Friday, July 3, 2015

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Tomasz Gross

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Open Library Loan
Read: June 24, 2015

On a summer day in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Poland, half of the town of Jedwabne brutally murdered the other half: 1,600 men, women, and children-all but seven of the town's Jews. In this shocking and compelling study, historian Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts as well as physical evidence into a comprehensive reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but hidden to history. Revealing wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism, Gross's investigation sheds light on how Jedwabne's Jews came to be murdered-not by faceless Nazis, but by people who knew them well.

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Memorial in Jedwabne
Image by: Fczarnowski
My journey to Jan Tomasz Gross’ Neighbors started with a movie suggestion. Amazon recommended Pasikowski’s Aftermath and I was so captivated by the trailer that I dug into the backstory and discovered the fictional 2012 Holocaust-related thriller was loosely inspired by the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom. 

If you’re scratching your head, take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone as Jedwabne isn’t a particularly well-recognized event. I only discovered it while reading The Wherewithal, but I’d never studied the pogrom and wasn’t overly familiar with the details. Natural curiosity paired with fond memories of Schultz’s prose prompted a search for nonfictional resource material which is how I found myself with a copy of Gross’ work.

I’d high hopes going in. The book has several outstanding reviews, but after experiencing the text firsthand, I can’t help feeling many reviewers based their opinions on the emotions elicited by Gross’ chronical of the atrocity. I mean no offense and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Gross’ content, but structurally this is one of the most poorly formatted case studies I’ve ever encountered. Gross’ presentation is illogical and difficult to follow. The author’s strong opinions are poorly concealed and his terminology often prompted me to wonder at how objectively he’d researched the material. 

I fully appreciate what Gross tried to convey within these pages, I respect the spirit in which it was written and I admit his work opened my eyes to what occurred in German-occupied Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, but the tone and format of the book make endorsing it something of a challenge.  

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Can a local community that has just been involved in the murder of its own neighbors generate such a response to a hostile takeover? How can anyone trust people who have murdered, or knowingly denounced to their murderers, other human beings? Furthermore, if we have acted as instruments of violence, in the name of what principles can we oppose the use of violence turned against us by somebody else?
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