They’re All Antisemitic There’: Aporias of Responsibility and Forgiveness — Joanna Zylinska

‘Is it true that the Poles are anti-Semitic?’ Jerzy flushed. ‘No.’ ‘People say they are. I read somewhere that Begin had said he’d never set foot on Polish soil again.’ ‘In the Middle Ages,’ said Jerzy coldly, ‘under a liberal king, Poland was the refuge for every Jew in Europe. It was the one safe country.’ ‘Why do you sound so angry?’ He flushed again. ‘I don’t feel angry. Not exactly. I just can hardly talk about it without churning inside.’

(Sue Gee, Spring Will Be Ours)

‘What died in him at Chelmno?”Everything died. But he’s only human, and he wants to live. So he must forget. He thanks God for what remains, and that he can forget. And let’s not talk about that.’ 

(Michael Podchlebnik in Shoah, quoted in David Carroll)

I want to begin by saying that I am aware of the danger, or even inappropriateness, of juxtaposing in the epigraph to this piece two such different instances of a call to silence; and of adapting the silence of ‘that’ which is related to the memories of the Shoah, to the question of Polish antisemitism (a question that for many will be situated at the other end of the victims/perpetrators spectrum). However, these two narratives are not unconnected: not only do they both deal with witnessing and responsibility, as well as a desire to forget and ‘move on’, they also arise out of the extremely complicated and conflict-riven landscape of interwar Europe. Michael Podchlebnik’s reluctance to speak about his camp experience is seen by David Carroll as paradigmatic of the difficulties shared by other victims of the Nazi terror. In The Foreword to Jean-François Lyotard’s Heidegger and the ‘jews’, Carroll writes that

in almost all of the narratives of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, especially of those who survived the death camps, one finds statements of this kind, which both command and plead at the same time. They are the pleas of a reluctant narrator not to be made to talk, at least not yet, not here, not with these listeners and in this situation . . ., pleas to be left alone, to be allowed to go on with his or her life. . . . Such pleas/commands, however, inevitably open the way for ‘talk’ and narration and thus constitute a way of talking about the Shoah in the mode of refusing to talk about it. (1990: vii)

Undoubtedly, in the context of the silence referred to by Jerzy from the first epigraph quoted above, the plea ‘to be left alone’, combined with the compulsion to speak about the past which one is trying to forget, springs for many Poles from different historical experiences and different motivations. This plea is in fact a painful cry to be allowed to forget, cast away, talk themselves out of, the ‘burden’ they feel has been imposed upon them. Poland’s most recent attempts at neo-cosmopolitanism, successfully realised through joining NATO in 1999 and now focused on becoming members of the European Union, have been continually haunted by the spectre of antisemitism. Seen by some as an unsavoury part of the nation’s identity and by others as an unjust accusation which threatens to tarnish and disrupt Poland’s efforts to ‘rejoin Europe’, Polish antisemitism is something the majority of Poles can hardly talk about. It is precisely its uncertain, denied, ghostly status and the difficulty of giving ‘it’ a name that for me situate the debates on antisemitism in Poland in the trope of screaming silence. So, even if the juxtaposition of the two silences in the stories evoked here will be interpreted as violence, it should also be seen as an act of self-wounding, of probing beneath the scabs of national identity and national self-image that cover up the unnameable. Meandering between discomfort, guilt, shame and a push to give ‘it’ a name, I am myself — a Pole living in Britain and working at an English university – looking for ways of releasing ‘Polish antisemitism’ and the debates surrounding it from its still somewhat innocent ‘it-ness’ in which the aforementioned silence envelopes the layers of Polish national history and memory. If this reads like an apology, it is already a displaced one — it is easier to apologise for one’s stylistic vacillations than to respond to the following:

On 10 July 1941, in the little town of Jedwabne in the north-east of Poland, some 1,600 Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours. After the initial outbreak of violence, the majority of the Jews were gathered in a barn and burnt to death. There were 7 survivors of the Jedwabne pogrom, all saved by a Polish woman.

The above story has been reported in Jan Tomasz Gross’ book Sasiedzi (2000), subsequently published in English asNeighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001). The disclosure of the story in Poland has erupted in a national debate, which, in its scope and intensity, has become a Polish version of ‘the Dreyfus affair’ (Michnik, 2001: non-pag.). While the main thrust of the discussions has been on the ‘Who did it?’ aspect of the story — Could the Poles have really committed such an atrocious crime? How do we know it wasn’t the Nazis? And even if the Poles did ‘technically’ commit the deed, surely the Nazis must have been its main orchestrators? — this does not mean that the book has only resulted in the displacement of guilt or denial. Gross’ disclosure of the Jedwabne massacre has indeed met with some fierce rejections from the extreme right, but it has also led to interventions and calls for ‘an account of conscience’ from the nation’s President, the Catholic Church and representatives of Poland’s intelligentsia.1Unsurprisingly, the highlighting of the legal and methodological aspects of the matter, represented by the ‘Who did it?’ and ‘Is Gross a credible historian?’ lines of enquiry, has given the debate an aura of seriousness. It has demonstrated Poles’ willingness to ‘face the facts’ while also, to some extent, diverting attention from examining the cracks and wounds in national identity that have suddenly been found gaping.

What are the consequences of facing — even if not yet accepting — the emergent ‘truth’ about Jedwabne? How does one deal with this knowledge that defies all knowledge in order to respond to the unimaginable? So far the debates concerning Jedwabne in Poland have been situated at the intersections of a religious and juridical discourse, and have — perhaps unsurprisingly – concerned issues of guilt, forgiveness and responsibility. As journalist Dawid Warszawski puts it, ‘The Jedwabne affair has made it impossible for us to go on rejecting the possibility that Poles may have committed the mass murder of Jews in some other places, as well’, concluding further that ‘posing such a thesis is, in the light of the facts, both a scholarly and a moral imperative’ (2000: non-pag.). My engagement with the Jedwabne murders here, while springing from singular investment in a singular event, is also an attempt to ask broader — one could even perhaps risk saying ‘universal’- questions about the conditions of ethics ‘under duress’, and of the related issues of response, responsibility and forgiveness. But we have to bear in mind that such a ‘universal’ exploration is only possible through an investigation of singular events, and that universality always implies the impossibility of closure. There are numerous reasons why the language I am adopting here — with its rhetoric of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘guilt’ – belongs to a religious heritage (let’s call it, after Derrida, ‘Abrahamic, in order to bring together Judaism, the Christianities, and the Islams’ (2001: 28)). Indeed, religious tropes permeate the debates on national memory and history — predominantly articulated in and through the discourses of law, politics, economy and diplomacy — which are currently taking place in the post-colonial world. Thus my engagement with the Jedwabne tragedy, and with the wider question of ‘Polish antisemitism’, drawing on the above mentioned discursive tradition, should be seen as ‘at once singular and on the way to universalisation through that which a certain theatre of forgiveness puts in place or brings to light’ (Derrida 2001: 28). This engagement is also an attempt to face and comprehend what is making me churn inside, to adjust my back under the burden of responsibility which the majority of Poles are not able to cast away or forget. Let me repeat here after Hannah Arendt that

[c]omprehension, however, does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us — neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of — reality — whatever it may or might have been.

(1973: xiv)

Trying to comprehend the crime of Jedwabne should not be seen here as a veiled attempt to justify or understand why it happened, but it is a refusal to confine it to the realm of the unspeakable, or to see it only as the incomprehensible. I note with interest that Arendt’s definition of comprehension situates itself at the crossroads of psychoanalysis and ethics, even if she is not interested in positioning the events of the Shoah ‘between good and evil’, or in applying a ready-made moral paradigm to examine and judge the crime’s perpetrators. Instead, she perceives the process of comprehension as an act of opening ourselves to what we have always been exposed to anyway; of ‘active facing up’ to the burden of history and memory that challenges and unhinges our self-sufficiency and oneness. We are not talking here about ‘submitting passively’ to the burden we have been carrying — where passivity would stand for an impossibility to refuse engagement; for an inability to feel absolved of responsibility for the event which had already taken place and which we cannot undo. What Arendt seems to be saying is that, even though we do recognise that the event did indeed happen, we must still actively respond to it; that an act of accepting responsibility out of weariness, helplessness or lack of argument simply will not do.

In this sense, the demonstration of ‘guilty conscience’ by the Poles facing the story of Jedwabne could be interpreted as a refusal to comprehend, as a passive situation of ‘finding oneself burdened’ without actually feeling the need to face up to this burden. In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive Giorgio Agamben suggests that a tendency to assume a collective guilt arises ‘whenever an ethical problem cannot be mastered’ (1999: 94-5). He also comments, after Arendt, on the fact that the ‘surprising willingness of post-war Germans of all ages to assume collective guilt for Nazism . . . betrayed an equally surprising ill will as to the assessment of individual responsibilities and the punishment of particular crimes’ (95). Agamben points to instances when the German Protestant Church declared itself ‘complicit before the God of mercy for the evil that our people did to the Jews’ while simultaneously refusing to call for the punishment of those preachers guilty of having justified antisemitism. By relegating the operations of justice to the celestial level the crimes were collectively passed on to the economy of mercy which sidesteps the stately law. He also reminds us of the expression of collective guilt towards the Jews by the Catholic Church, which was never accompanied by the thorough and open investigation of the activities of Pope Pius XII during World War II.2 In the aftermath of the ‘Jedwabne revelation’ the head of the Catholic Church in Poland, Archbishop Józef Glemp, did not even go that far: his collective apology for the Polish ‘sins’ was addressed not at the Jews but only at God, thus firmly situating the debate about the economy of forgiveness and the channels of its circulation that had been instantiated by the publication of Neighbors on a vertical axis. All this does not mean that ‘collective guilt’ is morally wrong, rather that it is not enough. Comprehension, as Arendt points out, should not thus be reduced to ‘explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt’ or to resorting to collective demonstrations of guilt and sorrow: it must also involve facing up to the horror that haunts every one of us, of allowing ourselves to be disturbed, shaken and terrified, of hearing the other scream.

But instead, the debate on Jedwabne, and on alleged Polish antisemitism, has, for the time being at least, become predominantly a question of accountancy; it is frequently reduced to establishing the ‘facts and figures’: the exact number of Jews that perished in Jedwabne on that day, the exact proximity of the Germans stationed in the area. In this way, many Poles have found a way of talking about Jedwabne and not talking about it at the same time, reenacting the trauma of the repressed memory without yet being ready to connect with it. Even the call for ‘an account of conscience’ was quickly linked to debates about mutuality, and thus absorbed into an economy of exchange in which guilt and forgiveness were prevented from circulating freely by being inscribed in the regulatory discourses of political sermons and historical analyses.3 And yet the Catholic rhetoric of accountability, rooted in the idea of God as both merciful and just, not only opens up a gap between generosity and equal measurement — which perhaps can also be seen as ‘a hiatus between ethics and politics’4 – but it also involves a certain impossibility of mixing two different mathematical orders. And it is precisely between these two orders – one regulated by an ethics of infinity, the other by the politics of justice – that conflicting ideologies of the nation state find themselves wedged.

It is thus perhaps understandable that, when posed with both the proximity and enormity of ‘the Jedwabne tragedy’, many Poles have reacted to it with shock, disbelief or even anger. The author of Neighbors himself recounts how he experienced exactly the same sense of disbelief and inertia when coming across the witnesses’ testimonies, especially the transcript of the report presented by Szmul Wasersztajn before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok in April 1945. As Gross puts it, ‘it’s hard to understand at first the full meaning of this testimony’ (2000: 15)5, a sense of bemusement he reiterates when stating: ‘It also took me four years to understand what Wasersztajn had said. It’s only when watching raw footage for the documentary film Where Is My Older Brother Cain? made by Agnieszka Arnold (or, specifically, when suddenly seeing the daughter of the owner of the barn in which the Polish neighbours had burnt the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941, being interviewed in front of a camera) that I grasped what had really happened there’ (2000: 15). But, as if he had not reassured us enough about the difficulty of comprehending the full story of Jedwabne, Gross feels compelled to recount once again, now for the third time, in a footnote attached to the above confession, this moment of delayed revelation he had experienced. He writes: ‘A few months after submitting the commissioned manuscript [an earlier essay on the Polish-Jewish relations in Jedwabne] I was watching Agnieszka Arnold’s film and then I grasped what had really happened’ (2000: 15). This is a significant moment in the history of Neighbors — it is a moment when, to quote Gross, ‘the veil finally falls from our eyes and we realise that what has so far been unimaginable is precisely what happened’ (2000: 15-16)6. Afterwards, it turns out that the actual event has already been well documented, that many witnesses of the tragedy are still alive and that the memory of the pogrom has survived in Jedwabne through generations. Indeed, in 1949 twenty two inhabitants of Jedwabne had been arrested and put on trial, indicted with ‘the murder of Jewish people, as stated in the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn who witnessed the pogrom of the Jews’ (2001: 15). One defendant was sentenced to death, eleven others to imprisonment of between 8 and15 years (although, due to amnesty, none served the full sentence), while the remaining twelve were found innocent. Gross ascribes this leniency of approach to the relative lack of significance given to the case by the Polish communist authorities. However, he also considers it significant that the trial resulted in the construction of numerous written reports, documents and testimonies about the pogrom which have been preserved until now. The memory of the Jedwabne murders was nevertheless all too quickly buried in the national unconscious, only to come to light again after the publication of Gross’ book.

I would like to dwell for a moment on this instance of delayed ‘revelation’ Gross himself experienced when investigating the events of Jedwabne, a revelation which arrived through the detour of disbelief, doubt and miscomprehension. What is most surprising about his account is that Gross, Professor of Politics at New York University, graduate of Warsaw and Yale, and author of numerous publications on Polish society in the second world war period, is presumably well versed in reading, analysing and making sense of archival materials, including personal accounts and testimonies. Yet when faced with the scraps of the Jedwabne story, Professor Gross is unable to immediately grasp the significance of the events. Interestingly, Gross’ narration is steeped in religious rhetoric: and indeed his inability to ‘see’, confessed here three separate times, seems to be an inversion of Peter’s triple denial of ‘truth’ (while Peter denies three times that he knows Jesus, and for the sake of his own safety, resorts to a lie, Gross seems unable to take in the truth he is confronted with). His description of the actual moment of seeing ‘when the veil finally falls from our eyes’ resonates with religious undertones: it could be read as referring to an instance when the Holy of the Holiest, the sacred place of the Temple, is revealed to the gaze of the eyes which, in Judaism, must never focus on the sacred image.7 Elizabeth Grosz explains that in the Hebraic tradition

[s]ight does not reveal the other, nor command the subject’s response. . . . This aversion to privileging the visual has major implications not only for modes of representation and depiction available to the Jew but also for notions of knowledge, which, in the Hellenic tradition have been so reliant on metaphors derived from the privilege of vision — ‘insight’, ‘reflection’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘clarification’. These imply a knowledge that is ‘seen’, ‘regarded’ as tangible correspondence, the correspondence between word and thing — very different from the disputational and insecure status the Jew accords to knowledge as ‘interpretation’.

(1993: 67)

The fact that Gross resorts to religious tropes in order to convey his bemusement, his use of the image of the veil which conceals not God but rather an atrocity committed on His children, and the failure of the other’s voice to make the story fully understandable (Gross admits to having been familiar beforehand with some accounts of the Jedwabne crime), imply perhaps a doubt cast on the Hebraic model of cognition. In the Hebraic tradition, the visual is inadequate as a source of knowledge, and has to be supplemented with, or even superseded by, the voice of the other, an approach that considerably differs from the Hellenic/Platonic model, in which replicas and copies represent the hidden truth. At the moment when the available words do not seem to reveal anything, Gross takes recourse to image, reconstruction, representation: knowledge here comes through an act of seeing the event performed before his own eyes. He can only internalise the knowledge about what happened by committing a sacrilege from which there is no return: ‘when the veil finally drops from our eyes’ we have no choice but face the horror we have finally allowed ourselves to see. The story of Jedwabne — singular in the multiplied tragedy of some 1,600 individuals who perished but also universalised by being a reiteration of numerous acts of anti-Jewish violence occurring throughout Europe under the Nazi occupation — can only be approached ‘at one remove’, through the mediation of cinematic material (for Gross) or through the staging of media debates (for a number of Poles who beforehand both knew and did not know about the pogrom). The ‘revelation’ of Jedwabne takes place as a result of what could be described as the initial violation of the Hebraic tradition of knowledge as ‘interpretation’; instead, knowledge is only gained here through representation, through reenactment, through sight. And yet, it is precisely ‘interpretation’ that Gross turns to once ‘the veil has fallen’, and it is his ‘interpretation’ of the ‘events’ that he is mainly criticised for. (He has been accused by historians of ‘interpreting the facts too freely’, of misinterpreting the witnesses’ accounts and of providing his own ‘version’ of the events). The story of Jedwabne thus constitutes an aporia of knowledge: it is a place where the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions embrace each other, in their mutual insufficiency and failure, in the face of ‘the inconceivable which had happened’. In order to begin to make sense of the unimaginable, recourse needs to be taken to both revelation and interpretation, to image and voice.

To even attempt to reconstruct the events of the Jedwabne tragedy with a view to pursuing some forms of knowledge, remembrance and forgiveness, we must situate them in the context of the current ideas regarding Poland and Polishness. It is quite significant that a number of Polish historians, social scientists and other representatives of the intelligentsia have accused Gross and his supporters of unfair generalisations regarding the crime and have voiced objections as to any attempts to ‘stretch national responsibility’ on to the whole of the Polish nation. That the latter phrase, indicating a physical effort of moulding and channelling the unwieldy burden of responsibility, resonates as awkwardly in Polish as it does in English should not really surprise us: language, and, specifically, the dominant discourse of national identity, seems to have been suddenly ‘burdened’ with a new set of significations to which it has to readjust itself in order to be able to name the unnameable. The detectivist ‘Who did it?’ aspect of the debate I mentioned later, focused on establishing ‘the real perpetrators of the crime’, is framed by the logic of undivided rational subjectivity, and yet it is precisely this very idea of the subject as unified and respons-ible to and for itself that is being questioned in these debates. This is not an attempt on my part to contribute to the attempts to deny, dilute or ‘stretch out’ responsibility but rather to propose a new framework for thinking about Polish national identity, collective and individual. Protesting against ‘being burdened’ with collective responsibility, some defenders of ‘truth’ refuse to see that they are already burdened with it, that they have been carrying it on their shoulders – as a secret, loss, or remorse – for a long time. However, it is the precise location and naming of this weight that is causing so much discomfort, so much wriggling, in these debates. The ‘Who did it?’ investigation can thus be seen as an attempt to close the gap between the idea of Polishness – one that many Poles hold dear, and which they are prepared to defend against ‘foreign hostile elements’ – and its image; it is an attempt to make the self whole again.

The ‘revelation’ of Jedwabne incises and cuts through the convoluted folds of Polishness. It also exposes some of the mechanisms involved in the production of the idea of national unity which has to bar, exclude and annihilate any forms of alterity that threaten it. This is not an intent on my part to position the Jew as ‘intrinsically other’ — Hannah Arendt claims that such a positioning, accompanied by thinking in terms of a radical ‘self/other’ separation, is in fact the sine qua noncondition for the birth of antisemitism (1973: xii). Rather than trace the working of violence on a straightforward trajectoryfrom self to other, much less on that from other to self, I want to look at ‘the very attempt to delineate the borders that separate self from other’ (1997: 2), an attempt which for Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber is synonymous with a violent act. Here violence is not seen as something ‘befalling’ its victims from without but is instead related to ‘what is generally presupposed to be its other: the “inviolate” self’ (1997: 2). This is probably why Arendt vehemently dismisses the transhistorical narrative of Jewish martyrology, based on the belief ‘that Jewish people had always been the passive, suffering object of Christian persecution, [which] actually amounted to a prolongation and modernisation of the old myth of chosenness’ (1973: xiii). According to Arendt, since the nineteenth century Jewishness becomes only a ‘psychological quality’, ‘an involved personal problem’ (66). It is not insignificant that in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is where the above analysis is developed, Arendt focuses mainly on the more or less assimilated and secularised Jews of Western Europe, only to mention in passing that the political significance of the Eastern European conditions, ‘although they constituted the essence of the Jewish mass question’, ‘was limited to backward countries where the ubiquitous hatred of Jews made it almost useless as a weapon for specific purposes’ (29). While she declares Western antisemitism a serious and complex phenomenon which requires in-depth investigation and analysis, she is not prepared to devote too much time to either its eastern counterpart or, indeed, to the Jews themselves inhabiting the ‘backward’ Eastern European countries. Opposing both Jewish homogeneity and the grand theory of antisemitism, she in fact consolidates Jewishness as a Western European experience, secularised and strongly rooted in the bourgeois social order. There is no room for the story of the Jedwabne Jews and their Polish neighbours in the pages of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Eva Hoffman’s Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews provides a useful counterpart to Arendt’s book. Less a historiographic treatise than a micrological analysis of the complex textures of Polish-Jewish everyday life, Shtetl is a memorial to both East European Jewry and the Polish-Jewish neighbourly relations that also perished in the Shoah. Hoffman – a Polish Jew who immigrated to Canada at the age of thirteen and who currently lives in London – addresses the two narratives that have enveloped the Polish-Jewish relations since the second world war: that of alleged Polish antisemitism and of ‘Polish resentment of the exaggerated charges and at the world’s forgetfulness of Poland’s own struggle for survival during the war, and its immense losses’ (1998: 5). Strongly opposing the theory of Poles’ natural inclination towards antisemitism and their willing participation in the genocide, she does not at the same time pass over the complicated and painful histories of the relationships between ethnic Poles and Jews (who were also, in their majority, Polish citizens), nor does she attempt to ‘absolve’ or ‘condemn’: instead, she is set on moving beyond stereotypical representations fostered by mutual accusations, reproaches and grudges in order to ‘complicate and historicise the picture’. Hoffman delineates the intricacies of the Polish-Jewish coexistence over the centuries, which she describes as ‘a long experiment in multiculturalism avant la lettre‘ (9):

[F]or about six hundred years Poland was one of the most important centres of Jewish life in the world. The Jews started settling there as early as the eleventh century, and they started arriving in larger numbers in the fourteenth. By the late seventeenth century, nearly three-quarters of the world’s Jewry lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the eighteenth century, before the partitions, Jews constituted about 10 percent of Poland’s population, which made them that country’s largest minority. Before World War II, they may have grown to as much as 13 percent. . . . The question of the proper relationship between the two peoples was a matter of ongoing debate throughout Polish history, and the proposed answers varied on both sides of the ethnic divide.


Can the Jedwabne tragedy be seen as an inevitable part of this mixture? Does the multiplicity of influences and outlooks explain what happened there on 10 July 1941? Will we have to understand it as an outcome of historical circumstances? And, if we reject an attempt to explain history through its alleged natural development and inevitable teleology, will we be able to understand Jedwabne ‘otherwise’, without trying to rationalise it, but also without confining it to the category of the incomprehensible? The traditional scientific tools, designed to establish and interpret the facts, are likely to prove unsatisfactory in our search for some ‘other’ forms of understanding. In her article ‘Witnessing Otherness in History’, Kelly Oliver tells a story of psychoanalyst Doris Laub interviewing an eyewitness to the Auschwitz uprising in which prisoners set fire to the camp. The testimony was discredited by a number of historians because the witness reported four chimneys going up in flames and exploding, while evidence showed that in fact only one chimney had been destroyed. The testimony to something so radical and unimaginable as the occurrence of resistance in Auschwitz was thus initially occluded by debates about facts and figures. As Oliver reports, ‘While the historians were listening to hear confirmation of what they already know, the psychoanalysts were listening to hear something new, something as yet beyond comprehension’ (2001: 41). A similar situation occurred after the publication of Gross’ Neighbors in Poland. The stories narrated by both Gross and the primary witness of the Jedwabne tragedy, Szmul Wasersztajn, have been discredited by historians because the numbers were found to be inexact — there were doubts as to the names and exact number of people who perished in the barn, and over who had been executed in Jedwabne earlier that day. A criticism of this kind can be interpreted as an (unconscious?) attempt to prevent facing and coming to terms with the unimaginable. Exposed to the trauma of the Jedwabne massacre that leaves many Poles gasping – angry with the fact that Polishness is being slandered yet again, disbelieving what they are hearing – and to some other traumatic revelations from the nation’s past, we have to supplement the methods and approaches of the historian with those developed by the psychoanalyst, the philosopher and the cultural critic. Because, the primary problem we are dealing with here is not the presence of a fact, and the material evidence confirming it, but rather a multiple loss — both of individual lives (be it 1,600 or ‘only’ 480)8 and of a chunk of Polish national identity and memory that was wiped out in the aftermath of the Shoah. As Polish cultural anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir observes, ‘Our memory is the place from which Jews are missing’ (2001, non-pag.).

And it is precisely the Jewish shtetl, a small town like Jedwabne and many others, summoning ‘poignant, warm images of people in quaint black garb, or Chagall-like crooked streets and fiddlers on thatched roofs’ for some and ‘pogroms and peasant barbarism’ for others (Hoffman 1978: 11), that, according to Hoffman, serves as a most powerful metaphor for loss. Polish shtetls belong to the category of ‘ghost towns’, towns that only enter our world ‘once they refuse to remain dead’ (Marchitello, 2000: 141). Hoffman explains that until the twentieth century, the rural shtetl, situated worlds apart from more cosmopolitan and business-driven towns like Cracow or Lodz inhabited by Hasidic Jews, secularists, wealthy industrialists and assimilated professionals, retained its deeply religious and traditional character. A close-knit community in which Jews lived side by side with the local population, the Polish shtetl was constituted out of two poor, traditionalist, and fairly incongruous subcultures: Orthodox Jews and premodern peasants. Hoffman writes:

Morally and spiritually, the two societies remained resolutely separate, by choice on both sides. Yet they lived in close physical proximity and, willy-nilly, familiarity. . . . This was where both prejudices and bonds were most palpably enacted — where a Polish peasant might develop a genuine affection for his Jewish neighbour despite negative stereotypes and, conversely, where an act of unfairness or betrayal could be most wounding because it came from a familiar. As an example of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II, the shtetl offered the most extreme scenario. The villages and small towns were where Jews and Poles were at their most exposed and vulnerable, and where ongoing political conflicts were at their sharpest. This was where Jewish inhabitants experienced acts of the most unmediated cruelty from their neighbours — and also of most immediate generosity. In the dark years of the Holocaust, the shtetl became a study in ordinary morality tested, and sometimes warped, by inhuman circumstances.

(1998: 12-13)

What does this context tell us? Does it actually facilitate explanation; does it help us understand what really happened in Jedwabne? Or does it highlight even more the incomprehensibility of the pogrom, of the neighbourly crime occurring under the dark umbrella of wider socio-political conflicts in Europe and yet painfully specific and singular? If we continue to ask questions about the crime, the investigation of facts and numbers (How many people died in the pogrom? Who executed it?) has also to involve the examination of who, or what, it is that actually perished in Jedwabne on 10 July 1941. In our investigations we have to pay heed to Arendt’s warnings against the essentialisation of Jewishness as standing for both chosenness and martyrology, as a sign of absolute alterity which cannot be comprehended or accounted for. And yet we should perhaps also be aware that, when talking about European Jews, and particularly about Jewish shtetl communities in Central and Eastern Europe, we are faced with an absence, a lacuna which calls to us for a response, while at the same time defying imagination and representation.

This call for a response is also a call to responsibility: as David Carroll observes in his foreword to Lyotard’s Heidegger and the ‘jews’, ‘”The jews” are the debt Western thought rarely acknowledges and never can repay; “they” are the irrefutable indication of the fact of obligation itself’ (Carroll, 1990: xii). Lyotard’s ‘the jews’ are an approximation at bridging the gap between Jewishness as an idea, the other of Hellenic thought, and the reality of lived lives, without attempting to close it off altogether. He inscribes the problematic of ‘the jews’ in ‘the contradictory feeling of “presence” that is certainly not present, but which precisely needs to be forgotten to be represented’ (Lyotard, 1990: 4). Further on, Lyotard links the question of ‘the jews’ with the idea of the sublime, conceptualised as ‘perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterise the modern’ (Lyotard, 1991: 93). This does not of course mean that Lyotard confines Jewishness into an impossible aesthetics — he rather exposes the insufficiency of traditional aesthetic categories and their explosion by the ethico-political. The sublime — like ‘the jews’ (using an analogy which nevertheless bears traces of irreducible difference) — does not provide any positive representation; instead, it testifies that there is something that cannot be represented, that there is somethingrather than nothing. If ‘the jews’ are the concealment that ‘lets something else show’, ‘not without resemblance to that of the “veiling unveiling” in Heidegger’ (Lyotard, 1990: 4), Gross’ surprise at the testimonies and legal records of the Jedwabne tragedy, his deferral in facing and acknowledging the true weight of the atrocities, can thus be seen as vacillation between the inability to really see the imprescriptible, and a duty to convey it, to give it a name.

But perhaps his hesitation and ‘triple denial’ are also an attempt to protect the forgotten as a hidden anxiety that keeps haunting Polish national memory? Lyotard argues that acts of remembrance involving public displays of national guilt and erection of memorials all contribute to the politics of forgetting; they create conditions for ‘moving on’ and leaving the troubled past behind, thus ‘cancelling’ it and burying it for good. Gross’ decision to have the book published may have been accompanied by the realisation that it would lead to a national self-questioning and the examination of the nation’s past deeds. And yet, there was a danger involved that, by giving Poles Neighbors, Gross was contributing to the process of Poland’s self-purification, that by ‘remembering’ Jedwabne and some other instances of Polish antisemitism and by creating conditions for talking about ‘it’, the loss in Polish national identity will be superficially recuperated, and that the national psychoanalysis will be terminated with a few rough stitches that will nevertheless create pretence of a ‘cure’. This would explain to some extent his initial reluctance to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the events. Gross’ narrative of Jedwabne is thus not only a sacrilege of allowing oneself to see the unrepresentable, and resorting first to image in order to see it with his own eyes, and then to writing in order to preserve the lost memory, it is also a betrayal of memory-as-haunting, as absent presence.9 By giving Poles the story of Jedwabne, an unrequested and unthanked-for gift but thus a ‘true gift’, Gross has in fact distributed a Gift, a poisonous pharmakon that can also have curative properties.10 Penetrating the tissue of the Polish nation, the Gift of the Jedwabne story seems both interminable (i.e. excessively generous, with no expenses spared) and incurable, as Poles will never be able to stop talking about ‘it’. The question of Polish antisemitism, always already overflown by the immeasurable terror of life and death, will have to go on as a question, because ‘psychoanalysis, the search for lost time, can only be interminable, like literature and like true history’ (Lyotard, 1990: 20).

The story of Polish antisemitism, if there ever is, or was, one story, must touch upon this double bind involved in Lyotard’s notion of ‘the jews’ — it is a story of both absolute alterity and incised selfhood, of communal psychosis and singular desire. The death of the Jedwabne Jews in a neighbour’s barn, to some extent paradigmatic of death in a camp, can perhaps be interpreted as an attempt to ‘enclose’ alterity, to put an end to it. It was an act of ‘devouring the Jews’ live, internalising them by an inverted reenactment of antisemitic stories claiming that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make their bread. However, the act of taking one’s neighbours hostage was also a most bizarre act of neighbourly hospitality, manifested not only in a desire to open one’s doors to the stranger but also to close the door behind him, to keep him in his ‘new’ place, to make him stay.11 Elizabeth Grosz argues that the Jew (similar in her interpretation to Lyotard’s ‘the jews’ — as an idea of radical heterogeneity and the familiar neighbourly presence) ‘represents a resistance to the norms governing the citizen, the neighbour, and the (Hellenic/Christocentric) subject’ (1993: 61).12 But what kind of resistance to the neighbourly norms does the Jew offer and what are these norms actually? By resisting domestication, perhaps ‘the jews’ are also exposing the precariousness of a neighbourly community and the pervertibility of the hospitality upon which it is allegedly based? Never at home wherever they are, ‘the jews’ seem to be impossible neighbours, posing a challenge to the idea of neighbourliness seen as consolidation of identity devoid of difference, the identity of the self-same.13

Can we thus suppose that the neighbours of Jedwabne attempted to eliminate a threat to their fantasy of neighbourliness, to close the door to the other within oneself? The tragedy of Jedwabne in which neighbours killed neighbours presents itself as either a logical impossibility or an act of self-killing, self-implosion. Homi K. Bhabha argues that ‘the ambivalent identifications of love and hate occupy the same psychic space; and paranoid projections “outwards” return to haunt and split the place from which they are made’ (1990: 300). However, the narcissistic confinement of the wounded self accompanied by the aggressivity projected onto the other results in ‘the unbearable ordeal of the collapse of certainty’ and the enhancement of narcissistic neurosis, if the ‘self’ and ‘other’ are found to be inhabiting the same territory, if they form constitutive parts of one national discourse.

If, as Howard Marchitello suggests, the other can be described as ‘the relationship between space and time’ (2001: 125), the staging of the murder in which the infinite alterity of the neighbour – ‘the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself [le chez soi]’ (Levinas 1969: 39) – is both annihilated and incorporated, necessitates a rethinking of our relationship to space and time. This rethinking may also allow us to delineate some new ways of conceptualising history and ethics.14Pogroms in general, and Jedwabne specifically, constitute a spatio-temporal disturbance, an ethical situation of being faced with infinite alterity in which ethics yields to pervertibility (see Bennington 2000: 72). If alterity elicits a response, the rightness of this response cannot be prescribed: it can only be encountered, faced. I would like to stress here that this is not my claim that ethics died in pogroms, in Jedwabne, in Auschwitz — even if some of the actors of those events failed to welcome the alterity that threatened to violate the illusionary wholeness of the self-same.15 Jedwabne should not thus be interpreted as a failure of ethics per se but rather as a failure to act ethically (whereby the possibility of this failure is also a condition and guarantee of ethics). But Jedwabne did perhaps involve the failure of language, of the discourse of national identity which could not think ‘Polishness’ as overflowing the traditional model of space, or reconcile the concept of sameness underpinning the idea of citizenship with the intrinsic alterity inhabiting it.

As well as being the problem of collapsed space Jedwabne also brings up issues also of interrupted time. We can refer here once again to Giorgio Agamben’s doubts regarding the public demonstrations of guilt and the collective pleas for forgiveness. Agamben fears that manifestations of this kind can easily be turned into an attempt to seal off the past through an accomplishment of the closure of what Derrida calls ‘the imprescriptible’ (i.e. the event for which we have no name, and which we cannot really forgive, since only those who had perished in it would have the authority to legitimate its forgiveness). In his short essay ‘On Forgiveness’ (2001) Derrida inscribes the ethical problematic of forgiveness related to historical atrocities in an aporia between singularity and universality: it is a way of saying I do understand WHAT happened but I do not understand HOW it could have happened. The latter part of the phrase raises questions about general conditions of history; it is an expression of an anxiety about the future and a concern not to let it happen again. Thus a willingness to learn a lesson from history and a plea for forgiveness must be seen as situated at an aporia between responsibility for the past and for the future. (As explained previously, a lot of effort in the public debate on Jedwabne in Poland has gone towards stabilising this aporia, towards enclosing it in a reenactment of the ‘barn scene’ by drawing a demarcation line between zones of responsibility.) If the tragedy of Jedwabne can be seen as a lesson, its teaching must involve a certain openness springing from vigilance. Kelly Oliver insists that vigilance, understood as ‘both keeping watch and responding to something beyond your own control’ (2001: 46), must always accompany the process of working-through the history of otherness. However, her Levinas-inflected notion of vigilance, even though inhering the limitations of the self, is still goal-orientated; it consists of a ‘movement beyond ourselves towards otherness’, where the identitarian categories must be in place for this movement to be instantiated. Derrida’s account of awaiting the monster (1995: 386) and Lyotard’s notion of the sublime seem to be more radical, but also more unstable proposals for facing the unknown. Not formulated as a positive programme of movement beyond oneself, they name an ethical situation in which the self is already held hostage to what questions and ultimately pulverises it, to what may or may not be there, to what may not de-MONSTR-ate itself at all (see Derrida, 1995: 386-7). Of course, this possibility of the appearance of the other, and of the arrival of justice, coupled with the terror of nothingness, can never be resolved — it has to be constantly, obsessively and intermittently revisited. This kind of vigilance as situatedness rather than prior decision necessarily involves the possibility of violence and of the pervertibility of justice (even if not of its ultimate collapse). But, as de Vries and Weber put it, ‘the most mystified form of “violence” might turn out, paradoxically perhaps, to be what seeks to eliminate or to delegitimise violence entirely’ (1997: 2).

Poland’s efforts to ‘join Europe’ should not therefore be seen as a promise of a new chapter of national history, one that requires the closure of her past and the healing of her wounds. These efforts to become part of the European Union have to be inextricably linked with an examination of the wounded self: it is a question of realising that joining the European structures will not make her wounds disappear, that Poland will always bear her lack, her mark of absence — her antisemitism, her Jews, her shtetls. Indeed, Poland’s aspirations to ‘join Europe’, to some extent springing from the nation’s desire to exorcise the phantom of the communist past and to ‘start again’, are not out of tune with the general trajectory of Europe, which has always identified itself with ‘the figure of the Western heading’ (Derrida, 1992b: 25) and ‘a point of departure for discovery, invention, and colonisation’ (Derrrida, 1992b: 20). The attempt to ‘join Europe’ is closely linked with a desire to become part of an advance towards the future unity that for Derrida always already involves an advance on the other: ‘to induce, seduce, produce, and conduce, to spread out, to cultivate, to love or to violate, to love to violate, to colonise, and to colonise itself’ (Derrida, 1992b: 49). This does not of course mean that Poland should turn back on the European heading, and foreclose the possibility of ‘colonising itself’ once and for all, no matter how tempting this option may be for some representatives of the far right. Rather, the question of ‘joining’ must involve an exploration of how to ‘advance’ differently, how to reconcile the advance for joining with a call for justice, and, last but not least, how to incise, rip open and deflate her own rigid ideas of Polish history, memory and identity on its route towards ‘full membership’.

This article was inspired by the panel ‘Remembrance as praxis and the ethics of the interhuman’ presented by Roger I. Simon, Mario Di Paolantonio and Mark Clamen, of University of Toronto, which I chaired at the International Interdisciplinary Conference ‘Cultural Studies: Between Politics and Ethics’ at Bath Spa University College on 6-8.07.2001: I would like to acknowledge my debt to the three presenters. Thanks also to Gary Hall and Dorota Kolodziejczyk for providing helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


1 For a comprehensive collection of journalistic and academic essays (both in Polish and English) on the Jedwabne tragedy see the Web site of Pogranicze, the publisher of Gross’ Sasiedzi There are a number of articles on Jedwabne gathered in a volume Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles on Jedwabne edited by Wiez and available in English on the Web site of the Embassy of Poland in Washington, D.C., accessed on 17.01.02.

2 A commission of Catholic and Jewish scholars was set up in 1999 to examine the 12 volumes of the work Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale, which includes all the documents of the Vatican archives during the second world war. It was originally composed of three Catholic scholars and three Jewish scholars; one of the Catholics left later. The commission was particularly interested in studying the role of Pope Pius XII and the Holy See in Europe during Hitler’s Third Reich, especially that that the church has now begun work toward beatifying Pius (the first step towards sainthood). Members had been working with 11 volumes of archive documents that the Vatican published from 1965 to 1981, but wanted access to the rest of the documentation. Dissatisfied with the inaccessibility of some archival materials, in July 2001 the commission decided to suspend its work. Father Gumpel, the German Jesuit in charge of gathering documents to support the beatification of Pius XII, accused some Jewish historians of having ‘a clear propagandistic goal to damage the Holy See’ as they pressed for access to its second world war archives. He argued: ‘Every scholar knows that no archive can be consulted if the documents are not catalogued and classified’ and that ‘all the material referring to the pontificate of Pius XII will be made available, as soon as possible, not only to them but to all scholars’. Michael Marrus, a Jewish commission member, said he was dismayed by Father Gumpel’s statement. ‘We have tried in a very respectful way, in a very restrained way, to make the case that scholars needed access to this material’, he said. ‘There is no effort that I know of to disparage the Catholic Church or to conduct a negative campaign that Father Gumpel alludes to’. See and, accessed on 17.01.02.

3 After acknowledging that the tragedy of Jedwabne was not a fabrication, ‘the national debate’ in Poland focused on measuring the degree of forgiveness that should be dispensed. The guilt (both in its legal and religious sense) was then situated in the discourse of economics. Questions were raised about the justness of substituting ‘a bunch of hooligans’ for ‘the whole of Poland’, about the irreconcilability of individual and collective conscience and about the alleged Jewish ‘guilt’ in the events (formulated in the accusation of the ‘But they were communists!’ type).

4 In Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas Derrida transforms the two mathematical assumptions underlying ethics and politics, which for Levinas remain incommensurable (ethics belongs to the realm of the infinite; politics to the ‘earthly’ realm of the State, with its laws, procedures and tyrannies), into a figure of a ‘hiatus’. He argues:

The border between the ethical and political [in Levinas] loses for good the indivisible simplicity of a limit. No matter what Levinas might have said, the determinability of this limit was never pure, and it never will be. It would be possible to follow this inclusion of excess, or this transcendence in immanence, through subsequent texts such as ‘Beyond the State in the State’ or ‘The State of Caesar and the State of David’. A hyperbolic transgression brings about a disjunction in the immanence to self. In each case, this disjunction has to do with the pre-originary ex-propriety or ex-appropriation that makes of the subject a guest [hôte] and an hostage, someone who is, before every invitation, elected, invited, and visited in his home of the other, who is in his own home in the home of the other, in a given at home, an at home that is given or, rather, loaned, allotted, advanced before every contract, in the ‘anachronism of a debt preceding a loan’. (1999: 99).

The Catholic perception of God as both merciful and just constitutes a similar hiatus, bringing together the logic of infinity and accountancy, of celestial beyond-measure and earthly payback.

5 The translation of Gross’ Sasiedzi into English, undertaken by the author himself, has actually resulted in a slightly different version of the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the different cultural backgrounds of Polish and Anglo-American readers, in the English version of the book Gross has introduced some changes in sentence order, in the amount and kind of detail provided and in the endnotes. For the purposes of this paper, I will sometimes be referring to the Polish version of the book and providing my own translation into English. I will do this in a few cases in which the English version replaces the figurative language employed in the Polish original with a more ‘restrained, or non-figurative’ discourse. The reader will be able to tell which version I am quoting from by looking at the year of publication provided in brackets: 2000 refers to the Polish edition, 2001 to the English one.

6 The first part of the phrase, ‘when the veil finally falls from our eyes and we realise that what has so far been unimaginable is precisely what happened’ (2000: 15-16; emphasis added), has been translated by Gross into English as ‘once we realize that what seems inconceivable is precisely what happened’ (2001: 22; emphasis added). However, for the sake of my argument regarding the significance of the image of the veil in the revelation of truth and the construction of historical knowledge I have decided to retain the original Polish metaphor. However, the theologically-inflected metaphors of unveiling the infinite and of the impossibility of ‘closure’ (for more on these concepts see Derrida 1976: 14; 1978: 250) also play a significant part in the ‘Introduction’ chapter in the English edition, one that is absent from the Polish original. Gross writes there: ‘In an important respect, however, this is a rather typical book about the Holocaust. For, as is not true of historical studies we write about other topics, I do not see the possibility of attaining closure here. In other words, the reader will not emerge with a sense of satisfied yearning for knowledge at the conclusion of reading; I certainly did not do so at the conclusion of writing. I could not say to myself when I got to the last page, “Well, I understand now,” and I doubt that my readers will be able to either’ (12: 2001).

7 Derrida provides the following link between infinity and closure in language, a relation that for him has a religious character. He writes: ‘The sign and divinity have the same place and time of birth. The age of the sign is essentially theological. Perhaps it will never end. Its historical closure is, however, outlined’ (1976: 14).

8 In December 2001 the Institute of National Memory (IPN) in Poland, following earlier exhumations conducted in Jedwabne in the summer, completed the investigation into the number of Jewish victims murdered on 10 July 1941. It was concluded that the main grave contained 300-400 bodies, while the other, smaller one, 30-50 bodies. Additionally, in the pile of rubble nearby fragments of bones and teeth (including children’s milk teeth) belonging to at least 33 people had been found. Even though the figures confirmed by IPN turned out to be lower than those originally given by Gross inNeighbors (ca. 480 and not 1,600 victims), the evidence provided by the Institute of National Memory has foreclosed the possibility of denying, or diminishing, the scope and significance of the Jedwabne tragedy. Suddenly the supporters of what Dorota Kolodziejczyk calls ‘the mathematical fraction’ (i.e. those prepared to face the tragedy only from the perspective of ‘numbers’) have been deprived of the main line of their argument. Gazeta Wyborcza online service 19.12.01. Accessed on 17.01.02

9 Lyotard writes, ‘All memory, in the traditional sense of representation, because it involves decision, includes and spreads the forgetting of the terror without origin that motivates it’ (1990: 28).

10 In his essays Given Time and The Gift of Death, Derrida challenges our everyday understanding of the gift as something we possess on reception, or something we pass on to another person, usually in association with some kind of celebration. Traditionally, gifts are exchanged both in private – on birthdays, Christmases, St. Valentine’s days, etc. – and in public – on state visits of different ranks. It is precisely this exchangeability of the gift that Derrida exposes as contradictory to the very essence of the idea of ‘giving’ when he says: ‘[The gift] must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure’ (1992: 7) Working against the logic of debt and gratitude supporting the circle of symbolic exchange, the gift disrupts traditional economy. To retain its status of a gift (rather than a token for some kind of grace or favour, be it the lover’s affection, international co-operation or the feel-good factor), it has to remain unspeakable, or even inconceivable, which saves it from being reduced to the familiar economy based on the exact calculation of gains and losses. The possibility of rejection constitutes the very essence of the gift. (I discuss Derrida’s notion of the gift in the context of ethics in Zylinska, 2001: 88-97.)

11 In Politics of Friendship Derrida expounds friendship as a political concept and points to the links between the notions of hospitality and hostility in Western political thought.

12 In a similar vein, Lyotard argues that:

‘The jews’ are the irremissible in the West movement of remission and pardon. They are what cannot be domesticated in the obsession to dominate, in the compulsion to control domain, in the passion for empire, recurrent ever since Hellenistic Greece and Christian Rome. ‘The jews’, never at home wherever they are, cannot be integrated, converted, or expelled. They are also always away from home when they are at home, in their so-called own tradition, because it includes exodus as its beginning, excision, impropriety, and respect for the forgotten. (1990: 22)

13 Derrida recognises that ‘because being at home with oneself . . . supposes a reception or inclusion of the other which one seeks to appropriate, control, and master according to different modalities of violence, there is a history of hospitality, an always possible perversion of the law of hospitality’ (2001: 17).

14 For an interesting discussion of ‘an alternative approach to history’ which rethinks historical events in terms of, and in relation to, ‘the non-synchronic temporality that Levinas associates with the ethical relation to the other’, and in which history ‘gains ethical significance not from “beyond” but from “within,” on the basis of a re-thought understanding of temporality’, see Ziarek (2001).

15 See Ethics After the Holocaust (Roth, 1999) for a polyvocal debate on some possible ways of practising ethical thinking in the aftermath of the Shoah.


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