Against the backdrop of a Poland in denial, Jedwabne apologizes

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JEDWABNE — Sixty years after hundreds of Jews in a Polish village were slaughtered by their neighbors, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski offered an apology and asked forgiveness.

"For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness," Kwasniewski told about 3,000 people gathered in the pouring rain Tuesday at a ceremony in the village of Jedwabne.

"This is why today, as a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon," he said. "I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime."

Joined by government officials, Jewish leaders and survivors and relatives of Jedwabne victims, Kwasniewski walked in silence from the village center to the site of the barn in which as many as 1,600 Jews were burned to death on July 10, 1941. Other Jews already had been butchered in a murderous frenzy of violence.

At the site, New York Cantor Joseph Malovany said Kaddish. Jedwabne-born Rabbi Jacob Baker led prayers and a new wood and concrete monument to the victims was unveiled.

For decades, a smaller monument on the site had attributed the slaughter to German Nazis and the Gestapo.

This was removed in March after a book titled "Neighbors" by Polish-American scholar Jan Gross — followed by a documentary film and other on-site research — revealed that the massacre was carried out by ordinary, local Poles.

The revelations sparked what has been the most open, widespread and wrenching debate in Poland about that nation's role in the Holocaust.

"The remarkable characteristic of anything to do with Jews in Poland is its intensity," said British Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber, who attended the Jedwabne ceremony. "Poles are examining themselves when they examine Jewish issues."

Gross himself commented after the event that he had never anticipated the storm the book caused.

"I knew that there would be some reaction," he said, "but not like this!"

Some 3 million of prewar Poland's 3.5 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but Catholic Poles also suffered deeply under the Nazis. The official formulation was that 6 million Polish citizens were killed by the Nazis — 3 million Jews and 3 million Catholics.

Under communism, the ideal of Polish martyrdom, resistance and heroism in fighting the Nazis was bolstered.

What historian Marta Petrusewicz called a "myth of Polish innocence" was encouraged.

In this construct, dishonorable deeds and shameful historical events were covered up to prevent conflicts with the official version of history. Disgrace, shame and dishonor, however, could fester privately as dark secrets "protected" by taboos.

This is what happened in Jedwabne itself.

"I learned about the massacre as a 'Big Secret' as a child," recalled Marta Kurkowska-Budza, a young social historian at Krakow's Jagiellonian University who was born in Jedwabne. "You know, once Poles burnt alive Jews in a barn and robbed them."

Gross' book — and the ensuing debates and media attention — exploded these taboos.

For some, it was a cathartic relief. For others, it was a valuable key to rethinking history. For still others, it provoked further denial.

"To contemporary Jedwabne inhabitants but also Poles in general, the murder of Jews is this kind of traumatic, undomesticated history; the public debate is painful but was inescapable," Kurkowska-Budza has stated. "Public discourse is a battleground."

Many declared that the controversy had been healthy. Even one of the policemen shepherding the crowds said that he thought it was a valuable process.

"We must talk about the Holocaust," he said, fumbling for the words. Over and over again, Poles urged outsiders to recognize that the country has changed, and that Jews should feel now welcome.

The intensity of feeling, both positive and negative, could be seen at Tuesday's ceremony.

Many participants came from around Poland to the village more than 100 miles northeast of Warsaw, but missing from the delegations and mourners were the local Jedwabne priest and other Roman Catholic officials.

"These are all lies. I am spending the day quietly at home," Rev. Edward Orlowski told reporters. "It is Holocaust business. It is not my business. Germans are responsible, so why should we apologize?"

Many local villagers in the rundown town of 2,000 also stayed home.

As the crowd streamed from the ceremony site to the place where the barn once stood, villagers watched from their windows or from within their gardens, children in arms, more curious than angry.

Taped to the door of at least one shop, however, was a defiant notice, signed by the "Committee for the Defense of the Good Name of Poland," reading: "We do not apologize. It was the Germans who murdered Jews in Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation."

Indeed, opinion polls show that about half of Poles refuse to accept shared responsibility for the killings.

Senior Polish officials, in fact, said Kwasniewski was careful not to make his apology on behalf of the entire nation because the country was not responsible for the massacre.

The wording on the monument also reflected this view, to the dismay of Jews.

The new inscription removes reference to the perpetrators as having been German Nazis — but it does not say who actually did the killing.

It reads, in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish: "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women and children, fellow dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941. Jedwabne, July 10, 2001."

It was unclear whether this inscription might be changed again once a final report from an investigation into the Jedwabne massacre and a similar slaughter carried out three days earlier in the nearby village of Radzilow is published.

The government's Institute of National Remembrance began the inquiry in September, and to date its findings bear out Gross' account.

"The said crime has been committed by burning the Jewish victims — men, women and children — in a barn located at the outskirts of the Jedwabne town," the institute stated recently.

"During the investigation currently conducted, 42 witnesses have been heard, including a group of eyewitnesses of the events," the institute said. "In the light of their accounts, it can be assumed that Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne actively participated in the crime.

"These were mainly young men in the number of about 40, acting jointly with eight German gendarmes present at the site."

On Tuesday, three young Israelis were among the victims' relatives at the site, brought there by their grandfather. They were carrying an Israeli flag, a poster listing the names of 40 victims and one honoring the villagers who rescued the few Jews that survived the massacre.

The rain, described by Baker as tears from God, soaked their white shirts, and the wind unfurled their flag as other family members laid flowers and stones on the monument. For a few moments, all the controversy was forgotten.