Jedwabne Was Not The Only Place
By: Sara Bender
In April 1983, I arrived in Warsaw with my father
and with several hundred other Jews who had come there to mark the 40th
anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. As we traveled in the bus taking us
to our hotel, my father began to plan our trip to the small town where he was
born, Grajewo, in northeastern Poland, which, on the eve of the Second World
War, had a population of nearly 3,000 Jews. At the hotel, we found a taxi driver
who was willing to take us there. My father, the sole survivor of a large Jewish
family who had perished in the Holocaust, reached British Mandatory Palestine in
1945 while I was born in Israel soon after it achieved independence. The two of
us were very excited about the trip.
Haim Kubersky, who was the director-general of the Interior Ministry at the
time, heard that on our way to Grajewo, we were planning to stop for a while at
Radzilow, a small town not far from Lomza in the Bialystok region.
When he was only a youth, Kubersky had left Radzilow before the outbreak of
WWII. He wanted to join us and the three of us set off on our journey the next
From my father, who was one of those Holocaust survivors who told their children
about their experiences during that period, I learned, even as a young girl,
that Poles had burned alive my father's brother, Meir [Meyer Lipszyc, born in
1914 in Grajewo, who just happened to be in Radzilow on that day, visiting friends], in a
barn in the town of Radzilow in 1941. Since my father recounted to me that the
murder had been carried out by Polish fascists and since I knew about the
alarming level of anti-Semitism that existed in Poland during the second half of
the 1930s, I was not surprised by the account of his brother's death. At the
time, I was busy writing my doctoral dissertation on the Jews of Bialystok under
the Nazi occupation. Since I knew that Lithuanians and Ukrainians had
collaborated with the Germans in the murder of Jews, I thought that it was only
logical to assume that Poles as well had murdered Jews during the Holocaust.
When we arrived in Radzilow, we immediately proceeded to the Town Hall. Before
making our trip, we knew that, on the site where the Jews of this town had been
burned alive, a memorial stone plaque had been placed. We asked to be taken
there. We arrived at the site of the mass murder and, when my father saw the
small stone with its blurred inscription, he fell upon that stone and burst into
heart-wrenching tears. I will never forget the painful scene before the silent
memorial stone over the mass grave of the hundreds of Jews of Radzilow who were
burned alive in July 1941.
We continued to Grajewo and saw the house where my father was born. We then
returned to Warsaw.
The next day I visited the home of Professor Shimon Datner, who had been a
teacher at the Hebrew Gymnasia (high school) in Bialystok. He decided to remain
in Poland after the war and became a historian at the Jewish Historical
Institute in Warsaw. I told him who I was and about our visit to Radzilow.
Datner told me that Poles had murdered Jews not just in Radzilow but also in
several small towns in the area. He emphasized that the most massive murder of
Jews had taken place in the small town of Jedwabne. It was as if I had received
confirmation from a trained historian for all the things that my father had told
Datner walked over to his well-stocked library and produced an article he had
written in Polish about the liquidation of the Jews of the Bialystok region. He
added a small dedication in Hebrew and, visibly moved, he gave me a copy of his
Nearly 20 years have passed since Jan Tomasz Gross wrote his book "Neighbors"
about how Poles had carried out the mass murder of the Jews of Jedwabne in July
1941. The book aroused an extensive public debate in Poland. In the wake of the
discussion of the role that the Poles had played in the massacre of the Jews of
Jedwabne, Poland's National Memorial Institute, which primarily deals with war
crimes committed against the Polish people, decided to uncover the truth about
the massacre by means of eyewitness accounts and to thereby bring the
participants in the murder to trial on a charge of genocide.
In an article that appeared in December 1966, in the bulletin of the Jewish
Historical Institute in Warsaw, Datner did not explicitly state that the murder
of Jews in various towns in the Bialystok region in July 1941 had been carried
out by the Poles themselves. It is quite possible that Datner, who considered
himself a Polish historian, did not want to specify the nationality of the
murderers, or perhaps the article had even been censored. In any event, in the
figures he provides in his article, he explicitly distinguishes between Jews who
had been shot to death, generally in forests outside the communities where they
had resided, and Jews who were murdered in their own communities. Since the mass
shootings were carried out by the Germans and the "local murders" were carried
out by the Poles, the readers of the article are left to come to their own
From Datner's figures, which are based on eyewitness testimonies, it emerges
that, on a single day, on July 7, 1941, between 1,000 and 1,200 Jews perished in
Jedwabne, 1,500 Jews were murdered in Radzilow, and 1,185 Jews were liquidated
in Wasosz - to cite some of the communities where the killings took place on
These figures must be carefully examined, because, if they are authentic, they
totally change the image of the Polish people as a collective victim during the
Second World War.
The sincere aim of the researchers at the National Memorial Institute in Warsaw
to bring the truth to light about the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne will
undoubtedly encounter certain difficulties. One of those difficulties will be
the fact that most of the eyewitnesses have already passed away. Nonetheless,
effective use can be made of the endless quantity of eyewitness accounts found
in Polish archives, in Remembrance Volumes on Jewish communities and in the
archives of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance
Authority. Yad Vashem's archives contain, for example, hundreds of pages of
testimony on the mass murder of the Jews of Radzilow by the Poles.
No apologetic argument that Jews collaborated with the Soviets between 1939 and
1941 - when the Bialystok region was annexed by the Soviet Union - and handed
over Poles to the Russians can ever justify the mass murder of thousands of Jews
by the Poles. If Poland wants to free itself of its anti-Semitic image and to
ensure its place among the enlightened nations of the world, it must display the
courage needed for facing up squarely to its national past, because that is the
only way that Poland can ever hope to build its future.
Copyright © 2001
Dr. Sara Bender teaches at the Department of Jewish History at Haifa University and
is managing editor of the Lexicon of the Righteous among the Nations at the
International Center for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and
Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
My thanks and appreciation to Dr. Sara
Bender for allowing Ha'aretz to grant me permission to reprint this article.