Polish journalist Bikont (editor: And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews, 1996) delivers a daring exposure of the crimes of her countrymen in the first week of July 1941.
At the time, the deaths of the Jews of Jedwabne and those of Radzilów and Wasosz were glossed over, until a book commemorating them appeared just before the 60th anniversary. Jan Tomasz Gross based her book Neighbors (2001) partly on the Jedwabne Book of Memory, edited by rabbis Julius and Jacob Baker. It was the first time the testimony of eyewitness Szmul Wasersztejn was published, a good first step for Bikont to begin her search for witnesses. Sixty years after hundreds of Jews were herded into a barn that was then burned to the ground, the author found a host of disturbing reactions from the local residents. There are blatant denials that any Poles took part and assurances that it was the Germans who forced locals to participate. Many told Bikont that since it occurred so many years ago, she should just leave it alone. Her persistence in chasing down those who might tell her the facts took her all over Poland and to Israel, the United States, Cuba, and Costa Rica. Her most shocking discovery was the still-virulent anti-Semitism in the area. For years, the Catholic Church had preached against the Jews, so when neighbors were exiled to Siberia during the Russian occupation of 1939-1941, the Jews were the best scapegoats, and it was a good excuse for the beginnings of the pogroms. The elements of competitive suffering that the author uncovered in her interviewees appear to be just more excuses.
Bikont’s fearless research—she even confronted the brothers known to have led the Jedwabne murders—makes this a fantastic book. It was first published in Poland in 2004, and the European Book Prize it won in 2011 (for the French version) should be only the first of many awards for this significant work.