, hiding a Jew carried a sentence of death for one’s entire family. They often forget about this in discussions abroad, but this, too, is a piece of the historical truth. Of course, from the point of view of morality not only every crime, but every act of indifference or harm in relation to Jews or anyone else requires sincere sorrow, repentance, and pleas for forgiveness. Without questioning the facts I could however point to cases in which much of the village knew who was hiding Jews but they did not give them up. All generalisations are inappropriate here.

Cleansing through truth

What can the Church do in the matter of Jedwabne?

First, we have to say what it has done so far for the “cleansing of memory." It is enough to point to the attitude of the Pope, who apologised for wrongdoing and sins against the Jews in the name of the whole Church. Back in 1990, the Polish Episcopate stated that if even one Pole committed murder, that is cause for us to ask for forgiveness. Was it too cautiously formulated?

In those days it often happened that Poles and Germans were put on the same level. Much was said also about the exceptional nature of Polish anti-Semitism. If we had then apologised for anti-Semitism, it would have been taken as a recognition of guilt for so-called Polish anti-Semitism, which for many Jews is a synonym for the worst possible form of anti-Semitism. But ten years later, in his penitential introduction to the Jubilee Mass, the Primate apologised for the loss of love for people that had led some in the priesthood to “tolerate manifestations of anti-Semitism."

I have often repeated that Polish-Jewish reconciliation has not yet begun; that we are still at the stage of blaming each other. After Rabbi Schudrich’s statement, I am ready to change my opinion. The Rabbi said that “the Holo-

caust was planned and realised from beginning to end by the Germans," and that “accusing Poles of participation in the Holocaust is a sin." He also said something that is worthy of the name of Jewish wisdom, “Polish anti-Semitism is not as bad as the Jews say it is, and not as good as how the Poles think of themselves." To me, this signifies a readiness to search for a common ground of understanding and to arrive at the full truth through dialogue. And I understand this dialogue not as a desire to persuade the other side, but as an attempt to understand our partner in dialogue as he understands himself.

Rabbi Schudrich’s statement can serve as a turning point in reaching the full moral and even historical truth, and thus in the process of cleansing through truth. Cleansing of the attitude of mutual accusations, of prejudices on both sides, of falsification, can be the beginning of the road to reconciliation. The first and indispensable step along this road, though, is asking for forgiveness. Although this is a moral, internal act, it has great practical significance in contacts between Poles and Jews. The crime in Jedwabne - like any other crime - divides people. No one can bring the innocent victims back to life, but the moral act of repentance can bring us closer together and can be a decisive step on the road to reconciliation. We Christians believe that in Christ, God reconciled us with ourselves. But reconciliation with God is always achieved through reconciliation with another person. “First go and reconcile with your brother." God wants the reconciliation of people with clean hands. He does not want sacrifices; He speaks of this through the prophets: I do not want your sacrifices, because your hands are bloody.

This is the essence of our Christian faith, and, at the same time, our obligation. The same is true of forgiveness. Because God has forgiven me numerous times, I am obliged to forgive. Of course, to forgive does not mean to forget...

What Poles will say to God

When we hear praise for Rabbi Schudrich from the mouths of bishops because he counters opinions harmful to Poles, because he recognises that there was no lack of bad people on the Jewish side as well, we feel a certain discomfort. You have said, Archbishop, that the true dialogue can now begin. It is as though we needed someone to articulate something to justify us, in some way to absolve us, and then we will be able to acknowledge our guilt...

Here, I see an analogy with Polish-German reconciliation. There, too, the initiative came from those who were the victims. It is worth adding, though, that although the Rabbi took the first step, the Primate’s answer to his letter was also important. It creates the proper spiritual atmosphere for uniting with the victims through common prayer in mourning together for the innocent people who were murdered.

Deeper reflection on the moral dimension of crime and sin also constitutes an appropriate response to the Pope’s call to “duc in altum!" - “sail out into the depths."

Rabbi Schudrich said, “More important for Poles than what people will say about this tragedy in the USA should be what Poles will say to God." I would say that what is important is how Poles will stand in truth before God, our common God. What they will say interests me less - it is well known that they are talkative... But how will they stand in truth? The commandment we share with the Jews says, "Thou shalt not murder." We must admit that we did not keep this commandment. But the Rabbi’s statement helps to overcome generalisation and unfair judgements.

Bishop Stefanek said that Jedwabne will be a sanctuary of suffering.

I think that it will be something greater: a first step on the road to reconciliation between the victims of Nazism. Here, I would like to express sincere spiritual community with today’s residents of that town. The vast majority of them are innocent, are Christians, and in Christianity the suffering of innocents has a cleansing, even redeeming character. We must thank them for bearing the suffering with dignity and say a word of hope: that Jedwabne will have a greater part in the process of reconciliation than any other town.

Not long ago, I read a story in Tygodnik Powszechny about the post-war murder of Germans in Nieszawa. This village is in my metropolis, in my diocese. I know some of the people mentioned in it by name, so I read it with feeling. And I found in it an appropriate atmosphere: focus, relation to God, an honest reckoning of conscience, coming to terms with the past, and repentance. I had occasion to speak with a very high representative of the German government, who said that there would be no external interference in this matter, for whatever would be said from outside would only do harm. This is important: any pressure from the outside can have the opposite consequence. From a distance of many kilometres, or miles, everything surely looks different.

But the Church was silent on these matters for a very long time...

And thank God it was silent, and did not speak for example in the pattern imposed by the communist authorities and did not use the terminology in which “Zionists" constituted the greatest threat to Poles. From the moment when we could speak freely of these matters, the voice of the Church has not been lacking even in the most sensitive of questions.

There will be symbolic gestures

So, let’s repeat the question: what can the Church do today in the case of Jedwabne?

With this measure of mutual understanding and going out to meet our Jewish brothers, undoubtedly, there will be some symbolic gestures on our part. We have common psalms, common prayers that we can use. It is too early to talk about specific details. The Holy Father demonstrated the significance of symbolic gestures at the Wailing Wall. Without him there would not have been the Dabru Emet, the declaration of American rabbis published in The New York Times, which calls for a reconsideration of the relationship of the Jews to Jesus of Nazareth, to the essence of the Christian faith and the roots of anti-Semitism.

I remember the time I went to Rome to meet Mr Joseph Lichten, the representative of B’nai B’rith at the Vatican. I called his place, and Mrs Lichten told me that he had just died. Cardinal Mejia, Father Fumagalli, and I took part in the funeral ceremony. All three of us know Hebrew, and the question arose as to whether Catholic clergy could take an active part in a Jewish funeral and recite the psalm De profundis in Hebrew. The rabbis were divided in their opinion but, in the end, we set a historical precedent and joined in the prayer. I was so moved that I could hardly speak.

It is worth noting that the Pope’s eloquent gestures at the Wailing Wall and at Yad Vashem had a clearly prophetic aspect to them. There, where words of lamentation are spoken, the great prophets of Israel used symbols that can never be forgotten. In doing what he did, the Pope placed no conditions on the Jews. His inspiration was the Gospel, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Among us, unfortunately, the saying “do not do unto others what is unpleasant to you" has taken root. But that is not yet Christianity. The calling of the Christian is to do good and follow the example of Christ, who went through life doing good and not just avoiding evil.

The Church is virtually absent from historical arguments on the subject of Jedwabne. There are just some marginal arguments, such as whether Bishop Łukomski did or did not receive candlesticks in exchange for protecting Jews. But everyone is waiting to hear the voice of the Church...

I think it’s understandable, because we are talking about the ethical, or the ethical-religious, dimension of the truth. People expect of the Church - and have the right to expect - that it would take a stand on such questions. But the best indicator is the faithful testimony of the Gospel.

One could also speak of the responsibility of the Church - at least for the years of teaching anti-Judaism.

Rabbi Baker, who left Jedwabne before the war, recalls almost idyllic contacts with his Polish neighbours. The idyll was disturbed primarily around Easter, when the image of the Jew as Christ-killer was evoked in Church teachings.

I will say yet again: I do not question particular facts, but one cannot draw any general conclusions from them. Rabbi Baker himself asks that one moment, even such a tragic one, should not conceal the centuries of common history. And as for anti-Judaism: the Church, in the person of the Pope, has recognised its responsibility for the sins of the past. Since the [Second Vatican] Council, many excellent documents on the subject of Jews and teachings about Jews have been produced - many of which are still awaiting realisation.

The Primate has said that the Church’s participation in the ceremony marking the sixtieth anniversary of the slaughter guarantees that it will not be “hasty and vociferous penance," but rather “introspection in humility and truth." In modern politics, apologies have become extremely banal, have become captive to public opinion...

Any posturing in the face of such a terrible tragedy would be a desecration of the memory of the victims. So, it must be done in an extremely dignified manner, in an attitude of compassion, joint participation, and a community of prayer. The platform for this has been created; if we do not take advantage of it we will be guilty of the sin of neglect. As the Primate reminds us, what we need now is genuinely deep, calm, religious reflection, and not a multiplication of successive noisy pronouncements.

But we expected to hear the voice of the Episcopate, if only so that the statements of various bishops should not become a cacophony. What Bishop Stefanek said in Jedwabne was different, after all, from what the Primate has said...

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the full content of Bishop Stefanek’s statement. The version put out by the Catholic Information Agency differs rather fundamentally from what I could read in the papers. Only Bishop Stefanek himself could speak authoritatively in this matter. According to the hierarchical structure of the Church, the statement of the local bishop is always of the highest significance...

It is difficult to expect a reaction from the entire Episcopal Conference in each individual matter. And, if matters of this kind arise in future, must the Episcopate react each time? On the occasion of the anniversary of Nostra Aetate the Episcopal Conference issued a special letter that was read in every church in Poland. What was said in it about asking for forgiveness remains valid. So, it is not true that the Church has no voice.

Both the Primate, as the chairman of the Episcopal Conference, and Rabbi Schudrich, in the name of the Jewish community in Poland, have expressed their readiness to pray together on the occasion of the upcoming sixtieth anniversary of the tragic events in Jedwabne. Once again, I express my belief that with such far-reaching spiritual partnership and mutual understanding, a proper and dignified way of memorialising this disgraceful slaughter, as well as some form of redress for the evil-doing, will be found.

Father Adam Boniecki and Michał Okoński talk with Archbishop Henryk Muszyński

Archbishop Henryk Muszyński (born 1933) is the Archbishop of Gniezno and - since December 2009 - Primate of Poland. A biblical scholar and theologian by training, his main field of interest is the Dead Sea Scrolls. For years, Archbishop Muszyński has been involved in Polish-Jewish and Polish-German dialogue; in 1989-1994, he was head of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue with Judaism.

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