1.17 Victims, Bystanders and Perpetrators

Jörg Hackmann, Valdis Teraudkalns, Anders Fröjmark

After 1945, the picture of World War II around the Baltic rim seemed to be clear on the surface: there were perpetrators, first of all, German Nazis, there were some collaborators (such as Quisling in Norway), there were victims (Jews, the occupied nations such as Poles, the Soviet people, Danes) and, of course, heroes – the allied forces and the Red Army in particular, and also the various resistance fighters and partisans and also some diplomats. And then there were neutral countries which simply observed the events on the battlefields.

However, facts and discussions were never as simple and straightforward as they were presented, particularly in the socialist countries. In those nations that came under Soviet rule during and after the World War II, there was a private commemoration of Soviet crimes from early on. On a larger scale, collective commemoration changed from the mid-1980s. West Germany debated about liberation instead of defeat, and Poles discussed whether they were bystanders of the Holocaust. A new dynamic unfolded a decade later, after the collapse of the Soviet system. Now, the issue of supporting Nazi and Soviet crimes also arrived in Sweden. Sweden had not only supplied Nazi Germany with steel, but even allowed German troops to use the Swedish railway system. When the Baltic States were occupied, Sweden quickly accepted the new situation, and after the war, Baltic soldiers were extradited to the Soviet Union (see Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s statements in the chapter “May 1945: Liberation or Occupation?” below).

As a result, a broad discussion of the Holocaust emerged that no longer followed the former cleavages of the Cold War. Poland was shocked by the rediscovery of the murder of the Jewish neighbours in Jedwabne and in the vicinity. In Lithuania and Latvia, collaboration of policemen with German occupation forces was discussed, as it also has been recently in Norway after the publication of new research by Marte Michelet in 2014. In Estonia and Latvia, the role of the SS-legions was scrutinized. These debates, which were supported by expert commissions, however, also stimulated national reactions, claiming that the majority of one’s own nation were victims of Nazi rule as well and should not be seen as collaborators. In Estonia, the controversy led to the monumental conflict connected to Bronze Soldier. Today, these issues are addressed in various museums. The most ambitious project, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, which tried to develop a holistic and transnational perspective, however, was torpedoed by the nationalist Polish government even before it opened in 2017. Further controversies concern old and new monuments. Generally speaking, the recent debates show that the main question of how to commemorate World War II 80 years after its beginning is an issue not of individual national debates, but of all nations around the Baltic rim.

In 2000, Polish society was shocked by Jan Tomasz Gross’ book Neighbors about the murder of more than 300 Jews in the town of Jedwabne in July 1941 by the Christian neighbours. The debates continue today, and also the conflict concerning the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk has to be seen as a consequence of this debate, because conservative and nationalist groups within the Polish society do not agree with Gross’ argument. Here are two sources from this debate:

One day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1,600 men, women, and children. Consequently, in what follows, I will discuss the Jedwabne murders in the context of numerous themes invoked by the phrase ‘Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War.’
First and foremost, I consider this volume a challenge to standard historiography of the Second World War, which posits that there are two separate wartime histories – one pertaining to the Jews and the other to all the other citizens of a given European country subjected to Nazi rule. This is a particularly untenable position with respect to Poland’s history of those years, given the size of, and social space occupied by, Polish Jewry. On the eve of the war, Poland’s was the second largest agglomeration of Jews in the world, after the American Jewry. About 10 percent of prewar Polish citizens identified themselves – either by Mosaic faith or by declaring Yiddish to be their mother tongue – as Jews. Nearly one-third of the Polish urban population was Jewish. :And yet the Holocaust of Polish Jews has been bracketed by historians as a distinct, separate subject that only tangentially affects the rest of Polish society. Conventional wisdom maintains that only ‘socially marginal’ individuals in Polish society—the so-called szmalcownicy, or ‘scum,’ who blackmailed Jews, and the heroes who lent them a helping hand—were involved with the Jews. […]
The second point that readers of this volume must keep in mind is that Polish-Jewish relations during the war are conceived in a standard analysis as mediated by outside forces – the Nazis and the Soviets. This, of course, is correct as far as it goes. The Nazis and the Soviets were indeed calling the shots in the Polish territories they occupied during the war. But one should not deny the reality of autonomous dynamics in the relationships between Poles and Jews within the constraints imposed by the occupiers. There were things people could have done at the time and refrained from doing; and there were things they did not have to do but nevertheless did. Accordingly, I will be particularly careful to identify who did what in the town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, and at whose behest.
In August 1939, as is well known, Hitler and Stalin concluded a pact of nonaggression. Its secret clauses demarcated the boundaries of influence spheres between the two dictators in Central Europe. One month later, the territory of Poland was carved up between the Third Reich and the USSR. The town of Jedwabne first found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation and later, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, was taken over by the Nazis. An important issue I thus felt compelled to address concerns the standard historiographical perspective on Soviet-Jewish relations during the twenty-month-long Soviet rule over the half of Poland the Red Army occupied starting in September 1939. Again this is not the place to put the matter to rest. We will simply have to remember that according to the current stereotype Jews enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Soviet occupiers. Allegedly the Jews collaborated with the Soviets at the expense of the Poles, and therefore an outburst of brutal Polish antisemitism, at the time the Nazis invaded the USSR, may have come in the territories liberated from under Bolshevik rule in 1941 as a response to this experience. I therefore explore whether there were any linkages between what happened in Jedwabne under the Soviet occupation (September 1939–June 1941) and immediately thereafter.
The Jedwabne massacre touches upon yet another historiographical topos concerning this epoch – one maintaining that Jews and communism were bound by a mutually beneficial relationship. Hence, allegedly, the presence of antisemitism among broad strata of Polish society (or any other East European society, for that matter) after the war, and the special role Jews played in establishing and consolidating Stalinism in Eastern Europe.
- Jan Tomasz Gross, from the Introduction to Neighbors, 2001.

Polish historian Adam Michnik:

Do Poles, along with Germans, bear guilt for the Holocaust? It is hard to imagine a more absurd claim. Not a single Polish family was spared by Hitler and Stalin. The two totalitarian dictatorships obliterated three million Poles and three million Polish citizens classified as Jews by the Nazis.
Poland was the first country to oppose Hitler’s demands and the first to stand against his aggression. Poland never had a Quisling. No Polish regiment fought on behalf of the Third Reich. Betrayed by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Poles fought alongside the anti-Nazi forces from the first day until the last. And inside Poland armed resistance to the German occupation was widespread.
The British prime minister paid homage to the Poles for their role in the Battle of Britain and the president of the United States called Poles an ‘inspiration’ to the world. Yet that didn’t stop them from delivering Poland into Stalin’s clutches at Yalta. Heroes of the Polish resistance – enemies of Stalin’s Communism – ended up in Soviet gulags and Polish Communist prisons.
All of these truths contribute to Poland’s image of itself as an innocent and noble victim of foreign violence and intrigue. After the war, while the West was able to reflect on what had happened, Stalinist terror stymied public discussion in Poland about the war, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
At the same time, anti-Semitic traditions were deeply rooted in Poland. In the 19th century, when the Polish state did not yet exist, the modern nation that was to emerge was shaped by ethnic and religious ties and by opposing antagonistic neighbors often hostile to the dream of Polish independence. Anti-Semitism was the ideological glue of great political nationalistic formations. And yet it was also used at various points as a tool by Russian occupiers in accordance with the principle ‘divide et impera.’
During Hitler’s occupation, the Polish nationalistic and anti-Semitic right didn’t collaborate with the Nazis, as the right wing did elsewhere in Europe, but actively participated in the anti-Hitler underground. Polish anti-Semites fought against Hitler, and some of them even rescued Jews, though this was punishable by death.
Thus we have a singularly Polish paradox: on occupied Polish soil, a person could be an anti-Semite, a hero of the resistance and a savior of Jews.
Polish public opinion is rarely united, but almost all Poles react very sharply when confronted with the charge that Poles get their anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk and with accusations of their complicity in the Shoah. For the anti-Semites, who are plentiful on the margins of Poland’s political life, those attacks are proof of the international anti-Polish Jewish conspiracy. To normal people who came of age in the years of falsifications and silence about the Holocaust, these allegations seem unjust.
To these people, Jan Tomasz Gross’s book ‘Neighbors,’ which revealed the story of the murder by Poles of 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne, was a terrible shock. It is difficult to describe the extent of this shock. Mr. Gross’s book has generated a heated response comparable to the Jewish community’s reaction to the publication of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’
I don’t believe in collective guilt or collective responsibility or any other responsibility except the moral one. And therefore I ponder what exactly is my individual responsibility and my own guilt. Certainly I cannot be responsible for that crowd of murderers who set the barn in Jedwabne on fire. Similarly, today’s citizens of Jedwabne cannot be blamed for that crime. When I hear a call to admit my Polish guilt, I feel hurt the same way the citizens of today’s Jedwabne feel when they are interrogated by reporters from around the world.
But when I hear that Mr. Gross’s book, which revealed the truth about the crime, is a lie that was concocted by the international Jewish conspiracy against Poland, that is when I feel guilty. Because these false excuses are in fact nothing else but a rationalization of that crime.
As I write this text, I am weighing words carefully and repeating Montesquieu: ‘I am a man thanks to nature, I am a Frenchman thanks to coincidence.’ By coincidence I am a Pole with Jewish roots. Almost my whole family was devoured by the Holocaust. My relatives could have perished in Jedwabne. Some of them were Communists or relatives of Communists, some were craftsmen, some merchants, perhaps some rabbis. But all were Jews, according to the Nuremberg laws of the Third Reich. All of them could have been herded into that barn, which was set on fire by Polish criminals.
I do not feel guilty for those murdered, but I do feel responsible. Not that they were murdered — I could not have stopped that. I feel guilty that after they died they were murdered again, denied a decent burial, denied tears, denied truth about this hideous crime, and that for decades a lie was repeated.
This is my fault. For lack of imagination or time, for convenience and spiritual laziness, I did not ask myself certain questions and did not look for answers. Why? After all, I was among those who actively pushed to reveal the truth about the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers, I worked to tell the truth about the Stalinist trials in Poland, about the victims of the Communist repression. Why then did I not look for the truth about the murdered Jews of Jedwabne? Perhaps because I subconsciously feared the cruel truth about the Jewish fate during that time. After all, the bestial mob in Jedwabne was not unique. In all of the countries conquered by the Soviets after 1939, there were horrible acts of terror against the Jews in the summer and in the autumn of 1941. They died at the hands of their Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian neighbors. I think that the time has come to reveal the truth about these hideous acts. I will try to contribute to this.
Writing these words, I feel a specific schizophrenia: I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne murder is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne, I would have been killed as a Jew.
Who then am I, as I write these words? Thanks to nature, I am a man, and I am responsible to other people for what I do and what I do not do. Thanks to my choice, I am a Pole, and I am responsible to the world for the evil inflicted by my countrymen. I do so out of my free will, by my own choice, and by the deep urging of my conscience.
But I am also a Jew who feels a deep brotherhood with those who were murdered as Jews. From this perspective, I assert that whoever tries to remove the crime in Jedwabne from the context of its epoch, whoever uses this example to generalize that this is how only the Poles and all the Poles behaved, is lying. And this lie is as repulsive as the lie that was told for many years about the crime in Jedwabne.
A Polish neighbor might have saved one of my relatives from the hands of the executioners who pushed him into the barn. And indeed, there were many such Polish neighbors – the forest of Polish trees in the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, is dense.
For these people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews. Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?
The Polish primate, the Polish president and the Rabbi of Warsaw said almost in one voice that a tribute to the Jedwabne victims should serve the cause of reconciling Poles and Jews in the truth. I desire nothing more. If it doesn’t happen, it will be also my fault.
- Adam Michnik. Poles and the Jews: How deep the guilt, 17.3.2001.

The discussion about victims, bystanders and perpetrators, however, has not been limited to Poland. In Estonia, it was spurred by a private monument commemorating Estonian members of the SS Legion during the World War II. After controversial debates, it was removed from a cemetery in Lihula to a private museum location in Lagedi near Tallinn in 2005. The Estonian inscription says: "To the Estonian men, who fought in 1940-1945 against Bolshevism and in the name of the return of Estonian independence". Both inside and outside of Latvia, controversy and tension continue to surround the Latvian Legion, a formation of the German Waffen-SS during World War II. Some people who joined the Legion were motivated mainly by strong anti-Soviet feelings, some were simply forced to join, some had anti-Semitic views and were Holocaust collaborators. A remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires is celebrated on 16th of March. Now that most of legionnaires are dead, their history is exploited by Latvian and Russian politicians to mobilise their potential target audiences (keeping in mind that voters in Latvia still vote mainly on an ethnic basis for ‘Latvian’ and “Russian’ parties). 16th of March, a day of remembrance dedicated to the Latvian legionnaires (for couple of years it was an official memorial day, but in 2000 was removed from the list of national days of remembrance) is used by different groups for demonstrations - to oppose or to glorify Legionnaires and to use their stories to promote their own political agendas.

Lagedi monument.png

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Why did Gross’ presentation of the massacre of Jedwabne meet with rejection in parts of the Polish society?
  2. Why did Adam Michnik, the editor of the leading liberal daily newspaper in Poland, criticize Gross?
  3. Discuss the message of the monument in Lagedi against the background of World War II. Which image of Estonians is presented here?
  4. Do you know of similar controversies in other region of the Baltic Sea area?
  5. Discuss possible solutions to overcome memory conflicts connected to World War II.

Further reading

  1. Karsten Brüggemann and Andres Kasekamp. “The Politics of History and the ‘War of Monuments’ in Estonia.” In: Nationalities Papers 36:3 (2008). Pp. 425–448.
  2. Jörg Hackmann. “From National Victims to Transnational Bystanders? The Changing Commemoration of World War II in Central and Eastern Europe.” In: Constellations 16:1 (2009). Pp. 167–181.
  3. Marte Michelet. Den største forbrytelsen: Ofre og gjerningsmenn i det norske Holocaust (The ultimate crime: victims and perpetrators in the Norwegian Holocaust). Oslo, Gyldendal, 2014.
  4. The Neighbors respond: The controversy over the Jedwabne massacre in Poland. Ed. by Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2004.