An exposé of Polish participation in the mass murder of Jews

THE TOWNS OF DEATH  – Pogroms Against Jews By Their Neighbors by Miroslaw Tryczyk,  Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021.

Book review by Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff

(First published in The Jerusalem Report)

There are very few books which influence the rewriting of history, but this book should be one of them. It is the history of the fate of the Jewish communities in fifteen towns and villages in eastern Poland in the Bialystok region, in which the Jews were murdered beginning in summer 1941 not by the Nazis, but by their Polish neighbors. The communities which met this fate were :

Radzilow, Wasosz, Jedwabne, Szczuczyn, Bzury, Skaje, Goniadz, Rajgrod, Jasionowka, Kolno, Suchowola, Bransk, Lipnik, Danowo, and Dziegiele.

Paint the Town ‘Red. The mass murder of Jews in their hometowns by their neighbors is authentically revealed by witness reports from survivors, bystanders and the murderers themselves found in court testimonies.

The common denominator among them for more than half a century, was the false narrative that their Jewish residents had been murdered by the Nazis, a “fact”  inscribed on the various monuments to commemorate their memory. In 2001, however, Polish historian Jan Gross, who for many years had been teaching at Princeton, shocked Polish society by publishing Neighbors, a historically accurate narrative of the mass murder of almost all the 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne, many of whom were burned alive by their neighbors in the barn of a Polish resident of the town.

Poles ApartAntonina Wyrzykowska and her husband were beaten by fellow Poles for saving Jews in Jedwabne, and were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations

Neighbors shocked Polish society and sparked intense internal controversy. Needless to say, it was totally rejected by ultranationalists and nationalists, and was considered an unprecedented attack on the accepted historical narrative of Poland during World War II. As the author explains in his concluding chapter, the Communists who ruled Poland in the aftermath of World War II completely denied the participation of Poles in Holocaust crimes. According to their version of the events, the Germans were the exclusive perpetrators of the crimes of the Holocaust and many Poles were Righteous Among the Nations. The facts revealed in Neighbors, however, cast serious doubt on that narrative, and created widespread public interest in the issue. which led to a forensic murder investigation of the events in Jedwabne by the Polish Institute of National Memory, which confirmed that the perpetrators were indeed ethnic Poles. In 2001, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski publicly apologized for the crime, as did President Bronislaw Komorowski in 2011.

Unholy Alliance. The author demonstrates the pivotal role of the Catholic clergy and individual priests, the intellectual classes, and political circles in perpetuating anti-Semitism leading to the mass murder of Polish Jews.

Following the rise to power of the ultranationalist Law and Justice party, however, President Andrzej Duda publicly criticized Komorowski’s apology, leaving the crimes in Jedwabne an open wound in Polish society. This bitter ongoing controversy, is what makes this book incredibly important, because it conclusively proves that the murders of the Jews of Jedwabne was not by any means an isolated incident, but rather a crime which was repeated by ethnic Poles in fourteen other communities in the same geographic area during the same time period. Tryczyk’s research is impeccable and is primarily based on court documents from over 700 cases conducted in Poland under the decree of August 31, 1944 on the punishment of “Fascist-Nazi Criminals Guilty of Murder and Torture of Civilians and Prisoners and of the Traitors of the Polish Nation,” supplemented by additional relevant sources such as Jewish memoirs by survivors, and the documentation of the proceedings of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, and many others.

Gag Order! “Poland is trying to ‘gag’ history,” says Polish-American sociologist and historian and Professor of History, emeritus at Princeton University Jan Gross who has been a catalyst for historical debates about Polish behavior during the Holocaust ( Photo: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Besides presenting much descriptive evidence on the crimes in each of the communities and their incredible cruelty (Jews were burned alive and murdered by iron-clad stakes, knives, axes, saws, pitchforks and hammers, but very rarely by firearms),  Tryczyk attempts quite successfully to explain the reasons for the pogroms, and the four stages of the process which transformed the Jewish residents from neighbors to defenseless sub-humans. The first stage was the intensive prewar antisemitic incitement against the Jews by the National Democrats political party and by many local Catholic priests. The second stage was the power vacuum left by the fall of the Polish state in 1939, and the subsequent flight of the Soviets in spring 1941, which was filled by the creation of a local Polish administration with its own militia, which took drastic measures against people accused of supporting the Soviets. The third stage was characterized by attacks on wealthy Jews, plunder of their property, rape of Jewish women, and beatings and humiliations of Jews. The Nazis arrive in the fourth stage and give their approval for a pogrom. In some cases they leave the murders to the local perpetrators, in others they cooperate with the killers.

Buying its Past to Bullying its Scholars. Before being overturned by an appellate court in Poland, Barbara Engelking (l) and Jan Grabowski (r) had been ordered in 2021 to apologize for their research on Poles who collaborated with Nazis (Yad Vashem via AP / courtesy)

Given the controversial “history policy” of the Law and Justice party and their determination to hide the Holocaust crimes committed by ethnic Poles, as per the notorious law of 2018 which made attributing Holocaust crimes to the Polish state a punishable offence, and the attempt to punish outstanding Holocaust scholars Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for revealing Polish participation in the Shoah, Tryczyk’s book has become even more important.

It is not an easy book to read, but it is required reading for anyone interested in the Holocaust history of Polish Jewry.

About the writer:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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