The controversy about Jedwabne, 2000-2001

In 2000 a book called 'Neighbours: the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne' was published. Drawing on the 1945 testimony of a Jewish survivor, and some of the 1949 court records, the author (a Polish Jew now an American Professor of sociology and political sciences) vividly described how in 1941 the Polish community in Jedwabne had turned on its Jewish neighbours in a particularly brutal way. The book started an international row. A number of Polish academics found fault with the author's use of evidence, and with the reliability of the evidence itself. This included an assertion that the 1945 eyewitness was in fact 500 metres away from the scene, in hiding, and could not have seen all that he claimed. Historians and others who accepted the story as told in 'Neighbours' had hostile exchanges with those who rejected it. Poles at large were either outraged by the implications or filled with shame. Jewish anger (now publicly expressible) grew that the memorial stone at Jedwabne implied only German responsibility. The inscription read: 'In memory of Jews from Jedwabne and its neighbourhood, men, women and children, partners in this land, murdered and burned alive at this spot on 10 July 1941. As a warning to posterity so that the sin of hatred inflamed by German Nazism might never set the inhabitants of this land against each other' (translation). The stone was removed in March 2001.

In September 2000 the Polish Institute of National Remembrance embarked on an investigation into the Jedwabne massacre. In February 20001 a meeting was held between the Institute's president and representatives of the Jedwabne Jews in America. A press release was issued. 'All participating in the meeting acknowledged that these actions are an essential element of the healing process between Jews and Poles. This process will set the pace of Polish-Jewish reconciliation and will indeed serve the generations to come as a beacon, allowing for the separation of right from wrong.'

The investigators studied the eyewitness statements and the reports of the 1949 trial (and of a later trial in 1953). They looked at German archives concerning the activities of a German Gestapo commando unit which had ordered the murder of Jewish inhabitants, in a very similar way, in nearby towns. At Jedwabne itself, two burial sites, one inside the barn's inner area and one along its edge, were found. The mass graves were opened, revealing the remains of up to 250 Jewish victims. About 100 German rifle bullets and cartridge cases were also found, including a bullet case with a melted core, assumed to have melted in the fire.

The investigation, which had resolved to uncover the whole truth, encountered difficulties. For religious reasons, there was Jewish opposition to exhumation, so that the bodies could not be removed and counted. The grave beneath the barn floor also contained fragments of a statue of Lenin; but eyewitnesses in 1941 had maintained that these, and the people forced to carry them, had been buried in the old Jewish cemetery close by. This was an unwelcome reminder that what witnesses say, and what the facts are, may not always be the same.

Although the investigation was not over - and some said that an accurate history may never be established - a memorial ceremony was held in Jedwabne on July 10 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre. The President of Poland officially apologised for the part taken by Poles. 'We know with certainty that there were Poles among the persecutors and butchers. Here in Jedwabne citizens of the Polish republic died at the hands of fellow citizens. I apologise on my own behalf and on behalf of those Poles whose consciences have been stirred by the crime.'

There was a silent march from the square to the new Jedwabne Jewish memorial, a plain block of sandstone on a lawn surrounded by grey stone blocks, which has been set up on the site of the barn. The Jewish prayer for the dead was said. Two beds of evergreens mark the graves where the victims' remains were buried. A memorial has also been placed in the Jewish cemetery nearby.

It was a wet day, and fewer people were present than the police had expected. There were some notable absentees. No-one represented the Roman Catholic church; its bishops had already prayed, in May, in penance for Poles who had wronged Jews in 'atrocities committed in Jedwabne and elsewhere on Polish soil'. Poland's cardinal had said, 'We apologise above all to God but also to the wronged on behalf of Polish citizens who committed evil against citizens of the Mosaic faith'; but he added, 'Should not Jews also admit guilt for collaborating with the Bolsheviks in sending Poles to Siberia, or for the leading role played by Jews in the communist secret police?' The local priest also stayed away from the memorial service, saying 'I will not take part in a lie.'

Most of Jedwabne's inhabitants kept their distance, too. Notices had been put up in shops saying 'We do not apologise: It was the Germans who murdered the Jews of Jedwabne'. Some local people said they would have liked to attend, but were afraid that doing so would be an admission of guilt for a crime that occurred before they were born. A number of Jews were also absent: they objected to the failure to record on the new memorial the number killed and by whom.



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