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Jewish Journal

‘Neighbors’

Revelations of wartime massacre force Poles to examine their past.


by Ruth E. Gruber

March 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Responding to widespread debate over Poles' participation in a 1941 massacre of Jews, Poland's political and religious leaders are calling on Polish citizens to confront their past.

"We have an obligation to honor the memory of the victims and to establish the truth," Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said Tuesday of the massacre in the small town of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland. "We need to confront the darkest facts in our history."

Buzek and other leaders have pledged to commemorate the victims and urged a thorough investigation of the case.

Debate has raged in Poland since the publication last year of Polish-born American scholar Jan Gross' book, "Neighbors." In the book, Gross says that Polish villagers of Jedwabne -- not the Nazis -- murdered some 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors in July 1941 by herding them into a barn and setting it on fire.

The revelations in the book, which is due out soon in English, have sparked a reexamination of the Poles' role during the Holocaust.

Some 3 million Polish Jews died in the genocide. A similar number of non-Jewish Poles were killed by the Nazis.

There have been numerous conferences, articles in the media and heated round-table discussions. A documentary on the case will be released next week.

An investigation launched last year by the Polish National Remembrance Institute has not yet been completed.

"There is no doubt that Poles participated in the crime," Buzek said. "But the murder was done neither in the name of the nation nor in the name of the Polish state."

"We object to the use of the Jedwabne case to spread false statements about the Polish co-responsibility for the Holocaust or on innate Polish anti-Semitism," Buzek said. Nor, he added, "should all inhabitants of Jedwabne of today be reproached for a murder committed 60 years ago."

Most of Jedwabne's current 2,000 residents settled there after the war. Townspeople this week prepared an open letter that condemned the wartime atrocity but also said today's residents should not bear the blame.

"You have to realize that asking the town to make peace with its past is tantamount to desecrating its deepest beliefs of patriotism and Catholicism," Jedwabne's mayor, Krzysztof Godlewski, told Reuters. "And this is difficult, especially since our town was probably not an isolated incident."

President Aleksander Kwasniewski last week pledged to apologize publicly for the massacre.

"This should be done by the authorities of the Polish Republic," he told Polish television. "The anniversary" of the massacre "on 10 July is a good day, and Jedwabne, because of the tragedy that took place there, is a proper place for that," Kwasniewski said.

In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, which was quoted in the Polish media, Kwasniewski called the Jedwabne case "an act of genocide which Poles from Jedwabne carried out against their Jewish neighbors," adding that it was "an exceptionally bestial killing of innocent people."

Kwasniewski, however, drew fire in the media for announcing the apology before a full investigation of the case was completed.

Poland's leading Roman Catholic cardinal, Josef Glemp, called for a thorough investigation of "the causes of such barbaric and hateful attitudes of Poles toward Jews."

He said that, after receiving a letter from Warsaw Rabbi Michael Schudrich, he would eagerly participate in "common prayers of Poles and Jews, either in front of the Ghetto Heroes' Monument, in one of the churches or in the synagogue" to mourn the victims on the 60th anniversary of the massacre this summer.

At the same time, however, he also said he awaited the publication of Gross's book in English "with anxiety, because the truth thereby revealed to Americans is expected to unleash Jewry's sharp attacks on Poles."

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