My Polish Grandfather

A Dark History, with Flashes of Light

Poland was forced to take a new look at its World War II past last year after the publication of a book about a horrific massacre in one village. I looked back as well. The book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross (Princeton University Press, $19.95, 261 pp.), led to much soul searching in Poland and in the United States. My family argued about it, and we uncomfortably looked back sixty years at our own secrets, reevaluated the family’s experience of persecution during the war, and questioned our claim to an uncompromised, heroic past. The subject of Gross’s book was not an anonymous place on the other side of the world. Jedwabne is in the same part of eastern Poland where my family lived during the war. But it is a place from a nightmare in a faraway time. A place where a smiling, round-faced Basia, my mother, will forever peek out of a black-and-white photo taken just before the German invasion. The way I now view that picture is forever changed.

Gross’s book tells of the 1941 massacre of Jedwabne’s sixteen hundred Jewish residents. Gross, a Polish-American historian at New York University, revealed that Jedwabne’s Jews were not murdered by the Nazis, but were stabbed and clubbed, and those still standing were herded into a barn and burned alive by the town’s Polish Catholic villagers....

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About the Author

Alexander Charns is a lawyer, author, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, North Carolina.