If the opportunity to oppress or murder another human being arises and the financial incentives are clear, will most of us oppress and murder others? Are we all hard wired, given the right set of circumstances, to engage in such base animalistic behavior? This is the question I must ask after reading two books:
- Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan Gross; and
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, By Isabel Wilkerson
Neighbors, a book by Jan Gross describes the Poles in Jedwabne torturing and killing the entire Jewish population (1,600 human beings). Most were forced into a barn and burned alive. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson tells of life in the Jim Crow South and how, starting from WWI, many African Americans moved northward to escape a life of poverty, terror and murder. I see two different places: Poland and the U.S. South and two different sets of peoples: Poles and Jews and Southern American Whites and African Americans. But the refrain is the same. One people decides that they are superior to the other and that the “other” is subhuman and does not deserve to live and has no rights.
Whites in the American South built their entire economy and life based on the enslavement of Africans. In 1861, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, announced the “the great truth” — “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.” The new South was the first government, Stephens continued, “in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” (Wilkerson at 59)
After the American Civil War, the white population could no longer call the Africans slaves and sell them at auction, but they could still treat them like slaves. The Jim Crow laws of the southern States forced an almost complete separation between the two groups. The freed slaves had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came by and they had to step out of line and wait at the ticket counter, the ice cream parlor, or anywhere else if a white person arrived. African Americans in Jim Crow south were likely to be beaten or murdered by a white man or a mob of white men if they felt that he stepped out of line in the slightest way. Just looking at a white woman could get a man lynched.
Wilkerson tells of many occasions in the American South where whites persecuted, tortured and murdered African Americans. But one incident she describes reminds me of Jedwabne and so many other “events” during the Holocaust, that I have been reassessing my assumptions about the basic goodness of our species.
This happened in Florida panhandle town of Marianna, Florida, in the fall of 1934:
“That October, a twenty-three year old colored farmhand named Claude Neal was accused of the rape and the murder of a twenty-year old white woman named Lola Cannidy. Neal had grown up across the road from Lola Cannidy’s family. He was arrested and signed a written confession that historians have since called into question. But at the time, passions ran so high that a band of more than three hundred men armed with guns, knives, torches, and dynamite went searching for Neal in every jail within a seventy-five-mile radius of Marianna.” (Wilkerson at 60)
Because of the mob, the Sheriff moved him to a jail in Brewton, Alabama, fifty-five miles north. The mob found out where he was and “drove several hours . . . in a thirty car caravan. .. . They stormed the jail and took Neal, his limbs bound with a plow rope, back to Marianna.” (Id.)
The group announced the lynching would be at 8 pm that night. “The advance notice allowed word to spread by radio, teletype, and afternoon papers to the western time zones.
Well before the appointed hour, several thousand people had gathered at the lynching site. The crowd grew so large and unruly – people having been given sufficient forewarning to come in from other states – that [the organizers], fearing a riot, took Neal to the woods by the Chipola River to wait out the crowds and torture him before the execution.
There his captors took knives and castrated him in the woods. Then they made him eat the severed body parts ‘and say he liked it,’ a witness said. . . .
Around Neal’s neck, they tied a rope and pulled it over a limb to the point of his chocking before lowering him to take up the torture again. ‘Every now and then somebody would cut off a finger or toe,’ the witness said. Then the men used hot irons to burn him all over his body in a ritual that went on for several hours. . . . The crowd waiting in town never got to see Neal die. The [organizers] finally decided to just kill him in the woods. His nude body was then tied to the back of a car and dragged to the Cannidy house where men, women and children stabbed the corpse with sticks and knives.” (Wilkerson at 60-61)
Only a few years later, across the Atlantic, another set of human beings had similar feelings about a different subhuman group. On December 16, 1941, Dr. Buhler, the General Secretary of the General Government, which was the areas in Poland controlled by Nazis, stated:
“Jews must be removed as quickly as possible from the General Government, because it was there in particular that the Jew, as a carrier of epidemics, constituted a great danger, and at the same time, caused constant disorder in the economic structure of the country by his continuous black-market dealings. Furthermore, of the approximately two and a half million Jews under consideration, the majority were in any case unfit for work. . . . “ (Arad at 12-13).
General Gustav von Bechtolsheim, commander of the infantry division responsible for security in the Minsk area, provides another statement to consider: “Jews were ‘no longer humans in the European sense of the word,’ and thus ‘must be destroyed.” (Bloodlands at 206)
These statements echo pronouncements made by Hitler, Himmler and other Nazis. But what about the Poles of Jedwabne? The Poles and the Jews had been living (mostly) peaceably together in Jedwabne for hundreds of years. However, it appears that when the Germans attacked and took control of the Soviet areas of Poland on June 22, 1941, the inner Polish beast was unleashed. All at once it seemed acceptable to openly hate the Jew and to torture and murder them. And, by the way, after you torture and murder them, you can have all their money and belongings. With the 1,600 Jews making up one-half the population of Jedwabne before WWII, that was plenty of wealth to go around.
Gross quotes the testimony given by Szmul Wasersztajn before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok on April 5, 1945:
“On Monday evening, June 23, 1941, Germans entered the town. And as early as the 25th local bandits, from the Polish population started an anti-Jewish pogrom. Two of those bandits, Borwoski (Borowiuk?) Wacek with his brother Mietek, walked from one Jewish dwelling to another together with other bandits playing accordion and flute to drown out the screams of Jewish women and children. I saw with my own eyes how those murderers killed Chajcia Wasersztajn, Jakub Kac, seventy-three year old, and Elianz Krawiecki.
Jakub Kac they stoned to death with bricks, Krawiecki they knifed and then plucked his eyes and cut off his tongue. He suffered terribly for twelve hours before he gave up his soul.” (Gross at 2-3)
July 10, 1941 is the day that the rest of Jedwabne’s Jews were burned alive. News had spread to surrounding towns that something was happening to the Jews of Jedwabne that day. Hundreds traveled from the surrounding towns to watch: “Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers’ breast, people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance.” Wasersztajn explained. “In the end they proceeded to the main action – the burning. The entire town was surrounded by guards so that nobody could escape; then Jews were ordered to line up in a column, four in a row, and the ninety-year old rabbi and the shochet [Kosher butcher] were ordered to sing and were chased into the barn. Hooligans bestially beat them up on the way. Near the gate a few hooligans were standing, playing various instruments in order to drown the screams of the horrified victims. Some tried to defend themselves, but they were defenseless. Bloodied and wounded, they were pushed into the barn. Then the barn was doused with kerosene and lit, and the bandits went around to search Jewish homes, to look for the remaining sick and children. The sick people they found they carried to the barn themselves, and as for the little children, they roped a few together by their legs and carried them on their backs, then put them on the pitchforks and threw them onto smoldering coals.
After the fire they used axes to knock golden teeth from still not entirely decomposed bodies and in other ways violated the corpses of the holy martyrs.” (Id. at 5-6)
Then there is Armenia (1910’s & 1920’s), Cambodia (1970’s), Rwanda (1990’s), Bosnia (1990’s) and more. You can see my problem.
In contrast, think of the Stys families and the millions and millions of good people on this earth. So, I really don’t know what to believe.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. 1987.
Gross, Jan. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 2012.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Vintage Publishing. 2011.
Wikipedia. List of Genocides by Death Tolls: