The Towns of Death by Mirosław Tryczyk is the English translation of his Polish-language Miasta śmierci on the pogroms of Jews in Eastern Poland perpetrated by their Polish neighbors. The book is a product of two journeys: that of its Polish author and his Polish-American translator. I – the translator – am a child of a Holocaust survivor who was born right after WWII, in a town just east of the new Polish-German border. In my youth in Poland, I was subjected to the anti-Semitic taunts of my peers, with a few black eyes to show for it. The emotional legacy of my formative years has persisted well into my adulthood. In order to escape this atmosphere, my family emigrated to the United State in 1965, but the subject of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust has always weighed heavily on my mind. My education on the subject had always pointed to the exclusive guilt of Nazi Germany for the Holocaust. However, around 2000, I read about the pogroms in Jedwabne, Poland, in July 1941, which came to light as the result of Jan T. Gross’s book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross describes how the town’s Polish population herded its Jewish neighbors into a barn and burned them there. The book started an intense debate in Poland, mostly involving the denial and blame-shifting that have become the official position of the present government, now codified into law. This history of denial and suppression of the historical record continues to this day not only in Poland but also elsewhere in Europe.
Dr. Tryczyk wrote the book from the deeply personal perspective of a man fighting for the soul of his nation, someone dedicated to setting the historical record straight. For the author –a young Pole, a native of the region, and the grandson of a man who was a participant in the described events– the book is as much an emotional as a historical journey. For Dr. Tryczyk, an ethicist and philosopher, the writing was a deeply personal quest to lance the festering wound from a deeply lodged “splinter” in the collective conscience of the nation.
Convinced that English-speaking audiences should have the opportunity to read the book, I sought out Dr. Tryczyk and proposed to translate it. Owing to the political situation in Poland, there was no question of financial support in Poland for the endeavor. It took six months to translate the book, one year to find a publisher, secure the rights to photographic materials (special thanks to Mr. Mike Marvins, the author of Lives Remembered: A Shtetl Through a Photographer’s Eye, and Ms. Eva Rosenstein), many months to revise the book and furnish it with an index, oversee the galley proofs, etc., but finally the English translation of the book is in print, just in time for the 80th anniversary of the pogroms in Eastern Poland – a fitting memorialization of the forgotten victims of those tragic events. It is now available in print and e-book formats from its publisher – Rowman and Littlefield – and other booksellers. All royalties will go solely to the author, who has lost his job in Poland as a result of his activities, which apart from his scholarship also include locating and memorializing unmarked sites of mass murder in Eastern Poland.
The book does not aim to be solely a history book but is aimed at a general audience although for scientific purposes, it is meticulously researched and sourced. Dr. Tryczyk adds to the scholarship in the area by demonstrating the organized nature of the extermination, which followed a pattern that was repeated from one town or village to another. He shows that the pogroms were largely undertaken by the Poles themselves on their own initiative. The book offers a new and distinctive research perspective by pointing to the crucial role of the Catholic Church and individual Catholic priests in creating and strengthening anti-Semitic ideologies in pre-war Poland and the impact of the pre-war Polish right-wing political parties (the National Democracy, the National Radical Camp, and the National Unity Camp) in shaping a negative image of the Jewish community, which was the prelude to the wave of pogroms in 1941. In particular, the book contests the notion that the pogroms were carried out exclusively by ill-educated peasant masses and provides evidence for the leading role of the intellectual elites.
We hope that the book will serve as a warning sign to all people of good will at this time. Many a nation – including our own – have been called upon in these days of rising anti-Semitism and general intolerance to re-examine their past and to acknowledge and rectify the wrongs done to the people living among them. The Towns of Death is a sobering reminder of how, under certain circumstances, intolerance can lead step by step toward the wholesale murders of those perceived as “the other.” It is a warning for our times.
Translator – Ph.D. Frank Szmulowicz