We trusted each other:
Jedwabne Rabbi Jacob Baker
[The following is an unofficial translation by Peter K. Gessner of the interview granted by Rabbi Baker to Krzysztof Darewicz of the Warsaw-based daily Rzeczpospolita and published therein on March 10, 2001. -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]
How do you remember Jedwabne?
Rabbi Jacob Baker: I was born in Jedwabne in 1914 and spent there the first 23 years of my life. My father had a windmill in partnership with two brothers-in-law. He was, in truth, the Rabbi and taught, but it was not possible to survive on that. So he worked as a miller. Father died when I was six years old. With mother and two older brothers we continued to help the uncles at the windmill. We worked hard also in the fields and our neighbors, Poles, knew that. They respected us for it. We lived with them in peacefully and in friendship, in a neighborly way. Even Jukek Laudanski, one of the principal murderers whom Prof. Gross mentions in Neighbors was, as a young man very pleasant. I remember him well, we lived not far from each other and we talked frequently about religion, for he wanted to become a priest, and I was attending Talmudic studies in Łomża.
I could give many examples to show that Jews and Poles lived peaceably in Jedwabne. We trusted each other. Our windmill stood outside of town, so that the sail would catch the wind better. When there were Jewish holidays and we went for longer periods to the synagogue, with whom did we leave our children? With our Polish neighbors, who looked after them as after their own. That's probably the best example.
Poles and Jews lived in Poland together for almost a thousand years. So naturally there were instances of anti-Semitism, sometime it came to pogroms and anti-Jewish incidents, but those were the actions of stupid people. Such are found everywhere, During the times of Piłsudski, our lives on the whole went well, for he maintained order in the country and did not permit anti-Semitism to escalate. It was only his death the everything start to go bad. Suspiciousness and enmity started. People succumbing to the anti-Semitic propaganda of the ND*. I shall give two examples. Peasants brought grain to our windmill for [milling to] flower. We would weigh it honestly, and they would fetch the sacks without even checking the weight. However, after the anti-Jewish propaganda begun, that Jews swindle and one must not believe them, some of the peasants gave it credence. One day a peasant comes to fetch the flour and says weigh the sacks again in my presence, because I want to check whether you are swindling me. My uncles, Eli and Mosze, say - alright. They weigh the sacks in front of him and in each one there is a quarter of a kilo more flour than there should be. The peasant was very happy. And the uncles said - see, we did not swindle you. But since you stopped trusting us, henceforth we will give you exactly as much flour as you are entitled to. The peasant became very ashamed and later supposedly told other that Jews are honest.
I was by then an adult and I saw how, from the middle thirties, the hostility of the Poles towards the Jews grew. The picketing of Jewish stores begun, restrictions regard ritual slaughter, the "bench ghettos." Also in Jedwabne gangs of ND youths stood by the Jewish shops with metal spikes, so that Poles could not shop there. Assaults on Jews started and it came to murders. I remember at least two funerals of Jews murdered by Polish hooligans. We lived in increasing fear. It's difficult to say this for Poland is my fatherland and my children sing Polish songs to this day. But towards the end of the thirties already most of the Jews wanted to leave Jedwabne, to get away from Poland. In fear of the persecution and the looming war. I left in February 1938 for America, since my brother Yehuda was already there. The American asked me on the border, what does my surname, which they had a hard time pronouncing, mean. I told them that "piekarz" in English is "baker". So they wrote in my documents the surname Baker.
What, in your opinion, was the cause of the increase in anti-Semitism?
That was all because of Hitler and people who allowed themselves to be taken in. I don't blame all the Poles, for as a nation you are decent people. But some, unfortunately, fell for Hitlerite propaganda. Hitler took advantage very cleverly the anti-Semitism of the ND, the fear by the Poles of the war, so that it would be easier for him to occupy Poland and realize his dream of exterminating the Jews. He sought to convince the Poles that he would "take care" of the Jews, that they are done for already, and the Poles will get their shops, land, houses and goods. Those who murdered the Jews in Jedwabne were among such. They were not the good, normal Poles, they were not the decent Poles. The majority of the residence of Jedwabne did not take part in this. Only a group of degenerates and hooligans from the surrounding villages who were blinded by the desire for pillaged Jewish possessions.
If the Poles had not allowed Hitler and the anti-Semites to delude them, we could have done a lot together. If the Polish authorities before the war had been wise, Poland could have become one of the richest and safest countries. Jew had a developed culture, learning, philosophy. In the atmosphere had been different, then Einstein would be in Poland, not America. And after the start of the war? We could have fought the Nazis together, ten percent of the population, which were the Jews, that not little. Frequently, I thought of this that maybe the war and the fate of the Jews might have taken a different course if the Poles had resisted being infected by Hitler with hatred for the Jews. Of course I don't want to idealize and whitewash the Jews, for there were many who separated themselves from the Poles and allowed themselves to be aligned against them. What I am getting at, however, is that we are united by a long history and that it did not prove possible to utilize the positive aspects of that when the Jews and Poles stood what came from its positive aspects in the face of mortal danger. After all, Jews and Poles did not constitute mutually mortal danger.
When did you learn of the massacre in Jedwabne?
Only after the end of the war. As I said, my older brother and I emigrated before the war to the United States, but in Poland, in Goniądz, staid behind my older brother Herszel and in Jedwabne, my mother and her brothers. During the war it was impossible to be in contact with them. Herszel, who by a miracle survived the war, hid from the Germans. When, towards the end of 1945 he managed to reach Italy through Austria, we could for the first time in some years talk on the telephone. I asked him about mother and the family. He said that they all perished. That was a shock, for we thought, Yehuda and I, that they were alive. Why? There was a Jew in Jedwabne who converted to Catholicism. After the massacre, he betrayed, for money, many other Jews who survived in the vicinity. And when the war was ending, he began to write letters abroad to the relatives of murdered Jedwabne Jews, to swindle money. He wrote that he was looking after them and that he need money to restore the synagogue and the cemetery. What a liar! He wrote to me that he is looking after my mother who lies sick in a hospital in Lomza. And she, of course had died two years earlier in a gas chamber in Treblinka with the Herszel's wife and children. On the phone Herszel said to me, don't believe what that swindler writes, they all perished. And then he told me what had happened in Jedwabne. Mother told him. That terrible day when the Poles were murdering the Jews, she managed to get away from Jedwabne. For three days she struggled through woods and fields until she reached Goniądz. Her two brothers, Eli and Mosze and their families perished in Jedwabne
With the passage of time, the accounts of other witnesses of the massacre began to reach me, above all that of Icek Neumark - now in Australia - that "Janek" who managed to flee from Śleszynski's burning barn. All the accounts, among them that of Icek and our brother Herszel and the memories about Jedwabne we collected with Yehuda in "Izkor,"
a memorial book which we published in Jerusalem and New York in 1980. I know that it is to appear soon in Poland.
From the time you emigrated to the United States you have not visited Poland. Why?
My brother Yehuda went to Jedwabne in 1996. He had a terrible time of it, came back all broken up. There were no graves of those murdered, no sign of the massacre. Our house and windmill were gone. The synagogue was gone. The cemetery was devastated. Poles were living in the houses left by the Jews. Szelawa run home from him, probably feared a confrontation. My brother described his stay in Poland in "Izkor," it's very depressing reading.
I didn't want to go to Poland primarily because it was not know where our martyrs were buried. And I have them for ever before my eyes, after all when I left Jedwabne they were all alive. Now, as Prof. Tomasz Gross and Prof. Leon Kieres told me, the place where they were buried will tidied up and at last we will be able to pray there. So now I can go to Poland. I am 87 years old and I don't know if my health will hold up, but if God is willing, I would like to go in July to the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the massacre. First of all to pray for the murdered ones. Without hate in my heart for the Poles. I would also like to say a few words during the ceremonies. I will try to say them in Polish. As to friends, because we wish to be friends with the Poles, not enemies. Enemies we have enough. I would like to say that if we cannot restore life to the dead, then the best way to honor their suffering and memory is to show contrition. That what the Pope did during his visit to Israel. And I would like to express the hope that Poland will take care of every Jewish cemetery which is still devastated. That will be a micwa, a good deed and God will surely recognize it as evidence of contrition.
Do await an apology?
I await sincere contrition, that will be the best apology. And the best way to extend the hand of reconciliation to the Jews. Many of them, particularly in Israel, remembers Poland, recalls it fondly. Maybe that will surprise you, but the Jews are grateful to Poland, that for a thousand years it was their home, it gave them shelter, there our culture flowered most beautifully. What a beautiful country, Poland! What beautiful nature. I remember Jedwabne, what a beautiful place it was. I could say to the devil with the Poles, let them perish. Yet, please believe me, that's not how I feel, that's not how Jews feel. We don't think about revenge, because only God has the right to revenge. We would simply want that the murderers, if some are still alive, will be punished. They yes, for they deserve the punishment. But the ordinary Poles, the ordinary residents of Jedwabne? They were decent, we were good neighbors, friends.
In what manner should the Poles show contrition?
The children, the youth, must be taught what really happened in Jedwabne, so that never will something like happen again. The memory of those innocent martyrs should be honored, the Jewish cemeteries taken care of. And always remember that it's not allowed to ever wrong anyone, that one should help everyone, Jew or not. Like Christ teaches you. He also was a Jew and said that if you wrong someone, it's like you wrong Him. One has to inculcate children with this and make sure that they are good Poles and good Catholics. My mother told me that he who helps others will always be remembered by God. And Antonia Wyrzykowska who, risking her life, saved seven Jedwabne Jews? When she visited me, I asked her, why she took the risk. She answered that when she was a child her father would say "if you seen that they are harming someone, you have to save him." She remembered that , she was guided by it. Exactly, upbringing is most important.
Those who were directly involved in the murders deserve punishment, those who where helping them or were observing, should show contrition. And that's enough. They were acting under the influence of the Germans, they were blinded by Hitlerite propaganda. The same for the children of the Jedwabne murderers. Are they responsible for the acts of their parents? In our laws it is said that if they sincerely regret it, if they show contrition, then not. Anieszka Arnold, the one who was shooting a film Where is my older brother, Cain that there are those in Jedwabne who have no regrets. That saddens me greatly. Maybe now, when so much is being said about Jedwabne and so much is being written about Poland, they to will feel contrition.
The most important is that the silence has been interrupted. That you have began to tell the truth about Jedwabne, for it was not possible to wait any longer. Of those born in Jedwabne only a handful. But the families of the Jedwabne Jews number in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands. The deserve that truth above all. But all Jews and all Poles also. For only on its basis, is it possible to build anew the friendship between us. The Poles, as a nation, are not of bad character. If not for Hitler, Stalin, a couple of other evil men, there would be no problems between us.
I grew up with Poles, I had friends, we were as one family. I remember how they respected our Rabbi, Avigor Białostocki, in Jedwabne. The Polish priests were friends with him, would go with him for walks, discussed religion. I believe that although there are no Jews in Poland, that we must not forget this friendship of ours. Showing good will on both sides, we need to continue it and strengthen it. I am convinced that even with full knowledge of what happened in Jedwabne, this is possible.
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