Cities of Death

 Many people, including the current Minister of Education in Poland, are still questioning the historic facts behind the pogroms in Kielce and Jedwabne. Fortunately, the majority of Polish intellectuals have reached a causal consensus regarding the events. But now historians face an even more difficult task: it is time to take a long, hard look at the tragic history of Jews in many other villages and small towns of Poland under German occupation. The truth about this brutal reality is slowly gaining traction in public discourse in Poland. And the truth is that many Poles were anything but passive observers and that many of them had their Jewish neighbors’ blood on their hands and conscience.

The book “Cities of Death” (“Miasta śmierci”) by Mirosław Tryczyk is in large part a collection of sources composed of the testimonies of people who witnessed tragic events mainly in the occupied Białystok region.

It comes as no surprise that historians took Tryczyk to task for his lack of rigorous methodology. He was also criticized for his choice of language, considered too emotional for an academic study. But the fact is that Tryczyk is not an historian; he wrote his study from the point of view of a Polish intellectual from northeastern Poland trying to come to terms with horrifying events that affected his family and their fellow Poles.

Tryczyk released hundreds of pages of primary archival sources into mass circulation and this is undoubtedly his most important achievement. After his work was published, Mirosław Tryczyk was employed by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. He spoke with CHIDUSZ about his book, his research and his conclusions.

Michał Bojanowski: You examined primary archival sources that allowed you to establish that in some 128 Polish towns and villages, Jews were persecuted and murdered by their Polish neighbors during World War II. Can you tell us more about your research?

Mirosław Tryczyk: I went through over 700 files from the decree of 31 August 1944 cases. The decree was issued by the newly established Polish pro-Soviet government, with jurisdiction over hitlerite criminals and traitors of the Polish nation. I also went through various German and Russian written sources that were passed on to Poland after 1989, and also through the documentation of investigations carried out by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). On this basis I identified 128 towns and villages where large-scale murder of the Jewish population took place. Sometimes the victims were just one or two families, and sometimes large groups or even entire local Jewish communities were killed. I’m sure that if we went to the Institute of National Remembrance and looked at documents referring to those parts of today’s Ukraine and Belarus which back then belonged to Poland, we would find many more similar cases.

Your book describes the history of 15 different towns and villages in the Podlasie region of northeastern Poland where Jews were slaughtered. Those people were murdered by their Polish neighbors. Was this region an exception in Poland?

I have not yet broken down the logic of the crimes that took place in over 100 other towns in various parts of Poland. However, I don’t have any reason to believe that this region was different from any other area in the eastern part of the country. A wave of anti-Semitic crimes followed in the wake of the German army. Those crimes were not always mass pogroms. Sometimes they were small-scale, like in the village of Danowo, where local farmers came to the Jewish miller accompanied by a militia officer. The officer told them that if they wanted the mill, they would have to kill the miller and his family. They killed them. They buried them. They took the mill.

Eastern Poland, especially the areas around Białystok and Łomża, was under heavy nationalist influence. The situation in Podlasie during the inter-war period was both typical and unique. First, Podlasie was one of the strongholds of the right wing National Democracy Party. Second, it was close to the Prussian border, which made it susceptible to German Nazism radiating from there and resonating strongly in the Białystok and Łomża regions. Young people in the village of Radziłów organized marches inspired by the Nazis.

Nationalist tendencies influenced everyone, including local church officials. The nationalists were supported by lower-ranking priests, but also by the bishop of Łukom. This wasth reflected in parliamentary and local elections (dominated by the National Democrats). Another important factor was the eruption of a nationalist, anti-Semitic press that echoed in church sermons and local government speeches, and opinions voiced by the local intelligentsia. Nationalist rallies, marches and propaganda were very common.

So that was the social climate when the Soviet occupation began, and hatred towards Jews escalated. Why was this happening?

Perhaps Nazi occupation would have shown those people how absurd their beliefs were, but this area was occupied by Soviets just after the 17th of September 1939. Fascist tendencies deepened because they were seen as standing in opposition to communism, represented by the Soviets. Moreover, pre-war National Democrats had created an entire racist and anti-Semitic mythology. The nemesis of this narrative was the Bolshevik Jew (God’s enemy, the killer of Christ, etc.), who was at the same time a capitalist and a democrat.

The nationalists rejected bolshevism, democracy and capitalism. They considered them to be infused by the Talmud. When the enemy Soviet army invaded their land, the local Poles conflated this collection of myths and ideas in their fight against Jews. NKVD archives don’t have any files that would prove there were more Jews than Poles manning the Soviet organizations created in occupied Poland. For example, in the Jedwabne area only 8.5% of the Soviet administration were Jews. Most of the staff were Belarusians who came over in 1940 from the eastern regions of Soviet Belarus. Of course, some of the staff members were also local Poles.

More Jews than Poles – in proportion to their general population size – were deported to Siberia, but this was due to their kulak social status, not nationality. Another reason was the fact that they belonged to various Jewish organizations, such as the Zionist movement or the General Jewish Labour Bund. Of course, Poles also fell victim to deportations: members of local intelligentsia, pre-war National Democrats and relatives of anti-communist partisans who began fighting Soviets immediately after they occupied the region. Back then, organized Polish partisans were anti-communist and, to an extent, anti-Jewish at their very core.

After 1940 the location of the most important partisan base in Kobielno was given away by a local Polish communist who was a Soviet administration officer in that area and mass arrests quickly followed. A few hundred families were also deported to Siberia as a result. The men were kept in Łomża for questioning by Soviet investigators, but all their loved ones were sent away. The locals immediately blamed the Jews. Interestingly, this story was used by the Germans in 1942. When Nazi battalions got stuck outside Stalingrad, they encouraged Poles to murder and hand over Jews, leading them to believe that Major Aleksander Burski who had commanded the partisan base in Kobielno (locals believed that he had been the traitor) was really called Epstein.

Most of the people involved had no access to any information about the real extent of Jewish participation in these events but the prevailing narrative was so xenophobic that just one Jew in the local council was enough to keep false ideas about Jewish Bolsheviks alive.

Nevertheless, it is still difficult to understand the circumstances that led to these crimes.

During the inter-war these towns and villages witnessed numerous attacks on Jews (such as the bombing near Radziłów). Jews were persecuted and attacked in the streets. People smashed their windows and boycotted their shops. Then when even a single Jew appeared in a local council during the Soviet occupation, the locals were very upset about it. It led to feelings of frustration and anger similar to those expressed towards immigrants and refugees in Poland nowadays. Imagine Poland finally agreed to take some refugees in now, and suddenly a Syrian person became the mayor of a large Polish city, and two immigrants were chosen as deputies. There would be just three of them in total, but there would be people saying that Syrians are now “in charge of the whole city.” That’s how it works. Whenever people saw a Jew cooperating with the NKVD, it would be blown out of proportion to the point of absurdity. And it’s obvious that the NKVD had to cooperate with each and every social group because they needed information about all of them. Their cooperation with local Poles was especially tight: they were the largest social group in that area and they actively fought Soviets, so the NKVD needed to have a large base of contacts there.

The Soviets left and the Germans came in. What happened next?

In June 1941, the German army entered the Podlasie region as it continued its offensive towards the East and, for a moment, there was a complete administrative void. There was no longer any Soviet administration, there was no German administration yet, and there were no other structures in place. So the partisans came out of the forests and started creating their own temporary administrative organs: courts, militia, self-defense. They had different names in different towns. For example there was a Committee for the Destruction of Communism established in Goniądz.

And then, as you describe it, the first wave of atrocities began.

These newly created organizations went after local Soviet collaborators. Everything started with individual crimes.

In Rajgród, three Poles were executed. Before the execution they received absolution from the local priest, then they were led out of the church and hanged. If any Jew collaborated with the Soviets (no proof was needed, just a suspicion was enough), he was killed with his entire family. A Pole was executed alone and his family was spared. Sometimes even the culprit himself managed to stay alive, especially if he had many brothers. That was what happened in Rajgród: three men were hanged even though there were four men lined up for execution. However, the fourth one had a large family that protected him so he was set free. This shows how much impact anti-Semitism had on people from the very beginning: Jews never received any special treatment.

The violence gradually increased, and was directed exclusively towards Jews. The second wave of atrocities began.

A wave of anti-Semitic murders and looting spread, but this time the victims were not directly linked to communists. Women were raped. The violence grew to unimaginable scale.

And finally, the third stage: the extermination of the Jewish population.

Crimes like those that took place in Jedwabne or Radziłów were processual. They started after the Soviets left the region, and ended when the German administration took over. This pattern was repeated in all the 15 towns and villages I deal with in my book. Of course, the Germans kept close and guarded the rear. Subdivisions of Einsatzgruppe B were present in that region and they were responsible for a lot of the murders. But when the Germans arrived in places that I researched, such as Jedwabne, they assessed the situation and gave the locals three days to “sort things out.” And then they went on their way. They filmed and photographed the crimes in order to use them as proof that Slavic nations were inherently anti-Semitic and anti-communist. It all was in line with Nazi propaganda.

You dismiss the myth that various cultures and religions could coexist peacefully in Poland’s eastern borderlands. Are you suggesting that we should discard this once and for all?

Yes, we should, at least when speaking of the regions I researched. Relationships with Jews were good when it came to trade, people did business together. Poles went to Jewish shops, although in the inter-war years, running a business was getting more difficult for Jews. There were boycotts, goods for sale were being damaged or destroyed, people were beaten for going to Jewish merchants. And there was more. Polish and Jewish children would fight and throw stones at each other.

I’ve read depositions taken from Poles who used to live in the places I researched, depositions taken during post-war trials. Polish witnesses were unable to give any names of the Jews who lived and worked there. They didn’t establish any close relationships with their Jewish neighbors so there was no need to bother with their strange names. They could only remember the nicknames they gave them, often inspired by the goods they sold. People called them Carrot or Parsley, and the like.

Jews didn’t leave their houses when Poles walked to church on Sunday. Only Catholics were allowed to freely manifest their religion in public. It’s not that Jews were not allowed to go out on Sunday, but they chose not to provoke Christians who were on their way back from Mass. In early 2000’s an elderly man gave a deposition. He said that as a child he lived in Radziłów. During religion lesson, father Choromański made him hold a bread roll in his teeth because the boy had bought it in a Jewish bakery. Another priest from Radziłów had a habit of shooting from his double-barreled shotgun into the windows of Jewish houses just because they neighbored the parish. Such incidents were very common.

In 1933 the first anti-Jewish riots took place in Radziłów. There were fatalities, the police had to intervene and disperse the nationalists. It happened again in 1935. That’s how the situation looked in provincial eastern Poland.

Most Jews reacted like typical victims of violence; they chose isolation. This only deepened the division between communities. And that’s probably why they chose to stay at home on Sundays or on Corpus Christi Day, when liturgical processions filed through the towns.

And that’s why in 1941 in Radziłów only one woman, Chaja, tried to speak to the medic and the priest, her Polish neighbors. She wanted to save herself and other Jews from persecutions in Radziłów, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps she was refused help because the Germans forced Poles to commit crimes against Jews?

Only five German soldiers came to Radziłów, and they only came on the day of the final pogrom, on July 7, 1941. Jews were being murdered in Radziłów since the Russians had fled the area, and the whole town was inhabited by just a few hundred Poles. It’s hard to imagine that the occupants needed to apply force. The Germans were happy to just let Poles do the job: this way they could use itr as propaganda material in their chronicles. They announced that the law does not apply to Jews. I was once told that some of those films survived the war and were stored in the Film Institute in Warsaw, but that someone took them in the 1960’s and they were never found again.

We have evidence from just one of those 15 towns and villages confirming that the Germans helped local Polish school teachers serving in the local Polish militia to murder Jews in the Choinki Rajgrodzkie forest.

The Germans entered a small town in the Podlasie region. The locals welcomed them and then asked if they were allowed to kill all the Jews? Is that how it went?

Pretty much, although we have no recordings of those conversations, there were no stenographers present. All we have are the testimonies of witnesses. However, we should keep in mind that crimes against Jews were already being committed before the Germans arrived. When they got there, they saw bodies lying on the streets, they saw Jewish houses looted and devastated. Sometimes they did take severe measures on their own, but if they didn’t always have to, they preferred to let the locals do the job.

So who was in charge, if not the Germans?

There is one more myth we need to lay to rest. The extermination was headed mainly by people who belonged to the pre-war Polish elites. This fact changes the whole narrative that was built after Jan Tomasz Gross’s publications. This narrative, very convenient for Polish politics, related that it was just some farmers and local peasants who murdered all the Jews, not people linked to the Church or the National Democrats. The Laudański family was portrayed as criminals. And the Laudańskis themselves find it very strange now, because they were one of the most respected families in Jedwabne at the time. They owned a construction company that used to build churches, schools, and dairies. They also had a partner, the man who later gave his barn over for the express purpose of burning the Jews in Jedwabne. That man’s company specialized in carpentry, and the Laudański company dealt in masonry.

In Rajgród, the murderers were led by a teacher who taught ancient Greek. By the way, it’s frightening that many of the killers were teachers. In Szczuczyn, a headmaster was in charge of the killings.

So, the “German inspiration” was in fact much weaker than the accepted narrative would have us believe?

When the Germans took over this area (e.g., Szczuczyn) for a short time in 1939, anti-Semitic incidents had already occurred there. Jews had to close down their shops because of inflation. Everyone was waiting for the situation to stabilize. And as soon as it did, people started whispering that they should kill the Jews and loot their stores. Christians wanted to mark their own homes with crosses for protection so that nobody would make a mistake during the killings. There was no fear, there were no German orders. Just anti-Semitism and hatred, as well as an attempt to get a bit richer for any price, without working too hard. However, at that point the Germans were still holding those tendencies at bay. They would kill one Jew publicly for show, just to ease the tension.

Later, the Soviet army walked in and Polish partisan troops were created. My family comes from that area. My grandfather is a very stubborn man and he is an anti-Semite. Whenever I see him, I get the impression that that he and his partisan buddies are still fighting the war. They don’t trust strangers and believe that they have to keep the conspiracy alive so they keep their old weapons hidden in their sheds. This style of patriotism is still very prevalent: rash, stubborn and bloody.

Your work makes it clear that the Catholic Church played a significant role in those tragic events.

In 14 out of 15 towns, the local priests not only did nothing to stop the violence, they actually encouraged the locals and fanned their anti-Semitism. It was possible to avoid those acts of hatred, or at least minimize the consequences. Yet church leaders did not protest. And that’s not all. Father Dołęgowski from Radziejów not only did not protest, he actually called for aggression towards Jewish citizens. Only Father Czarkowski from Brańsk, a pre-war nationalist, found the courage to stand against the hatred. Even though hundreds of Jews were being killed in nearby forests, no mass murder ever took place in his town, most likely thanks to his intervention. By the way, there was a ceremony of awarding the Righteous Among the Nations held in Brańsk years later.

This proves that had the priests been more involved, had they been more willing to tone down nationalist tendencies and hate speech, it would not have been so easy to carry out the pogroms in those towns and villages.

 It is also a common belief that the pogroms were generally initiated by a small group of people.

We know that in Szczuczyn, for example, most of the local men were present during the murder of Jews. They would surround the place of execution so that the victims could not escape. The militia itself would not have been able to kill an entire community as there were only a few dozen officers there. In the towns and villages I researched, people were first murdered at night, in their homes or in other random places. Their bodies were left where they fell. But over time people realized that someone should clean up, remove the evidence and finally, bury the victims. People learned how to murder more effectively. We can learn a lot from the tools they used to commit their crimes. They did own firearms, but they didn’t want to provoke the Germans, so instead they used heavy rail weights, axes, blacksmith hammers, saws, pitchforks and wagon bolsters.

The locals in Radziłów acted more rationally: they covered the bodies with slaked lime in order to prevent epidemics. Local doctors, teachers, administration officers, postal workers, pre-war magistrate, and former soldiers all took part in the executions. They quickly realized that killing individuals was not very effective as it required a lot of participants and resources. Two weeks of murders and there was blood all over the town. There was screaming all day and night. Eventually they decided to start burning people alive. This method was more effective and less psychologically burdensome for the murderers. But even then, they still needed a whole lot of people to carry out the operations. Someone needed to escort the victims to the place of execution, for example.

Were these people being murdered for profit? 

It’s necessary to highlight the fact that the main driving force behind the anti-Semitism was the economic aspect. The fear of the Other is based on the assumption that they will take something away from us or that they will control us. We fear immigrants because we worry they will take something away from us. As for Jews: we can take something away from them. A lot of people got rich from murdering Jews. In that sense a new economic elite was created, and this elite had no interest in remembering what really happened.

And it seems they still don’t want to remember.

Criminals must be recognized as such. I am a child of an anti-Semite myself and I think I can understand what motivates those who shout „we do not apologize for Jedwabne.” That’s not what they are really trying to say. They are not trying to manifest their anti-Semitism either. They are trying to be loyal to their relatives. It’s our own kind of anti-Semitism, in the absence of Jews. This particular anti-Semitism has its roots in being loyal to the past. So it’s important to tell young people that we are not our parents or grandparents. Their sins do not make us guilty. We can live a different life.

We must remember that the situation is more complex in small towns, which remain very tribal. Those communities are made of tight circles of dependencies and lies. Some of the people who participated in murdering Jews later fought in anti-Soviet or anti-German partisan forces. They fought for Poland bravely and uncompromisingly.

Which makes it much harder to discuss the dark side of their story.

Often the blame is put on the people who are already dead, they are presented as the main culprits.

We don’t deny the existence of anti-Semites and fascists in Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Austria, France, Italy, or Belgium. At the same time we insist that there were none in Poland, that they didn’t murder anyone here. 

We must open our collective memory to the fact that various anti-Semitic organizations did exist in Poland, and so did entire social groups of an anti-Semitic and crypto-fascist bent. Obviously, we must not forget that these people did not constitute the whole of Polish society, they were not even dominant in any way. It’s just a fact. The war released these people’s worst tendencies.

Why is it so difficult for people to accept that Poles murdered Jews in Poland?

Poland is a country where power is acquired through referring to the past. If the past legitimizes us,  for example, if we were part of the “Solidarity” movement, we have a right to rule. It’s both a paradox and a curse in our history. We don’t use history to reflect on the past, instead we use it as political weapon against each other in the present. As a result, history is rarely studied in a non-political environment. No university professors would want to take on such topic, knowing that it could end their career. Marcin Kącki quotes a conversation with one of the professors from the Podlasie region in his new book about Białystok, “Biała siła. Czarna pamięć” (“White Power. Black Memory”). Kącki asked the professor why he never told the whole story of Poles murdering Jews. The professor answered that he didn’t have the moral courage, and that he was also worried about his professional reputation. To speak honestly about Poles murdering Jews would mean the loss of his salary, his position, his whole career. After Gross published his findings, other historians were told that if they touched this topic, they would meet the same fate as Gross. So they didn’t.

After 2000, some people finally managed to change the course of our historical narrative and started speaking about the role some Polish groups played in the Holocaust. This narrative was very dangerous for the Polish consciousness and identity. We can see it in the film “Ida,” directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. A villager kills a Jewish woman. We don’t know where she came from, why he killed her, what was she running from, what happened before. The narrative is deformed because it’s not complete. This is exactly the kind of narrative Poland has created for itself during the last few decades.
This incomplete and often contradictory narrative is illustrated by a two-volume publication entitled “Wokół Jedwabnego” (“On Jedwabne”) issued by the Institute of National Remembrance. Post-war testimonies confirmed that the Germans participated in the executions, but they made it clear that the locals were also guilty of murders. The testimonies are interspersed with depositions given in 1970. Those depositions were made in conformance with anti-Western communist ideology, so the blame was shifted entirely onto the Germans. After all, this is what politics of memory is all about: not admitting to our own crimes. Norman Davis said recently that Polish communism grew out of nationalism. In 1968, the Polish government unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda which resulted in the forced mass emigration of Jews to Israel. Two years later, in 1970, the Białystok Commission for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes carried out an investigation. The conclusion was that the Germans were solely responsible for all crimes against Jews in Poland.

But the most recent investigation carried out by the Institute of  National Remembrance (IPN) proved without a doubt who was really guilty.

Prosecutors from the Institute knew who was guilty but couldn’t do much about it because the perpetrators were already dead. They said that if they could, they would have carried indictments to court on their own backs. “On Jedwabne” contains various testimonies “in order to uncover the whole truth.” However, something else happened instead: a new narrative was created, suggesting that Poles and Germans were equally guilty because some witnesses said one thing, and some said another. It’s quite interesting: by trying to show the whole truth, the books made it more difficult to judge what really happened during the war.

It should be noted that the files on crimes against Jews are in terrible condition. Some aren’t even labeled, and most have never been digitalized. On the other hand, the files on the Polish independence underground have been professionally secured and are stored in good conditions. This shows the level of interest in those issues.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to burn the files?

I once had a private conversation with someone in the Institute of  National Remembrance. I was told that during the Stalinist regime, the Institute received an order from Warsaw not to destroy those files. Of course, this is not verified information. The communists did indeed keep those files intact, but they also produced a contradictory narrative that blamed the Germans. The very same witnesses gave contradictory statements. After the war they said the locals were guilty, and in the 1970’s they spoke of German battalions coming to kill Jews.

Europe is now in the midst of an immigrant crisis. In this context, a lot of people in Poland claim that our country has never come to terms with its Jewish history and that is why we are now having trouble accepting refugees.

Central Europe has a problem with refugees because, since the end of the Second World War (or even since the inter-war period), until the fall of communism there were many strong nationalist groups in this region. National exclusivity is common in almost all the nations of the world. The European Union is trying to tame those tendencies. However, it is clear that right now they are intensifying, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Anti-immigrant sentiments are being used politically by certain groups in order to gain more power, just like anti-Semitism was used for this purpose in the past.

The fear of the Other is not a nationalist thing – it surfaces whenever a nation is eroding. The eradication of the state has led to such situations earlier, just like in Austria during the war. The first phase of extermination of the Jews took place after Austria was incorporated into Germany. Parliamentary democracy was turned into a people’s democracy and that was manifested during various rallies, where it was very easy to control the masses. This is an old mechanism, known from ancient times. You have to scare the society and set the borders of Germania on fire in order to gain power in Rome. Today there’s no need to set anything on fire. If you want to gain power in Warsaw, you just need to spread anti-immigrant sentiments here.

The very same mechanism was applied by the pre-war National Democrats, but everything spun out of control because of the war. Anti-Semitism was already on the rise, and the subsequent loss of statehood and increased oppression brought by the occupation made it explode, and not entirely as the National Democrat leaders had expected. Similarly, nowadays the fear of immigrants is on the rise; one can only hope it doesn’t spin out of control.

Back then it was said that it was the Jews who really hold power in Poland. Now it is said that Syrians will bring serious diseases here, so perhaps we should act faster this time.

If this process of inducing hostilities against immigrants was to extend over another, say, 10 years, and then a war were to erupt, the state would soon lose all control over the situation and the tragedy could very well repeat itself. There was an incident at school in Gdańsk recently where a boy was beaten because his name sounded strange to other children.

Why are we even shouting: “F*ck the Arabs!”?

Because we don’t cultivate our historical memory of events from the past. Germans would find it much more difficult to say such things because they educated themselves. But actually I wouldn’t connect those things. It’s not true that we have a problem with immigrants now because we haven’t come to terms with our Jewish history. To make such a connection is too simplistic, it’s just cheap journalism. We never managed to implement and develop an education system that would teach us the fundamentals of tolerance and openness towards others. We don’t teach real history and we don’t teach real tolerance. We have to teach young Poles not just about what their grandparents did. They also need to be taught how to deal with it.

Translation: Aga Zano

Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich



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