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Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland [Hardcover]

Jan T. Gross
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 15 2001

One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town's Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne's Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne's surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne's Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.

In many ways, this is a simple book. It is easy to read in a single sitting, and hard not to. But its simplicity is deceptive. Gross's new and persuasive answers to vexed questions rewrite the history of twentieth-century Poland. This book proves, finally, that the fates of Poles and Jews during World War II can be comprehended only together.

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From Amazon

"One day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small east European town murdered the other half--some 1,600 men, women and children." This short sentence summarizes the subject of Neighbors, historian Jan Gross's account of a massacre that occurred in Jedwabne, in northeastern Poland. Gross describes the atrocities of Jedwabne in almost unbearable detail. Men and women were hacked to death with knives, iron hooks, and axes. Small children were thrown with pitchforks onto a bonfire. A woman's decapitated head was kicked like a football. Historians before now have blamed the massacre on the Nazis--whose participation in and responsibility for these crimes has been exaggerated, Gross says. In fact, he argues, a virulent Polish anti-Semitism was liberated by German occupation. Instead of explaining the horrors of Jedwabne, which would be impossible, Neighbors sets the record straight as to the identity of the criminals. In doing so, Gross has ensured that future histories of the Holocaust, particularly in Poland, will be more honest, because future historians will be answerable to his argument that the evil of the Nazis was not only forced on the Poles. In places such as Jedwabne, it was welcomed by them. --Michael Joseph Gross

From Publishers Weekly

Claude Lanzman's myth-shattering documentary film Shoah demonstrated that some Polish peasants were keenly aware of the Nazis' mass murder of Jews on Polish soil. This volume takes the real-life horror story a step further, documenting how nearly all of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, were murdered on one day most of them burned alive by their non-Jewish neighbors. Drawing on testimony that prompted and emanated from a 1949 Polish trial, Gross carefully describes how apparently normal citizens terrorized and killed approximately 1,600 Jewish villagers. Gross, a professor of politics and European studies at New York University, also attempts to place this heinous crime in historical and political context, concluding that he can explain but not fully understand. How to understand the Polish villagers, led by their mayor, exceeding the July 10, 1941, command of conquering German soldiers to annihilate the Jews but spare some tradesmen? Immediately,according to Gross, local townsmen-turned-hooligans grabbed clubs studded with nails and other weapons and chased the Jews into the street. Many tried to escape through the surrounding fields, but only seven succeeded. The thugs fatally shot many Jews after forcing them to dig mass graves. They shoved the remaining hundreds of Jews into a barn, doused it with kerosene and set it ablaze. Some on the outside played musical instruments to drown out the victims' cries. Yet Neighbors isn't as terrifying as one might expect, since Gross, a Polish ‚migr‚ himself, guides the reader along an analytical path. By de-emphasizing the drama, he helps readers cope with the awful incident, but his narrative occasionally bogs down in his own thoughts. Still, he asserts hopefully that young Poles are "ready to confront the unvarnished history of Polish-Jewish relations during the war." (May)Forecast: The always heated question of the role of Poles in the Holocaust comes to a head here. The book is bound to generate controversy (it has already garnered mention in the New York Times), though its sales will probably be limited.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Something happened Sept. 18 2002
By A Customer
"Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne,
Poland" is a controversial book whose reputation suffers the more
independent research is done on it. Gross' number of 1600 victims has been reduced to 400 or less, as the mass graves were investigated by authorities with Rabbis standing by.
(In comparison 3,000,000 Polish-Jews were killed in the rest of Poland by Nazis. Notably also 2,000,000 (half by Soviets) non-Jewish Poles died at the same time. How many at the hands of the hundreds of (well documented) Jewish Commissars? Probably many times more than 400.)
By his own admission in recent interviews; Gross concludes that his exploration of the evidence was "incomplete", as the presence of German soldiers everywhere was brought out by witnesses some from as far away as Israel. What was the purpose of this book - one could speculate - self hatred?
It's a narrowly (amateurishly) researched book, long on drama short on verity. Many exist significantly more broadly based.
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I first became aware of the controversy over this historically based event with a report on "60 Minutes" a number of months ago in which the author of the book and a variety of various participants, victims' relatives, and others were interviewed some fifty years after the fact about the murderous events that transpired in Jedwabne, Poland in 1941. Of course, Polish authorities deny any such event took place, or that fellow villagers were among those who brutally and systematically murdered more than a thousand of their neighbors with savage efficiency, in some cases using clubs spiked with nails to bludgeon their victims to death. This is truly one of the signal events of the era, serving to illustrate beyond all doubt how much pent-up envy, hostility, and craven greed motivated many of the people who participated in the massacre.
As was common elsewhere in Europe during the years leading up to the Holocaust, the neighbors of local indigenous Jews were all too ready, willing, and able not only to help in the swift and brutal dispatch of so many innocent people who lived among them, but were also swift in redistributing all of the earthly possessions of the victims, from the houses, farms, and apartments to furniture, clothing, bank accounts, and the rare automobile. Since quite often the local Jewish victims were prominent in the local community, victimizing them usually meant a hefty payday in terms of the material dividend of the acts of wanton murder. Obviously recalling such avarice, lack of remorse, and savage disregard for others is a painful prospect, so Polish authorities are quick to either deny or attempt to explain away any evidence of a local rampage by citizens against their Jewish and Bohemian neighbors.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking and interesting! July 24 2002
By A Customer
This very important small book by Gross (political science, New York Univ.), an expert on Poland, further refutes the myth that the Holocaust may be entirely attributed to the Nazis and their henchmen. Following recent research that implicates the regular German army and military police, this study conclusively proves that in the town Jedwabne the local Polish population--when given permission, but not orders--massacred 1,600 local Jews, virtually all of their Jewish "neighbors." (Seven Jews were hidden by a Polish family.) At least half of the adult men participated in decapitating some, piercing others with sharp spikes, and cremating the majority alive in a barn that was doused with kerosene. The Nazis simply stood by and took pictures. This thoroughly documented volume also gives powerful evidence that primitive methods and ancient antisemitic motifs based on religion (such as the ritual murder libel) played a role alongside mechanized destruction and Nazi racial doctrine. Gross further puts to rest the myth that Jews, in particular, were connected with the Soviet regimes before the Nazi invasion of the USSR and after the war. The evidence suggests that it was the antisemites who opportunistically collaborated with the Soviet regimes.
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In the small Polish city of Jedwabne, a stone monument notes that some 1600 Jedwabne Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Professor Jan Gross' concise and convincing monograph, "Neighbors," marshalls direct historical evidence and a creative historiography to prove "beyond reasonable doubt, and as Jedwabne citizens knew all along, it was their [Polish] neighbors who killed them." Gross, with excruciating detail, dissects the July 10, 1941, murder of practically every Jewish man, woman and child in that small Polish city. What makes Gross' research important is that this slaughter was not Nazi-inspired, but initiated, orchestrated and celebrated by Poles themselves. This direct indictment of Polish involvement (not mere complicity or helpless bystanding) shatters a half-century of Polish myth-making about that nation's alleged victimhood during World War II.
Professor Gross does not sensationalize the actual murder itself. A day-long orgy of violence, which was at once primitive and comprehensive, featured the climax of burning alive those Jews who had not perished in the mayhem of the day. In fact, not only did the non-Jewish Poles of Jedwabne participate; participants from other nearby Polish communities, themselves veterans of other pogroms, journeyed to Jedwabne to commit depredations on the Jewish population. Instead, Gross focuses on the impact this research may have on Polish national identity. In this sense, Gross simultaneously adds to and departs from standard interpretations of the Holocaust.
His research is the least creative in his reaffirmation of the now widely-accepted thesis that those involved in the destruction of European Jewry did so volitionally. Jedwabne's murderers are "willing executioners" in the purest sense of the word.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An untold story
After reading Nighbors, when sharing the story with friends very few people knew about this. Most people know of the Holocaust and the horrific things Jewish people and others... Read more
Published on Nov. 28 2011 by Jolene
2.0 out of 5 stars A short book with deep problems
Many of the reviewers who have tackled this book have done so as Polish nationalists, or as opponents of Gross' often somewhat questionable methodology, or as both, using his... Read more
Published on Aug. 7 2009 by Cameron Willis
4.0 out of 5 stars Poles killing Jews in German occupied Poland.
Gross's book Neighbors illustrates the latent anti-Semitism prevalent in pre-war Poland and the murderous result when the Poles took action against their Jewish neighbors. Read more
Published on June 23 2004 by Kevin M Quigg
1.0 out of 5 stars Gross Misrepresentation
As interesting as the book may or may not be, let alone the questionable methodology employed by Gross, I find the customer comments much more telling. Read more
Published on June 19 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars "Cautious Skepticism"
While interesting reading, and somewhat overdone in terms of the gory detail, one is still lead to not fully take at face value all that is stated by Gross as "fact" in the... Read more
Published on Sept. 4 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars Lies vs anti-semitism
The Holocaust should be presented honestly. In 1941 about 300 of Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne, small town in eastern Poland, was burned alive in a small barn. J.T. Read more
Published on July 11 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Exactly Logical in Its Reasoning
This book is worthwhile for those who need apparent support for their anti-Polish prejudices. It includes the Germans, who would be all too happy to try to dilute their guilt, as... Read more
Published on March 31 2003
There appears to be no market for the other story. When I was in Isreal in 1972, the huge majority of trees on the Blvd of the Rigtheous Gentiles were of Christian Poles. Read more
Published on March 24 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars As expected many in the polish community deny it.
although most of them can hardly express themselves they have seen fit to hurl insults at this wonderful book. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2003 by bobo
5.0 out of 5 stars As expected many in the polish community deny it.
although most of them can hardly express themselves they have seen fit to hurl insults at this wonderful book. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2003 by bobo
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