Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Saturday Diary: If only we could someday say ‘never again’

By Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

image of book cover Neighbors by Jan T. GrossSometimes matters I get involved in here in Pittsburgh call up for me memories from previous lives I have led. Some are informative if not pleasant.

The Pittsburgh Irish and Classic Theatre asked me to moderate a panel on a difficult but excellent play they presented, “Our Class,” based in part on a book by Jan T. Gross entitled “Neighbors.” The story was based on events in a village in Poland, Jedwabne, in 1941 during which the Poles in the village on a July day rounded up the Jews, who were their neighbors, and robbed and murdered most of them in brutal, horrible circumstances. Some of the Jews were herded into a barn which the Poles set alight.

The focus of the discussion was to be, basically, how could this have taken place among neighbors?

My initial thought was that I don’t know much about Polish villages. Then I began thinking about the phenomenon of neighbors doing awful things to each other and recalling pieces of my past.

One experience that came to mind was the time I spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bloody conflict there had two bases, ethnicity and religion, and was waged among Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

Inhabitants of the same villages robbed and killed each other in sometimes imaginatively cruel ways. Croats and Muslims reduced the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Mostar to rubble with dynamite. The Croats destroyed a 16th-century bridge built by the Turks. The best-known slaughter was of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by the Serbs at Srebrenica.

On a lighter but nonetheless painful note, I recalled an incident from my time in the Central African Republic. The U.S. embassy where I worked had a fund for small projects. One that we supported in a village involved buying a few pigs for a family and building them a pigsty. My wife and I checked on the project six months later. “Where are the pigs?” Answer: “Dead.” “What happened?” “The neighbors of the family with the pigs were jealous and poisoned the pigs.”

Jedwabne was much more serious than what happened in the Central African village, of course, although comparable to the three years of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So then the questions turn on how did it happen? Could the killing have been prevented? Can anything be done to see that this does not happen again?

The PICT assembled a distinguished panel, including Jan T. Gross, the author of “Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” and University of Pittsburgh and Penn State faculty members to address these issues. The subject of what happened at Jedwabne remains sufficiently controversial in Poland and in the United States that it attracted an audience of nearly 100 on the bright afternoon of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Mr. Gross; Anthony Novosel, an expert on Northern Ireland; Edward Orehek, an assistant professor of psychology; Robert Szymczak, an historian of the region; and Gregor Thum, a professor of history, discussed the matter thoroughly and fielded a series of pertinent questions from an involved audience.

There are a lot of angles. The fact that Jedwabne had been occupied first by forces of the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, breaking down all indigenous Polish governmental authority, set the scene for the slaughter and looting. The representative of the one Polish institution still intact, the Catholic Church, a priest, did not intervene. It was generally thought that if he had tried he would have been burned alive with the Jews in the barn.

Pogroms were not new in Poland. An “anti-Zionist” movement occurred there as late as 1967 and 1968.

An encouraging development occurring now, though, is that Poland’s relative prosperity as a member of the European Union is causing its people to take a new look backward at the role of Jews in its cultural and political history. There were an estimated 3.5 million Jews in Poland pre-World War II. After the Holocaust and post-World War II emigration to Israel, there remained almost none. By 2002, the Jews numbered 1,133. By 2011, this was up to 7,508.

My own reflections include that racism remains ever alive and is sometimes acted upon. Fighting on that basis in Africa is called tribalism. In the Middle East it is called sectarianism. Then there is nationalism and exceptionalism.

It may be impossible to say “never again,” although there is every reason to try to make it so. The most severe enemy of the phenomenon is sunshine, the attention of an interested world brought to it by social and other media. We are not free to not keep trying.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is an associate editor and columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).
First Published May 18, 2013 12:00 am