From the crest of the rolling hills in the Polish countryside, a farmer could have looked up one September day, finishing the season’s harvest or seeding cover crop for the winter, and seen columns of soldiers marching east from a distance not too far away. It was 1939.
In the Eastern part of Poland, the Germans didn’t arrive until late September. Then came the Soviets.
The small village Jedwabne, near the village where my mother was born, was half Jewish, and laid out in the fashion typical for a shtetl in that area. Houses were arranged around a central square, which was the town market. Churches were usually on the outskirts near the cemetery.
The Jews of Jedwabne welcomed the Soviets and were willing to establish communism there, my cousin Darek explained. We were standing in the rain, on the outskirts of town, where a large stone monument covered in small rocks stood on one side, and on the other, weeds overtook a lot surrounded by a low concrete wall surrounding another monument.
The Catholic Poles in the village grew resentful of the Jews and the Soviets over time. Jews took positions in Soviet administrations. The Soviets confiscated food and provisions.
Less than two years later, in June 1941, the farmers weeding their fields and bringing cattle to pasture would have seen German tanks and columns again heading from the east.
They swept through the countryside, building fortifications. At the highest point in a field between Nieckowo, where my mother was born, and the next town, Wasosz, Germans built bunkers in the hillsides. Each bunker was in direct sight of the next.
In late June, days are warm and nights are short. One day Germans ordered all the Jews in the villages to gather in the square. Some people hid. Some were hidden by Poles.
In Wasosz, the Germans marched them to a pasture between the town and the tiny hamlet, Nieckowo. They sprayed 250 people with bullets, and buried them.
A historian said it was Germans. My cousin said it was Poles from Wasosz.
A few days later, in the early morning, the Germans organized a group of Polish men and ordered all the Jews of Jedwabne into the square. They surrounded them and beat them. First they ordered the rabbi to lead about 40 others to a barn on the outskirts of town.
The Poles led them there, shot them, and buried them in the cemetery across the path.
They returned and rounded the remaining Jews who were in the square. There were about 300. The Polish men goaded them up the short dirt lane into the barn. They locked them in, dumped kerosene left from the Soviets on the wooden building, and set it aflame.
To be continued …