Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Q&A with Anna Bikont

Anna Bikont is the author of The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne, which focuses on Jews in Poland during World War II. The book won the 2011 European Book Prize, and is now available in English. She is a journalist for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the Jedwabne massacre, and how long did it take to research the book?

A: I decided to write the book in 2000, after Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors was published, which was the first book about Jedwabne. The research took three years. Three years sensu stricto, 365 days multiplied by three. I was so obsessed that I was not doing anything else. And one additional year to write the book.

Q: Has public reaction in Poland about the subject of Jedwabne, and the subject of antisemitism, changed since you started working on this book?

A: Oh yes, definitely. Jedwabne has opened a huge national discussion in Poland. In my book, I wrote about taboos like the hateful antisemitism of the Catholic Church before and during the war or Poles enriching themselves at the expense of murdered Jews. These are still not favorite topics for Poles to speak out about, yet they are openly discussed by quite a few Polish historians and Polish media.

Q: How did you decide on the book's structure, which goes back and forth between the events of the early 1940s and your own experiences in the early 2000s?

A: Step by step, rewriting the book again and again. My first plan was to write a reportage about Jedwabne, a town suddenly confronted with the memory of something horrible that had happened many years ago. Then, I started working on Radziłów, the other town near Jedwabne where Poles burned Jews. Then, I started working also on the past of these towns.

After having read the first version of the book my editor and friend Joanna Szczęsna told me that it was too emotional, and maybe I could try to withdraw emotions from my writing, reconstruct my journey in search of the witnesses, perpetrators, and surviving Jews, and put it in a form of a diary. Like it is now.

Q: How many languages has the book been translated into, and have there been different responses to it in the different countries?

A: Into Czech, French, Swedish. For my readers in the Czech Republic and in France, it is a book about Jews and Poles in the wartime. In Sweden, where it was published two years ago and was on the national critics choice-list, it is more about the present and the future. When I held some book events in Stockholm, I was asked: There are and will be many more towns in Europe where two different communities have to live together. How can we avoid a next Jedwabne?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a book about Jewish children hidden on the so-called Aryan side in Warsaw during the Holocaust. It is about a team of incredibly brave and well organized women who arranged for the help for those children. Also about the myths around the help that Poles gave to Jews in the wartime.

After the painful discovery of the Jedwabne massacre, the story about one woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children, that is my main character, Irena Sendlerowa, has become our national pride and ego-up tale.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You can ask me anything else at one of the events I will hold in the U.S. in October, like at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC, the 22th Oct, 7 pm.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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