Early in 2011, I read “The Destruction of the House of the Trinczers,” an English translation of Tadeusz Markiel’s “Zagłada domu Trinczerów,” describing the events that occurred under German occupation in his home village of Gniewczyna, Poland (pronounced “g’nyevchinna”), near the city of Przeworsk in western Galicia. Written more than six decades later, Markiel’s testimony was first published in the liberal Catholic monthly Znak in 2008, and resurfaced in a profile of Markiel that appeared in the Polish journal Polityka in December 2010.
Markiel’s narrative describes, in great detail, the roundup, robbery, rape, torture and eventual massacre of between two and three dozen of Gniewczyna’s Jews in May 1942, emphasizing that those responsible were not only and not even initially the occupying Nazi Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators, but Poles from the village itself—neighbors. The story for many recalled the well-known case of the 1941 pogrom in the northeastern Polish town of Jedwabne, in which at least 350 and as many as 1,000 Jews were massacred by ethnic Poles in the weeks after the Germans seized the town from the retreating Soviet Army––the subject of Jan T. Gross’ 2000 book Neighbors, and Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic’s 2003 book The Neighbors Respond. However, in contrast to the Jedwabne massacre (or the 1941 Lwów pogrom, and others), in which Germans encouraged Poles to attack Jews on the grounds of purported Jewish sympathy with anti-Polish Soviet policies, Gniewczyna was never occupied by the Soviets. Markiel presents the atrocities in Gniewczyna against its Jews as motivated by ancient communal antipathies rather than proximate political causes.
In May, 2011, I went to Gniewczyna with Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków. We wanted to look deeper into the story. Through a series of in-depth conversations with older residents of the village, all of whom lived through the war and all of whom had known Gniewczyna’s Jews personally, we learned that a great deal more happened in this village than Markiel’s text relates. It appears, in a nutshell, that the obscenities and crimes Markiel reveals were complemented by a determined and partially successful effort by other villagers to hide and save their Jewish neighbors, and also by the unsuccessful effort of at least one Jew to save himself and his family through armed resistance. It seems fair to say that the village of Gniewczyna was not just a place of extraordinary brutality, but a place of heroism, and a microcosm of the complexities of Polish-Jewish relations under occupation.
Further research, interviews and oral histories are necessary, but I suspect that further details will only thicken the ethical, historical and factual complications of the story. An artist's book of my work on this story, Report from Gniewczyna (2012) is an overtly dialectical engagement with the events that took place in Gniewczyna, and what it means to remember them––an interpretive relay between a core text of remembrance, questions and commentary about that text, and images. The core text is my own revised translation of Markiel’s narrative––based on the unidiomatic Znak translation by Zuzanna Bluszcz, Monika Sznajder, Rafal Betlejewski and Robert Sieradzki––to which I have added a series of interventions given in boldface, based on my research and on information directly obtained from those with whom Jakub Nowakowski and I spoke. Interspersed are a series of photographs that I made in Gniewczyna, including many at the house of the Trinczer family––abandoned and still standing––and at other locations where key events happened.
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