JEDWABNE, Poland — The Jews who survived the axes were burned alive in a barn on the outskirts of town. The Germans had just recaptured the area from the Soviets, but it was not the Germans who bolted the doors, poured the gasoline and lit the fire.
On July 10, 1941, villagers here turned against their neighbors — although some would later claim they were taking orders from the Germans. Szczepan Sulewski, a retired baker, remembers running over from a neighboring village to watch the incineration of the Jews. Now 88, he does not remember why the Jews had to burn; he remembers only the screams and how difficult it was, as a boy of 10, to catch a glimpse of the fire.
“Everybody lived well with the Jews,” he said in his living room filled with cigarette smoke. A nervous grin played on his face. “You could do business with the Jews.”
What happened at Jedwabne, where more than 300 Jews perished, profoundly challenges a national narrative that portrays Poland as a victim: first of Nazi Germany, then of Soviet Russia. Disputes over the massacre seemed to reach an uneasy truce more than a decade ago, but a new “Holocaust law” has exploded the powder keg of historical memory again.
All of a sudden, it seems, Jedwabne never happened. The muddy path to the barn is yet another road to nowhere.
Starting in March, publicly invoking Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities will be a punishable offense. Israel has likened the provision to “Holocaust denial,” and the United States says it is an attack on “academic inquiry.” In no small fashion, the law has thrust Poland into a bitter debate over the nature of its history and, to an even greater extent, the nature of its identity.
“There is no nation that has a totally clear conscience,” said Adam Michnik, 71, the editor in chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper and a former leader of the anti-Communist opposition. “Every nation had its Ku Klux Klan, and this was ours.”
The government disagrees: Poland is a nation of victims, and victims only.
Since it rose to power in 2015, the populist right-wing Law and Justice party has shown a clear interest in reshaping the way history is presented and understood. In the past two years, the government has sanitized the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk to emphasize Polish heroism, commissioned a new Warsaw museum to venerate the “cursed soldiers” who continued fighting Communism after 1945, and sought to recast the history of the Solidarity movement.
“Currently, the history of World War II in the West concentrates on the Holocaust. But other aspects — other victims — are forgotten,” said Mateusz Szpytma, the deputy president of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a government-funded research organization devoted to investigating crimes committed on Polish soil between 1939 and 1989.
“As a nation, we as Poles — we are the victims of the Second World War, but if you emphasize only our negative relations with the Jews, and in such articles where the only word used is ‘Nazi’ and not ‘German,’ what you’re seeing now is essentially a self-defense mechanism,” he said.
Polish identity has leaned heavily on collective suffering and even a sense of martyrdom, sociologists say.
In the 19th century, the romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, a towering figure here who is a mainstay on nearly every school reading list, called his perennially occupied country the “Christ of Nations” whose suffering would somehow save Europe. Many appear to have internalized the metaphor.
As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, 45 years of Communist rule also took a toll on the Polish view of history: The postwar government exploited anti-Nazi sentiment, invoking a black-and-white version of a war against foreign fascism. Even in the face of naked Polish anti-Semitism — as in the 1946 Kielce pogrom and a 1968 anti-Jewish purge — the collective understanding of the past never strayed far from Polish victimhood.
“National narratives — national mythologies — are very difficult to change,” said Geneviève Zubrzycki, a sociologist who has written extensively on nationalism and religion in postwar Poland. “It’s very difficult to be both martyr and perpetrator.”
Similar controversies, Zubrzycki said, have erupted for decades: The Carmelite nuns who opened a convent near Auschwitz in the mid-1980s and the crosses displayed at Auschwitz in the late 1990s were attempts to assert Polish control over a place the world had declared a site of Jewish suffering.
But the new “Holocaust law” represents a “crucial difference,” said the historian Jan Gross, whose best-selling 2000 book on the Jedwabne massacre, “Neighbors,” triggered the most intense debate over Poland’s wartime past, at least until now.
“You have now empowered a regime that is openly drawing on xenophobic nationalism in Polish society as a means of legitimizing its power,” he said in a telephone interview. “And the main pull of this xenophobic nationalism is anti-Semitism.”
This, for many historians, is the root of the law — which, they say, subtly and falsely equates Polish and Jewish suffering.
“Every Jew who was born a Jew was doomed to die. That wasn’t the case with the Poles,” said Pawel Spiewak, the director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Then there are the numbers. The government says 6 million Polish citizens were killed during the war — a figure often cited to show the immensity of Polish suffering, one that some scholars see as imprecise but that conveniently matches the approximate number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But of that number, 3 million to 3.2 million were Jewish Poles. Given that nearly 10 percent of Poland’s prewar total population was Jewish, many scholars object to any separation of Jewish history from Polish history in that period.
“One of the stunning things is that the Holocaust has been mentally externalized for Poles,” Gross said. “It’s as if something happened to ‘them,’ not to ‘us,’ even though it’s really the most dramatic episode of Polish history — 3 million Polish citizens were killed in the most brutal way imaginable, in a very short span of time. But in common parlance, this is somehow the story of someone else, of non-Poles.”
“When we read the curriculum, what we see is either that we were brave and good or that we lost everything in dramatic circumstances — that’s the picture of Poles we get. There’s no grayness,” said Slawomir Broniarz, the president of the Polish teachers union, which has formally condemned the new law.
“Suddenly we are back to Communist times, and everything is ideology.”
Jan Wróbel, a popular journalist who also teaches history in a Warsaw charter school, said that the government’s obsession with World War II reminds him of his own days as a student — and of how much potential there can be for jarring misconceptions.
“I’m 54. In my school, which was a normal Polish school, I generally thought that in Auschwitz most of the victims were Polish,” he said. “I can’t remember the moment anyone told me that, but it was never clear that it was predominantly Jews.”
Some teachers say they will continue discussing Jedwabne and other examples of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
“I just tell them that the Poles were there, and that they committed this crime — and that this is all based on facts, on sources,” said Artur Sierawski, who teaches history in a Warsaw public high school. “Usually they’re surprised, and silent for a while.”
But the urban-rural divide is as strong in Poland as everywhere, and Jedwabne — today a town of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants — is far from Warsaw. Teachers here applaud the new law as a corrective that will end what they see as the smearing of their home.
“If someone asks us what happened here, what should we say? I tell them about the Soviet occupation, that the Jews worked with the Soviets, that they greeted the Soviets with flowers,” said Stanislaw Zebrowski, 57, who teaches history in a nearby middle school. The belief that Jews overwhelmingly sided with the Soviets is deeply ingrained in Polish narratives of the war. But it remains a matter of contentious debate among historians, given that Jews also suffered handily under Soviet occupation.
The Jews, Zebrowski said, “helped the Soviets by pointing out people who were later sent to camps in Siberia.” Members of his own family were among those deported, and he said that Jews probably had been responsible.
“I don’t feel bad about that,” he was quick to add.
To this day, the largest memorial in Jedwabne — in the middle of the town square, beneath a giant cross — is for Poles deported to Soviet territories. By contrast, the memorial for the Jews incinerated in the barn is a slab of stone that in recent years has been defaced with swastikas.
“The Germans killed the Jews with the help of the Polish inhabitants forced against their will,” Zebrowski said. “The situation forced Poles to participate in that murder, and I fully justify their actions.”
Magdalena Foremska in Warsaw contributed to this report.