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Jabotinsky and Jedwabne.

In memory of Chaja Lazar (1924-2003), a woman of valor

The revelations about the horrifying slaughter in the town of Jedwabne in July 1941 precipitated an unprecedented national debate in Poland that raged throughout much of 2000 and 2001. It was left to a Polish government body to confirm that local Poles were, indeed, responsible for the outrage. Meantime, Jedwabne entered history as a new metaphor for the Holocaust--and specifically as a name for the phenomenon of local people (i.e., not Germans or other outsiders) in dispatching their Jewish neighbors.

The discussion about Jedwabne invites discussion about Vladimir Jabotinsky and his warnings in the late 1930s that the Jews of Eastern Central Europe were facing an imminent new St. Bartholomew's Day's Massacre. There is, of course, no direct connection between Jabotinsky and the tragedy that unfolded in Jedwabne, but the circumstances of the massacre seem to reinforce the pre-science of Jabotinsky's observations about the murderous potential of local antisemitism.

Shmuel Katz, Jabotinsky's biographer, addressed the question of whether Jabotinsky foresaw the Holocaust and put the issue into its proper perspective:
 Jabotinsky did not foresee the Holocaust in its terrible
 monstrousness. The Holocaust was carried out in the context
 of war, of German control of almost the entire population
 of Europe--and Jabotinsky did not foresee the war.
 Indeed he explicitly declared there would be no war. What
 then were his repeated warnings about? What did he mean
 when he repeated in article after article, in speech after
 speech, that destruction was nigh? "DESTRUCTION," he
 wrote, in July 1939, "learn the word by heart; and God
 grant that I am mistaken." In the same article, he writes:
 "Very soon the beast [of antisemitism] will again show
 himself among us with redoubled appetite.... May God protect
 his people from a thousandth part of the pleasures the
 beast is promising himself."

 There is no real "mystery" here--if we examine the
 evolution of German policy in the context of Trans-European
 antisemitism. The forces of evil and destruction,
 the "beast" of which Jabotinsky wrote, did go into
 action.... The Germans would not have been able to carry out the
 Holocaust in its extent and its effectiveness without the
 considerable practical assistance they were accorded by the
 non-German nations of Europe from whose midst it was that
 Jabotinsky saw destruction emerging....

After the war (and even before its end), many of Jabotinsky's less cautious supporters claimed that he had predicted the Holocaust. Others, including his political detractors, focused on his undeniable failure to predict the outbreak of the war (a failure that haunted him); and said that Jabotinsky got it wrong. Readers of The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (published in cooperation with Yad Vashem), for example, are informed: "There is no truth to the widely held belief that Jabotinsky foresaw the extermination of the Jews.... He did not expect a second world war to break out.... Jabotinsky died when the war had been in progress for only eleven months. At that point only a very few envisaged a holocaust on the scale that in fact took place."

Critics of Jabotinsky also emphasize that, at the end of the day, it was the Nazis (we dare not call them "Germans," if we elect to adhere to the prevailing canon) who posed the real danger and that Jabotinsky failed to recognize this. It was they who carried out the murders; not the autochthonous (native) populations of the cities and towns in the vast swatch of territory from the Black Sea to the Baltic in which the bulk of world Jewry had dwelt for centuries. At worst, the "neighbors" were accomplices--not prime perpetrators. Many of Jabotinsky's fervent admirers abetted this situation--because of their repeated claim that Jabotinsky foresaw the Holocaust is impossible to substantiate.

In a 1981 speech on Jabotinsky's place in the history of the Jewish people, delivered on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Zionist leader's birth, the historian Benzion Netanyahu observed: "A more precise evaluation should be left to the future--to a time when partisan passions subside and our historical vision broadens, so that we may judge Jabotinsky with fuller knowledge and greater objectivity." While passions may not have subsided, our historical vision has certainly broadened. This is so in large measure because of a vast trove of documentation that was only made available after the collapse of Communism.

With new-found access to archives buried beyond the now-rusted Iron Curtain, we find that the extent of local participation in the Holocaust was far greater than had been believed and that "local people" of many nationalities were more than mere accessories to the destruction of age-old Jewish communities.

Historians such as Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning, and Theodore Hamerow, among others, wrote of this phenomenon long ago. Since then, a considerable body of literature has developed that only reinforces their findings. For good reason, the German historians Willy Dressen, Ernest Klee, and Volker Reiss called their book Schone Zeiten (Good Times)--the way that one killer described the carnival-like days when Jewish blood ran through the streets. Still, this fact is not always given its due. Significantly, the American political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen elected to ignore the phenomenon altogether in his book, Ordinary Germans: Hitler's Willing Executioners--a work that precipitated public debate in Germany in the middle of the 1990s.

In his chilling book, Kaputt, the Italian journalist, Curzio Malaparte, an eyewitness to the pogrom in Jassy, where Romanians killed several thousand Jews, wrote:
 The road was crowded with people--squads of soldiers
 and policemen, groups of men and women, bands of gypsies
 with their hair in long ringlets, were gaily and noisily
 chattering with one another, as they despoiled the
 corpses, lifting them, rolling them over, turning them on
 their sides to draw off their coats, their trousers, and their
 underclothes; feet were rammed against dead bellies to
 help pull off the shoes; people came running to share in
 the loot; others made off with arms piled high with clothing.
 It was a gay bustle, a merry occasion, a feast and a
 marketplace all in one. The dead, twisted into cruel postures,
 were left naked.... I rushed downstairs and ran
 across the churchyard, striding over the tombs so as not
 to tread on the corpses scattered about in the grass and
 at the gate. I flew at a group of policemen busily stripping
 dead bodies and hurled myself screaming against them.
 "Dirty cowards," I shouted, "get away, you lousy bastards!"
 One of them looked at me in amazement, picked up
 some suits and two or three pairs of shoes from a pile of
 clothing on the ground and pushed them toward me, saying,
 "Don't get angry, Domnule Capitan, there's enough
 for everybody."

Certainly among the most horrifying accounts to emerge recently is the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, an ethnic Polish eyewitness to the day-to-day mass executions at Ponary, outside Wilno (Vilnius). Sakowicz was clear in exposing the fact that it was the Lithuanians who did the lion's share of the killing, not the Germans who orchestrated the slaughter. His curiosity resulted in his murder by Lithuanians who feared a post-war reckoning. During the long years of Communist rule in Poland, it was not known, however, that Poles, too--whatever their other wartime transgressions or merits--had also engaged in similar acts of mass murder.

The Poles are generally not cast in the same league as the Ukrainians, Letts, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks, Croats, et al. There was no Polish collaborationist government to work with the Germans. There were other significant distinctions, particularly when we evaluate exactly how widespread the phenomenon was of such killings, particularly in the comparative geographical expanse where the murders took place. One cannot ignore the fact that the massacres that were perpetrated by Poles were confined to a certain region of northeastern Poland, which was a stronghold of the Endecja--the prewar nationalist movement that consistently preached a message of antipathy toward Jews. It was the only part of mainly ethnic Polish territory occupied by the Soviets in 1939.

Still, there is no doubt that for a substantial part of the Polish population, "Hitler was doing the job" for them. For some Poles, there was no contradiction between their idea of resisting the German occupier, yet allowing him to rid Poland of the hated Jewish minority. Even today, when Jews and Poles speak of "collaboration," or of whether or not there were Quislings in Poland, they are usually not speaking the same language. In wartime Poland, betrayal of Jews, or even their outright murder (for example by the units of the underground NSZ and some members of the Home Army), did not have attached to it the popular stigma of collaboration with the Germans. In other words, one could fight the Germans and take part in the destruction of Jews (as, for example, in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising), without being viewed as a collaborator by much of society.

On the other hand, even some avowed enemies of Jews in the period before the war, such as the Catholic nationalist writer Zofia Kossak or the Roman Catholic priest Marceli Godlewski, were appalled by German cruelty. They saw it as their Christian duty to save the lives of their Jewish neighbors--even if they continued to believe that there was no place for Jews in Poland. Certainly, the activities of Christian rescuers, the so-called "Righteous Gentiles," were generally more significant than many Jews have acknowledged (although there were far fewer of them than many Poles claim), and the real risks involved--like the death penalty, which extended to the rescuer's immediate family, and sometimes even to his neighbors--have not always been recognized by those who question why there were not more such brave souls.

What cannot be denied, however, is that many more Jews would have survived (even without the active help of Polish rescuers) had the number of Poles willing to look the other way been greater. In other words, what Polish Jews, especially those able to pass as Poles, needed most was inaction on the part of their Polish neighbors--a widespread refusal to participate in the German hunt. Sadly, what nearly every survivor who spent time on the gentile side recalls vividly is the genuine fear of denunciation by Poles. This was far more frightening than detection by the Germans themselves, who had no intuitive ability to distinguish who was whom. On the other hand, it was sufficient for a single such denunciation to bring disaster and death to a dozen Jews in hiding; while at times, a whole chain of Poles was involved in harboring a single person.

History is obviously more nuanced than many of us would like to believe. It is clear that the Polish reaction to the suffering and death of Jews in Poland ran the gamut from the selfless heroism of the rescuers to the bestial sadism of the killers. This is even true of the Home Army itself--of which the Zegota rescue organization was a part--even while some Home Army members were acting on their own to solve the Jewish problem in Poland. As such, the answer to the question of how Poles behaved during the Holocaust resists simple explanations and sweeping generalizations.

The point here, it should be stressed, is not to indict Poles; though clearly, the scope of their complicity in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors was far greater than has been believed (at least by the Poles themselves and by more moderate Jewish observers). Poles, of course, have consistently portrayed themselves as victims alone, certainly not as perpetrators. They have attempted to convince outsiders (just as they have convinced themselves) that, in contrast to most other European countries, theirs was a "country without Quislings," even if they grudgingly accept the fact that szmalcownicy (blackmailers) aided in the destruction of Jews in Poland.

Most Jews have never subscribed to that version of history. They have generally ascribed to the Poles a far higher degree of guilt. It must be recognized, however, that some Jewish charges are not always grounded in fact--such as the oft-heard suggestion that the Germans chose Poland as the venue for the extermination camps because they believed that they could count on local Poles to assist in the Final Solution. Careless (if not malicious) references to "Polish death camps"--as opposed to "German death camps in occupied-Poland"--have reinforced that image and led some Jews to believe that one need not distinguish between "the Nazis" and "the Poles."

The common (and lingering) perception that Jews were the beneficiaries of the Soviet regime that was imposed after the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact has been used to "contextualize" these crimes. Some Poles, including reputable historians, have claimed, for example, that their brethren were only reacting to the "betrayal of Poles by the Jews."

Obviously, Jabotinsky could not evaluate this phenomenon (he died in the summer of 1940). However, even if we accept that the Poles' resentment against Jews who welcomed the Soviets as their saviors from Nazism was a contributing factor in the decision to kill the local Jews, there can be little doubt that pent-up hatred for the Jewish people did not originate in September 1939. The savage brutality of the people of Jedwabne, both the perpetrators and the bystanders (the distinction is often blurred), cannot be explained strictly in terms of Zydo-kommuna (Jewish communism). Consequently, one must be careful in drawing any hasty or sweeping conclusions about the perception of Jewish complicity in the imposition of Soviet role as a catalyst for violence perpetrated against Jews.

Undoubtedly, the opportunity to plunder Jewish property represented nothing less than an El Dorado for masses of people, irrespective of their own material situation. There were some for whom a decent pair of shoes or a blouse was incentive enough. For others, it was a Jewish farm animal (Abram Grynberg, father of a child who would grow up to be the well-known Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg, was killed by two brothers who coveted his two cows); for still others, it was Jewish-owned art, or a Jewish villa, or a factory. It was Sakowicz, the Polish gentile eyewitness to the slaughter at Ponary, who noted that for the Germans, 300 Jews meant 300 enemies of mankind; while for the Lithuanians, the Jews represented 300 pairs of shoes, trousers, etc. In that same spirit, the Hungarian newspaper Maramaros, of July 16, 1944, celebrated the deportation (and in fact death) of the Jewish community of Sziget and cheerfully announced that formerly Jewish-owned apartments were up for grabs. Certainly, the Final Solution represented the greatest act of larceny the world has ever known. An entire nation was stripped of all its material wealth, accumulated over the course of centuries.

Significantly, in Hungary, just as in most other parts of Europe, the Final Solution was actually implemented with minimal German forces. No more than 200 SS men carried out the deportation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944. The entire plan was executed by Hungarians, a fact confirmed by the testimony of Edmund Veesenmayer, the German plenipotentiary in Budapest, who was later tried for war crimes.

The account of what happened to Jews in Jedwabne is in some sense a vindication of Jabotinsky's grim prophecy about the looming disaster--that the threat to the Jews of Eastern Central Europe lay above all in the deep-rooted hostility of the autochthonous population, among whom the Jews had lived for generations, who saw the Jews as responsible for their own failures and as a hindrance to their own national development. Jan Tomasz Gross, author of Neighbors, writes: "Until the war, Jedwabne was a peaceful little town, and the Jews got on there not worse than anywhere else in Poland and perhaps better than in other places."

Jabotinsky had distinct ideas about what lay behind the antisemitism that would eventually claim so many Jewish lives: the "Antisemitism of Things," he claimed, is "steady, constant and immutable, and therefore much more formidable" than the "Antisemitism of Men" (which he claimed was at play in Germany). In Eastern Central Europe:
 It derives from the instinctive discrimination which every
 normal person makes between his or her "own kind" and
 all outsiders. It need not be hatred; it need have nothing
 to do with actual repulsion. It may be dormant for generations;
 to waken only when there is keen competition
 for some essential boon, when the choice is between
 one's own kin and the outsider, and the instinct of self-defense
 emerges. Even then it need not (though it may)
 flare up in an angry blaze: it may remain correctly polite,
 while inwardly merciless--as in the Baltic example; or it
 may run amok, as it sometimes does in Poland. It is not
 the form that matters, but the spirit. That spirit is the
 inextinguishable awareness of every gentile that his
 Jewish neighbor is not "his own kind," and of every Jew
 that his Aryan friends are not "his own kind." There is no
 intrinsic harm in this wariness. It is no obstacle to decent
 neighborly intercourse, to mutual help, even to friendship,
 so long as the social "climate" is favorable. In the
 "climate" of Eastern Central Europe it becomes the Jews'
 death sentence.

But when one reads the accounts of the bestial killings in Jedwabne, one is certainly reminded of the limitations of even hoping to dispassionately "understand" what happened. Suffice it to mention the Jewish girl who was decapitated and her head used as a football; or as Gross explains:
 Not only was the sight of what was done with the Jews
 shocking. Also the cry of suffering people, and then the
 stench when they were burned, was impossible to take.
 The murder of the Jews lasted the entire day and took
 place on a ground the size of a sports stadium. A rock
 could be thrown in a straight line from the barn in which
 the majority of victims was burned to the marketplace.

 The Jewish cemetery is next door. Thus all who were in
 the town at the time and who had a functioning sense of
 smell or sight were all witnesses to the crime or participants
 in it.

The Jedwabne debate can only strengthen the case of those who argue that Jabotinsky's analysis of the lurking danger was more prescient than had been believed, not only at the time, but even in subsequent decades. Jabotinsky was far better informed than his contemporaries about the existing mood in Poland. In the late 1930s, he spent more time in Poland (and in the other parts of East Central Europe) than did any of the other Zionist leaders. Weizmann, for example, did not bother to visit Poland during this period. Jabotinsky traveled across the length and breadth of that country, which was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. Indeed, there were more Jews in Poland than in all the countries of Eastern Europe combined; it is often forgotten that the Jews of Poland were more numerous than the entire population of many European countries, including all the Baltic states, Norway, Ireland, and Albania.

In public appearances throughout the land, he told Jews that they stood on the brink of disaster. One eyewitness to those events, journalist Alexander Zvielli, wrote:
 Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, I was present
 at many interesting discussions at my father's printing
 press at 10 Pawia Street, in the very heart of Jewish

 One particular morning during the hot autumn of
 1938, when it was obvious to everyone that Hitler would
 stop at nothing, I was proof-reading a pamphlet I had written
 that was about to be published.

 In this small booklet, which was eventually confiscated
 by the censor while still at the binder, I tried to describe
 the tragic situation of Jewish youth in Poland. Attendance
 at the universities was restricted, if not disallowed altogether;
 students were frequently attacked by their Polish
 counterparts; there was a lot of unemployment. Jews were
 barred from the permanent army and the civil service;
 they were driven out of commerce, industry, and the professions.
 For a Jew, there were few options left but emigration--but
 that had become increasingly difficult,
 especially when it came to Eretz Yisrael....

 This happened about the time Jabotinsky paid us a
 visit. We were the printer (in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish)
 of his great epic about the Biblical Samson, which ran into
 many editions.

 That visit remains deeply engraved in my memory.

 News spread that Jabotinsky had entered our courtyard,
 and Jews from all over the quarter crowded in to see him.
 They just stood there quietly, as if expecting a miracle.

 "Would you like to address them?" my father asked
 Jabotinsky politely. He responded: "And what shall I tell
 them that I haven't explained thousands of times before?
 Jews run, ... the earth is burning under your feet, ... time
 is running out."

 Then he suddenly attacked my father: "And what
 about you? When are you moving your press to Tel Aviv or

 A year later, we watched the Germans, assisted by Jewish
 forced labor, cart our precious equipment away. My whole
 family perished in the gas chambers; the press building was
 destroyed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The fact that Zvielli recalled that Jabotinsky's warnings that "the earth is burning under your feet" came at a time when "it was obvious to everyone that Hitler would stop at nothing" reveals the extent to which, with the hindsight of history, Jabotinsky's message becomes convoluted. Clearly, Zvielli implies that Jabotinsky had warned the Jews of the looming threat from Germany--not of the murderous potential of the local population. This, of course, is at variance with what we know from history. On the other hand, Zvi Yavetz, who lived in Romania, wrote:
 ... We really envied the Betar people who started the
 illegal emigration at that time from Rumania to Israel,
 even though our own groups had been forbidden to support
 it. I can still remember Jabotinsky's words when he
 came to Czernowitz in 1938. "If you're not going to
 Palestine," he said, " Yiddishe kinderlach, lern eich schissen,"
 "Learn how to shoot!" But Weizmann and Nahum
 Goldmann tried to calm us by saying "Oh it's not so bad.
 You know Jabotinsky...."

 But still, we shared the view that the Nazi danger was
 imminent, it would come, and it was going to be bad. We
 never thought in terms of a huge extermination, but we
 did think that many people would be put to death.
 Everyone was sure there would be pogroms. Our fear was
 that Ukrainians and Rumanians would be let loose to
 unleash terrible "Kishinevs."

 We believed the Germans would never dirty their
 hands with Jewish blood; the Germans would not do it
 themselves. We never thought in terms of a scientific
 extermination of Jews.

For the record, Chaim Weizmann also predicted the looming disaster. In a speech at the Twentieth Zionist Congress in 1937, he reported his testimony at a closed session of the Palestine Royal Commission, and declared that the Jews in East Central Europe: "... will survive or they will not. They have already turned to dust, moral and economic dust in a cruel world." James G. McDonald, who served as the League of Nations High Commissioner on German Refugees from 1933 until his resignation in 1935, met with Weizmann, and described his encounter with the Zionist leader thus:
 I was appalled but not surprised at [Weizmann's] ruthless
 analysis of the fate of the Jewish communities in
 Germany and Eastern Europe. He foresaw the extermination
 of millions of his fellow Jews ... "If before I die,"
 he said, "there are half a million Jews in Palestine, I shall
 be content because I know that this 'saving remnant' will
 survive. They, not the millions in the Diaspora, are what
 really matter.

Where Jabotinsky and Weizmann (whose analysis was, at least on this point, not less prescient than Jabo's) differed was on what can or should be done. Weizmann claimed that he would be content to save but a remnant of the doomed people.

Enfeebled by its opponents and by circumstances, Jabotinsky's tireless campaign to evacuate the stam Yiden (ordinary Jews)--"the dust" of the innumerable Jedwabnes spread across Poland and the vast belt of territory between the Baltic and the Black Seas ended in naught. His warning that it was one hour to midnight--expressed with the incomparable power and eloquence of his celebrated oratory--went unheeded.

At the start of the war and shortly before his death, he penned a manifesto called The Jewish War Front. In that work, he made clear that even if Jews who had been displaced from their homes and places of work did survive, it could not be expected that the local people who had replaced them would acquiesce to their return. Governments could be persuaded to uphold the concept of civil equality; in practice, however, that notion was doomed to ruin. As we well know, this scenario was played out after the war in Poland and in the rest of East Central Europe--where returning Jews were met with antipathy and often murderous violence.

Even if belatedly, one must recognize the prescience of Jabotinsky and his extraordinary powers of prognostication. Without the Germans, infected with Nazism and imbued with extraordinary talents for planning, industry, and even psychology, to fight the fire, it never would have erupted into the conflagration that it did. But in retrospect, and in fight of what we now know took place in Jedwabne and in towns and cities across East Central Europe, Jabotinsky was dearly not mistaken. Vast numbers of "local people" were necessary, and there was no problem finding them. Jews were sitting on the base of a volcano and in mortal danger....

LAURENCE WEINBAUM is Director of Research at the Institute of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem.
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Author:Weinbaum, Laurence
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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