-Has it been a long time that Jews and non-Jews lived in that little town before the massacre?
-When Jedwabne emerged in the 1700s, 70 percent of the population was Jewish. In 1930 it had about three thousand people, half Polish Jews and half Polish non-Jews. In 1941 there was a massacre. A Jewish Polish historian, Ian Gross, investigated it and wrote a book where he revealed that the Jews of Jedwabne were murdered by their own neighbors in 1941, when Hitler occupied that part of Poland. The book is called Neighbors (neighbors) that caused a real scandal and became a best seller in the United States and Poland. In 1962 they had put a plaque on what is left of the village’s Jewish cemetery that read “in memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis.” But the truth was learned from the investigation of Gross, which was based mainly on the testimonies of the only seven survivors who hid in a kind of hole in the ground, under a field of potatoes, thanks to the help of a Polish, Antonina Brzezoski.
-What Gross discovered was that they were not killed by the Nazis but by the neighbors themselves …
-Yes and that there were at least 92 names identified. All the adults of the town had relieved the Nazis of their task. The Nazis entered, they made a terrible pogrom that day and 20 days later opted for the “final solution”. I do not know if there were ten or twenty of the Gestapo, they were few. When they announced this decision, the same neighbors proposed to execute it. The Nazis asked that they select some professions so as not to kill them, but the neighbors assured them that they had all professions, that there was no need to save anyone. The killing was a butcher shop. It was not planned as a job, but as a kind of popular party. The death of these Jews was one of the worst of the Shoah. They made them sing “War is ours, war is for us …”, they made the rabbi dance with a red flag … They were killing them like that; the testimonies are frightening. Finally they put them in a barn, men, women and children, put kerosene and set fire to it. For those who tried to escape, there was a guy with an ax at the door. Afterwards, they looted the corpses, the coins, the teeth, they kept their houses, their furniture, all their belongings. The Nazis ordered them to dispose of the bodies and, instead of burying them, mutilated them and scattered the pieces across the field.
-This year, on July 10, on the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre, there was an act in Poland and you were the only relative of the victims who traveled from Argentina …
-Yes, they invited us to participate, but we could not talk, so the day before we organized a press conference where I read a text, I told the story of my family, the way they had been killed. I told that 35 years later, the country that had been a refuge for my mother’s family had become for me and for many of the children of those Jews and for many other children in a country of persecuted and tortured for political reasons, They were “disappeared” in new concentration camps. “After the events – oil -, in both countries there is talk of forgiveness and reconciliation. Political and religious institutions insist on that need. But who asks for forgiveness? Who accepts it? The call is not addressed to those who could forgive, survivors or family members. They do not need us for the ceremony of public repentance. And yet, this act of mea culpa in Jedwabne does not concern us, not to accept or reject these apologies, but to tell them not to mess with the victims-our dead-but with the victimizers -our own parents-. That is what I have come to, to confirm this absence of part, to invite you to keep for yourselves your contrition and your shame. “
-The act in which you participated was part of the intense controversy that aroused Gross’s investigation …
– Following the investigation of Gross, the Polish president decided to do a mea culpa and ask for forgiveness. This generated a strong reaction and deep discussion in Polish society, in political parties and in the Church. Nobody stopped being aware, and nobody was left untouched by this story. The Pope had asked the Polish Church to participate in the official acts, but a part of it, Cardinal Glemp and others, argued that, if the Poles had to apologize to the Jews, they had to apologize for the crimes during communism . The Church did not participate in the official act in Jedwabne, but did an act a few days before, opposing the terms of the official act. Anti-Semitism is a strong component of the consolidation of the Polish nation. There is a historical reason for the Church. They could have a hero of the resistance, for example, and at the same time be anti-Semitic, which for us would be strange.
– When they decide to do the act, the authorities invited the descendants or relatives of the victims?
-The relatives organized to go and there was an official invitation. First they gave us seven days in a hotel and then, with all the discussion, they got them down to two. We were the special guests of the Polish government for this act, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre. As the first inscription, from 1962, was taken out, the idea was to put another one saying: “in memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and the surrounding area who were brutally murdered and burned alive in this place, on July 10, 1941. In a single day, a three-hundred-year-old Jewish community was completely destroyed. Let this be a warning so that the sin of anti-Semitism will never again lead the inhabitants of this land to go against their neighbors. “ But the parties and the Polish Church resisted. Walessa said he was not serious and accused Gross of using rhetorical devices to convince people. They asked to be investigated and began to exhume the bodies. I was impressed by the brutality with those bodies, after the way they had been killed and mutilated, now they were exhumed. In the place there was nothing, no sign, it was located by photographic documents.
– Did you feel hatred, compassion, anger, sadness, when you were in Jedwabne?
-I wanted to go to Poland and the town. And when I arrived I was impressed, two or three blocks from the central square, there was no grass, a circle of stones and a monument in the middle, nothing, or almost nothing. I did not feel anything because I could not believe it.And I thought: we should not believe it, because that makes us rationalize it and justify it, it just happened, it was, it is. The presence is in the narrations, in the testimonies. There is no place or object. Right-wing nationalism argued that they had not been neighbors, but asocial, isolated elements, those who had made the massacre, but the people on the left said that it had happened like this and took it as an opportunity to clean Polish memory and improve the image before the West. in addition to turning it into a stimulus to fight anti-Semitism and build democracy. There was no agreement on what had to be done. The system in Poland is parliamentarian. So the Polish president does not have much force and the resistance of these parties and the Church was very strong.
– The inhabitants of the town are descendants of those who committed the massacre or were changing?
-In part they were changing, but most are descendants of those who made the massacre and many live in the houses of their victims. The relatives made the press conference on the 9th in Warsaw and on the 10th we went to Jedwabne, in a caravan with the president, ambassadors, Ian Gross, Antonina Brzezoski and others. The Argentine ambassador to Poland had received me very well. In Jedwabne there was going to be a Kaddish, but for sixty years no Jewish music had been played. I also asked for the music that people sang when I lived there before the massacre. We went with a musician, Gary Lucas, well known in Poland. There were three speeches, the Polish president, the ambassador of Israel and a very old rabbi who had been born there and lived in the United States, who made a disastrous speech. The Polish president said: “We are here in front of the victims and the relatives of the victims asking for forgiveness and before our conscience”. Then he said: “I apologize to the souls of the dead and to the families” and there we were, but dumb because they did not let us speak. I was discussing five hours with the Minister of the Interior.
-How many relatives attended the event and participated in the press conference?
– We would be about 25 relatives. Many others had decided not to go because the inscription on the plaque had finally been changed to “In memory of the Jedwabne Jews and the surrounding area, men, women and children, inhabitants of this land, killed and burned alive on this site on July 10. 1941. Let it be a warning so that future generations will not allow the sin of hatred engendered by German Nazism to return the residents of this land against each other. “ Thus, they assigned the crimes to the Nazis, they do not talk about the neighbors, nor about anti-Semitism. It was discussed whether to do an act in each country, or an act in New York. Finally there were some who said: “My boycott is not to go”, but people do not know about it. I decided to go and put together that idea of the press conference.
-How many relatives died in Jedwabne?
-My mother was born and lived there until she was 12 years old and my aunt grandmother and her six children were murdered there. She would have wanted to go, but in the end she could not. I met there with her who had been her close friend in the village, a woman who now lives in Israel. The attitude of family members in general was not passive. There was everything. A woman approached me after I read the text at the press conference and she said: “I did not come to fight, I do not want them to get angry”. In general that was the attitude of the organizers of the act. I told them I had not gone to fight, that I had gone so they would not spit on the dead. I felt that fear was still ruling there, as if they were forgiving us or giving us alms with that kind of apology. I do not want to forgive or give me alms, but there were people who felt a kind of gratitude, but that really showed that they did not believe in forgiveness, that it was a kind of parole, a truce.
-Because the victim, in addition, has to be good and forgive …
-Well, before traveling I did read the text to some people. A Jewish intellectual, say the left wing, told me: “If you are going to tell the Poles that they are guilty, you can have undesirable consequences.” It was not like that; they invited me because they say they are guilty and they ask me for forgiveness and I do not want to give them to them. What undesirable consequences ?, that do not let us enter the territory, to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Or they’re going to throw a rock at you.
– Maybe society is afraid of the victim?
– I believe that, if that victim does not stop being in the victim’s place, it generates that they continue to victimize him. I remember Alfonsin when he said “the past is going back” and I had worked on the idea of the death threat as capital, put money on currency and accumulate enormous capital and the death threat is like a capital and there is a huge return . It is a true idea of Canetti. The victim is like a symbolic capital, a kind of permanent threat.
-In some way, the victim always has to be good, because if not, he is not a victim …
-The problem is not the victim, but the victimization of the victim, which is something else. I can be a victim of something, not a victim to dry, being a victim is not a being. I always wondered why the majority of the Jewish intelligentsia on the left generally came from Jews descended from the victims of Nazism, from anti-Semitism in Europe, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine. I think it has to do with this place of taking a post, of moving from that place of fear, if they are going to kill me, that they kill me.
– The other relatives did the same reflections?
– Another family member who spoke very loudly was Judith Kubran. The Israelis had another reading than the Yankees. Her husband read what I was going to say and in the middle of the page, he thanked me. There I went as a descendant of a woman born in Jedwabne where my great aunt and her children died burned. But actually I went to say that I am sick of the tributes to the victims. I want to break the victim-victim dialogue, I do not want them to ask me for forgiveness and I do not want to seek recognition and I do not want us to look for it. I went to a place where nobody knew me and where surely I was not going to have much agreement with anyone and yet people felt that I expressed what they felt.
– The Polish government also paid the tickets?
-No, it was interesting because I wrote the text that I decided to read, I showed it to some friends and a kind of network was formed and together they collected the money. I think it was because of that, because in reality it was a very strong poetic-political intervention. It would have been easier to say that we do not believe them or that we do not forgive them, we denounce them or we thank them and we hope never again, to invite them to leave the figures of the State and the institutions and put them in a body. Why can they say: “The Poles were responsible for 1600 dead?” And can not say: “My dad threw a stone”. Not even that, the inscription that remained said: “Here, 1,600 Jews were burned.”
-If you want that text is memory, but it is not complete. It would even be said that it is false because it is incomplete. Is memory justice?
-The ambassador of Israel said that when all the truth appears in the monument, because the investigation will continue, justice will have been done. But I wonder: the truth is justice ?, not even memory is justice. The Jewish tradition is based on the narration not on the memory. Benjamin said that the Jews had bad memories, but they were very attentive to listen and excellent narrators. Now the Jews have become excellent modern researchers where they want to prove the truth of the Shoah. The entire Jewish tradition is based on saying: “They threw us out of Egypt.” But nobody went to Egypt to look for the evidence and nobody asked them if they recognize it. That constitutes a strength, an identity, a belonging.Now it is about everyone having the same and then, well, we must make them recognize the truth and that truth be justice. I do not want memory in that sense, as a record to be read in two thousand years. The victims have already given their testimonies with their bones, their hair, their shoes, the occupation of their houses, the financial plundering, so that now they talk about the perpetrators. I went to Poland to tell them not to talk about us, because each time they do it they will justify the massacre in some way.
-No of the victims and of the perpetrators, but in what way?
-I proposed a kind of prayer that I read at the press conference: “And I will tell it in the morning and in the evening / how my father persecuted the Jew who crossed in front of our house in the fall of 41 / and stoned him first in front of my little sister and me, how we saw him fall / and kicked him so we laughed / and half-dead dragged him to the central stable / where we set them on fire of our own will / And I will tell my children and my children’s children / so that know that this man is one of us / and he raises his children and caresses his grandchildren and he is moved / and I will repeat it every night, next to my wife, when the world is silent / and she does not have the strength not to forget. Those of us who were born late to participate / are children of those common men, cowardly murderers./ Of them we have learned / the language we speak / and we have engraved that heritage in our hearts / that is why we tell future generations that this was the way / in Jedwabne, on July 10, in 1941 / we were Polish protagonists in the Jewish genocide / when we massacred hundreds / by our own will and with our own hands / We, and not the Nazis “.
After the three speeches did the act in Jedwabne end?
-After the act, we went to the cemetery. My mother had asked me if there was a forest next to the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was the forest that had eaten it, there was no more cemetery. They had put fences two days before and cut down trees and the tombstones were all mixed up. My mother had asked me to take some stones from there to put in her grave. It was a cemetery eaten by nature because there was not even a Jew left after the massacre. At the entrance to that cemetery that no longer exists there is an inscription reminding the others, those who died in the massacre and whose bones are scattered on the outside. For me, an inscription in a monument reminds us of the past, expelling it from the present. I had made a proposal that was to burn the monument, make a symbolic act of burning in the place of the barn. A friend told me that he seemed vandalism, I was very impressed that a symbolic act seems vandal and that the act itself does not seem so. We were like special guests and in any case they were talking about our dead. Then I said that if we had to repair, we had to say how. I proposed that there be a synagogue in a town where there is not even a Jew left. An empty temple. The god of the Jews does not expect anyone to come in: Poles are Catholics and those of this people have exterminated the Jews who went to the temple. So, in this town that has liquidated its neighbors, it rises like a ghost, the house where their god is still living.
– What happened to that proposal?
-A woman from the Embassy of Israel told me that the idea was very disturbing, it is not about agreeing, she told me, because what is yours reaches the heart. And that’s what I wanted. I did not want them to agree or not, but something that happened before the sieve of consciousness. Then he told me that the ambassador wanted to do it, but add a cultural center. Is not the same. I believe that no one is lacking in all power, we have the power of speech, we have some powers. That power to make a god exist, which is also their god and this prayer that I put, is also sacred scripture for a Catholic. I want an act that remains, a permanent accusation.