Locals stay away as Jews mark postwar Polish massacre

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Some 150 people attended a commemoration in Jedwabne, Poland, on the 75th anniversary of a massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews by their neighbors.

The town’s history is controversial in Poland because it involves complicity in the Holocaust by members of a nation that many perceive primarily as a victim of the German Nazi occupation.

In 1941, a few dozen villagers in Jedwabne burned alive at least 340 local Jews.


Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, at Jedwabne’s Jewish cemetery on July 10, reciting a prayer for 1941 massacre victims photo/jta-cnaan liphshiz

The mayor of Jedwabne did not attend the July 10 event, citing previous engagements, nor did any of the townspeople, according to Henryk Zandek, 90, a non-Jewish man who lived in Jedwabne for years after World War II.


Ichak Lewin, an 85-year-old survivor who lives in Israel, sobbed when he recalled how the Jewish population of his village near Jedwabne was, in his words, “taken to the barn and burned alive.” Warned by locals, his family escaped the roundup in nearby woods, where a Polish family hid them.

Under Poland’s Communist governments, which blurred sectarian divides and at times displayed anti-Semitic tendencies, Jedwabne’s Holocaust-era record was little known until 15 years ago, said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi. In 2001, the publication of a book on Jedwabne by Princeton historian Jan Gross triggered a public debate on the issue.

In a nation where the Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Polish Jews, “some found it, and some find it, difficult to accept the very bitter truth” about Jedwabne, Schudrich said. But since then, polls suggest that today approximately half of Poles have come to accept their compatriots’ role at Jedwabne, Schudrich said.

Polish Undersecretary of State Wojciech Kolarski represented Polish President Andrzej Duda at the event, laying a wreath at the monument for the victims.

“To be clear about what happened here: Polish citizens killed their own Polish compatriots of Jewish origin in a way that damaged a long tradition of living side by side,” Kolarski said. “There can be no justification for that.”

Some Polish politicians in the past denied that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, including Jadwiga Stolarska, a former senator who stated in Parliament in 2001 that Germans were behind the killings and that “there was no way a Pole could kill a Jew.”

In 2011, Poland’s then-president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said, “I beg forgiveness” for what happened at Jedwabne. In a nation of victims, he said, “There were perpetrators.”

Duda last year attacked Komorowski’s statement in what some observers considered a step backward from acceptance of the role of Poles in the massacre at Jedwabne. Duda heads the center-right Law and Justice party.

“I believe it is extremely important for us that we did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a televised debate last year. “The Lord knows that the Polish people did not take part in the Holocaust.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said the July 10 event “show[ed] us how seriously Polish society takes this matter,” citing Kolarski’s presence and that of the national media.

Unlike some of its neighbors, he said, Poland is “standing up to its sometimes difficult past and not shirking from often painful truths.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent