Review: “Neighbors” by Jan T. Gross

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross. Princeton University Press. 261 pages.

Whenever I teach my Persuasion class at Southwestern Adventist University, I start it off by showing a very old film that was an after-school TV special in the 80s called “The Wave.” It’s based on what is supposedly a true story about a high school history class that conducted an experiment to answer the question, how could the German people let such terrible things happen in their country before and during World War II?

k7018This book falls into that category. Translated from its original publication in Polish, this book is the highly documented true story of how a small town in 1941 rose up and completely massacred 1,600 Jews–half of its entire population–that lived in the town. Those responsible were not Nazi soldiers, but people who had lived as neighbors with the victims for decades.

And frankly, I am not sure how I feel about the book. The obvious question comes up: why did this happen? The first two thirds of the book spends its time telling horrific incident after incident where people were sought out, beaten with clubs, killed with axes and pitchforks, burned alive. Frankly, I had to stop reading at one point because I wondered if that was all the book would contain. It is sickening information, and for the most part, hard to believe that people could descend to that level.

But in the end several factors come to the surface. Some believe that centuries-old prejudices were simmering just below the surface, some of them based on the belief that Passover services by the Jews were tied to ritualistic murder of Gentiles. Because of this existing prejudice, and the fact that the Soviet army came in, then the German Wehrmacht, and finally the Soviet army again, it was easy for each party to take sides against the other. Jews sided with the Soviets when they invaded initially in 1939, who committed their own share of atrocities. Then when the Nazis arrived in 1941, many Gentiles welcomed them with flowers, not knowing what was in store for them. The situation not only polarized the village, but made it easier for people to excuse actions that they otherwise wouldn’t do.

This isn’t an easy read. There’s no entertainment value. But I did come away realizing how close all of us are to the savagery that surrounds us, the behavior that we can’t believe we would ever be involved in.

I give it three stars.