Any visitor to the remote town of Jedwabne, in north-east Poland, is going to know something about its horrifying past.
On the outskirts there is a memorial that marks the site where hundreds of Jedwabne’s Jews were burned alive in a barn in July 1941. It is the only reason to visit this colourless place.
Today, the memorial no longer attributes the massacre to the Nazis. It was changed in 2000 after it was revealed that it was not the occupying Germans who wiped out the Jewish half of the town, but the Jewish victims’ gentile neighbours.
It is the silence that first strikes you when entering Jedwabne. This is the silence for which many Polish towns in the region are known and which is romanticised in many folk songs about the area. “Not just songs,” says Roman Pawlowski, a journalist who writes for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, “ but post-war poetry and literature as well.”
With a population of about 2,000, Jedwabne is not what you might call a destination. Nor is it on the way to one. Few people pass through. Lying between two rivers, the surrounding flat, forested landscape is saturated with swamps.
The nearest city is Bialystok, which, after Warsaw, is the only Polish city whose Jewish ghetto mounted an uprising against the Nazis. It did not last long.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether your impression of a town like Jedwabne — in this part of Poland, there are many — is informed by a knowledge of its history or by your experience of the place.
The grey little two-storey houses that border the town’s main square; the double-spired church that overlooks it; the lined faces of old men who sit on benches, apparently with nothing to talk about — everything, every blade of grass and every cobblestone seems to be informed by the massacre.
This might be because it was in this very square where Jedwabne’s long-established Jewish population were beaten and made to dig out weeds from between cobblestones. Or perhaps it is because Jedwabne’s grand church, like many others in the region, was funded largely by money extorted from Jews, whose yearly choice was to pay up or suffer a pogrom.
Jedwabne’s Jewish history is similar to many other Polish towns. Its wooden synagogue was built in 1770, though destroyed in a fire in 1916.
In the 1930s records show that Jedwabne was home to 144 craftsmen, including 36 tailors and 24 cobblers, most of them Jews. By the time the Second World War broke out, its population was 2,500, of whom over half were Jewish. On market day, the square would have been crammed with the stalls of Jewish tradesmen.
On the day I visited in early September there was just one dreary second-hand clothes shop in evidence. Its sign optimistically promised “western fashion”, but there is not much passing trade on these near-deserted streets. It had closed before I left.
“The Jewish shtetls used to be noisy, crowded places before the war,” says Pawlowski who comes from nearby Tykocin, a town whose Jews were buried alive a month after Jedwabne’s were burned. “Now they are silent. It is the silence of a cemetery.”
On that hot summer day in July 1941, the people of Jedwabne ripped out the heart of their own town, and the place has been dying ever since.