I would like to offer a postscript to the post earlier this week about why Jews cannot return to Poland, as Helen Thomas suggested they ought to do. As a practical matter, obviously Israel is now the home of the Jews Thomas wants sent away. The meaning of her comment was her belief that Poland was the home of many of those Jews who settled postwar Palestine, and they ought to have stayed at home. The post I put up in response observed that many Jews could not return home, because their Polish neighbors had either collaborated with German occupiers in killing Jews, or threatened to kill them upon return (as did happen to some Jews). I cited the short history by Jan T. Gross, “Neighbors,” about how a Polish village massacred 1,600 Jews — half its population — under the German occupation. They had lived in relative piece before, but once the Germans were there, Catholic Poles turned on Jewish Poles. The killings were unspeakably brutal.
Last night, I took my copy of “Neighbors” off the shelf, and read through it. Not a good idea to do before bedtime, not if you want to avoid nightmares. The pogrom in Jewabdne, which is the focus of “Neighbors,” wasn’t the only one at all. There was a prior one in a nearby town, Radzilow. According to survivor testimony, Jewish leaders could see what was about to happen, and went to the village priest, begging him to stop the mob. He refused, allegedly saying, “It is well known that every Jew, from the youngest to those sixty years old, are communists.” Every other prominent Christian in the town to whom the Jews appealed gave the same answer.
You can imagine what happened next.
They took the hated Jews out, beat them till the Jews fell down bloodied and unconscious. Not even women and children, or mothers with newborn babies, were spared. From time to time they brought Jews from their houses to the square and they beat them there. The screams were unbearable. Around the tortured ones crowds of Polish men, women, and children were standing and laughing at the miserable victims who were falling under the blows of the bandits.
Here’s the thing: There were no Germans present. The Poles did this themselves. The arrival of the Germans back in town saved 18 Jews who had hid during this pogrom. But the work was done: after 500 years of habitation, not a single Jew was left in Radzilow. They were all murdered. By their neighbors.
Later, Gross quotes at length the testimony of Aleksander Wyrzykowski, a Catholic who, with his wife, hid Jews from the Germans, at great personal risk. His wife was beaten to a pulp by fellow Poles for doing so. After the war, the Wyrzkowski family was so stigmatized as protectors of Jews that they had to become refugees in their own land. There’s another story told by a Polish peasant woman, a former maid named Karolcia Sapetowa, who protected two little Jewish children she knew. Sapetowa’s entire village goaded her to turn the children over to the Gestapo. Sapetowa later testified that she would not give the children up, no matter what.
I got a brilliant idea [she said]. I put the children on a cart, and I told everybody that I was taking them out to drown them. I rode around the entire village, and everybody saw me and they beleived, and when the night came I returned with the children. …
The story has a happy ending: the children survived, and Sapetowa declares with deep emotion that she will follow them anywhere because she loves them more than anything in the world. And we are left with a frightening realization that the population of a little village near Cracow sighed with relief only after its inhabitants were persuaded that one of their neighbors had murdered two small Jewish children.
The point Gross makes several times in his narrative is that it is simply untrue that the Germans stood over the Poles and forced them to kill Jews. Many Poles were pleased to have the opportunity to do so.
The point I want to make here is not anti-Polish. It’s a point about human nature, and the mob. I don’t believe there was anything especially evil about those Polish peasants. I believe they were behaving as most people would have behaved in similar social conditions. Poland is far away, but look, we had lynch mobs in this country within living memory. Pogroms against black Americans were a social occasion throughout the South. Here is a postcard that was mailed from Dallas 100 years ago this very day:
It depicts the mob murder of an elderly black man. The murder did not occur in some clearing in the woods in the middle of the night. It happened in broad daylight, in downtown Dallas, in front of a vast crowd. You can see for yourself. The occasion was memorialized in a picture postcard. Can you imagine? This really happened. See many more photos like this here — including a 1911 postcard showing the people of Durant, Okla., watching a black man being burned to death in his own private holocaust.
This is the mob. This is what mobs do, the world over. Black mobs attacked Korean shopkeepers in L.A. in 1992. Islamic mobs burned down a Danish embassy a few years ago. A mob is a mob is a mob. There is a reason why, in one of the Catholic liturgies of Easter, the entire congregation stands in place of the Jewish mob that called for the murder of Jesus of Nazareth, and says together: “Crucify him!” And that reason is this: the mob is in all of us.
It ought to be unthinkable to all of us that we would ever participate in such a mob action, or stand by when it was taking place. But we shouldn’t flatter ourselves. Do you think that every white person in the South approved of the anti-black pogroms? Certainly not. But how many had the courage to speak out against them? Very few. The cost of having done so would have been enormous. What happened to the Wyrzkowski family — having to go on the run to escaper persecution by their neighbors for having defended Jews — would have happened to Southern whites who dissented. “Ni**er-lovers,” they would have been called. It happened here. And it happens everywhere the mob rules.
History shows that there is no place the Jewish people can be entirely safe from the mob. Modern America is just about the only place, but even this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nat Hentoff, who became a great friend of the late Cardinal O’Connor, has written about growing up in Boston back in the 1930s, and having lost some teeth to Catholic hooligans who would go through Jewish neighborhoods avenging Our Lord’s death by taking it out on Jewish kids. Times have changed, thank God. But for Jewish refugees from post-Holocaust Europe, America was no promised land.
I fear and loathe the mob. I have written before how one of my most formative memories was being attacked by a mob, of sorts, as a teenager, and abused and humiliated while begging the adult authorities to do something to stop the mob. They had the power to stop the mob, but they refused. I have never, ever forgotten that. Even though it’s absurd to raise high school bullying in the same breath as lynching or the Holocaust, if you’ve ever felt yourself at the hands of a group of people who had the power to do what they wanted to do with you, and you could neither defend yourself nor count on authority to defend you, it makes you particularly empathetic to the malign power of the mob. It’s one thing that drove my passion to write about the clerical sex abuse scandal. It is why I am a conflicted communitarian: I am deeply skeptical of the community, but know that the shared morality of the community is critical to stop a mob before it starts.
But not always. The Jews of Jedwabne were slaughtered by their own neighbors.
My attitude toward the mob — and the shameful historical role people of my faith have played in making up and leading anti-Semitic mobs — has a lot to do with why I support Israel’s right to exist. History shows that the only people Jews can count on to keep them safe from the mob is … themselves.