TST, Vol. 8, Issue No. 22-23/2000

Kwasniewski apologizes for Jedwabne pogrom

by Robert Strybel
On July 10, the 60th anniversary of a the Jedwabne massacre, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski officially apologized for the part allegedly played by Poles in the 1941 pogrom in which an undetermined number of Jews were stabbed, bludgeoned and burned alive in a barn. In his address to several thousand umbrella-shielded mourners in the small northeastern town, the ex-communist president said: "We know with all certainty that among the persecutors and butchers there were Poles. Here in Jedwabne, citizens of the Polish Republic died at the hands of other citizens. (...) Because of that crime we should beg the forgiveness of the shades of the victims and their families. I therefore apologize here today, as a citizen and as the president of the Polish Republic. I apologize on my own behalf and on behalf of those Poles whose consciences have been stirred by that crime, who believe that one cannot be proud of Polish history's greatness without simultaneously feeling pain and shame at the evil committed by Poles against others."
Kwasniewski's remarks were followed on that gray and drizzly forenoon by Israel's ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, who alluded to the title of Jan T. Gross's controversial when he said: "In my lifetime I have had an opportunity to also encounter different neighbors. Thanks to them I and my family have survived the Holocaust and I can stand here before you today. In my lifetime I have also encountered other barns in which Jews were concealed."
Following a silent march down a rural lane leading to the new Jedwabne memorial, the mourners were addressed by elderly New York Rabbi Jacob Baker, who had emigrated from Jedwabne before the outbreak of World War II as Jakub Piekarz. He reminisced at length about his teacher Rabbi Avigdor Bialostocki, one of the victims consumed by the burning barn, and praised Kwasniewski saying Mr. Kwasniewski, our president, who perhaps 100 or 200 years from now will be acknowledged as a great figure, is saying that Poland -- our Poland -- today asks forgiveness, and those Poland is addressing should accept that request. (...) This will be one of the most beautiful pages in the history of Poland and the history of the whole world.
Wreaths were laid at the memorial, a plain sandstone block set on a grassy green fenced in by gray stone blocks. This was the site of the Sleszynski barn in which the massacre victims perished. Two evergreen beds mark the spot where two graves containing their remains victims were found. Mourners placed small stones on top of the memorial in a traditional Jewish funeral gesture and a group of rabbis from different countries led the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which makes no mention of the deceased by praises God's greatness much like the Catholic Gloria."
Although the police had braced for anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 participants, only about 1,500 took part in the commemoration, but the rain was only partially to blame. Conspicuously absent, but for different reasons, Poland's Roman Catholic bishops, Jewish groups who boycotted the ceremonies and today's Jedwabne residents, some of whom watched the two-hour proceedings televised live on Polish TV. In May, the Polish Episcopate had prayed on its knees in Warsaw's largest church in a penitential gesture for the Poles who had wronged Jews, specifically mentioning "the atrocities committed in Jedwabne and elsewhere on Polish soil." According to Jedwabne Mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, the people of Jedwabne were torn. On the one hand, some had felt an urge to participate in the ceremonies, but feared that doing so would be seen as an admission of guilt of a crime committed long before most of them were even born. The families of victims and other Jewish groups that stayed away had mainly been turned off by the inscription on the monument which did not single out Poles as the killers. The Simon Wiesenthal Center voiced a similar complaint.
Jewish New Yorker Ty Rogers attended the event even though he shared those misgivings. "We will accept the inscription when it says who committed the crime. The responsibility of Poles cannot be denied," said the unofficial spokesman for Jedwabne victims' families, who says he lost 26 relatives in the massacre. Jews and their Gentile allies, who believe Poles should apologize to Jews for the crime, unanimously praised the commemoration and hailed Kwasniewski's speech. "Poles should know what happened here 60 years ago. Men, women and children were burned alive. I am very grateful to president Kwasniewski for apologizing," said Jacob Pecynowicz, one of two American Jews who had survived the massacre. "President Kwasniewski's words give hope for the future of coming generations. I believe we can live together side by side," remarked Michael Schudrich, the US-born rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz.
"The significance of this gathering on the 60th anniversary of the extermination of Jews in Jedwabne lies mainly in our joint expression of grief that Poles had also taken part in the murder," remarked Rev. Adam Boniecki, editor of the Catholic weekly "Tygodnik Powszechny," the only prominent Roman Catholic cleric at the event. Prof. Leon Kieres, who heads the National Remembrance Institute investigating the massacre, stated: "The commemoration showed how strong we are, because we are the only nation in this part of Europe to set its history and its historical attitude in order."
Jedwabne's current Catholic pastor Father Edward Orlowski refused to attend the ceremony saying "the whole thing is a lie and I will not take part in a lie." But he cordially received Rabbi Baker when the frail, gray-bearded 90-year-old turned up at his rectory and the two reminisced about common friends rather than discussing the ceremony. Marek Sawicki said his Polish Peasant Party did not participate because the ceremony had failed to reflect the spirit of the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's 1965 appeal to the Germans: "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." "The entire Jedwabne issue is being approached not in human or historical categories but from a political angle," he added. Right-wing politician Stefan Niesiolowski commented: "I have one question: Why has Kwasniewski so emphatically, clearly and unequivocally never apologized for the crimes of communism?"
The right-wing Catholic daily "Nasz Dziennik," which provided low-key coverage of the event on page 3, began with the words: "The gathering took place the way all those who have accused Poles of the 1941 crime had wanted." A prominent right-wing politician, former prime minister Jan Olszewski (who won more support from Chicago's Polish voters in the 1995 presidential elections than either Kwasniewski or Walesa) remarked: "It is not good that certain things were anticipated. It is still unclear how many victims there were and who and to what extent was the perpetrator. During the Jedwabne commemoration the version of events depicted in Mr. Gross's book was accepted as true and binding, even though historians have questioned its basic premises."
 Although the Jedwabne pogrom had been written about at various times in recent decades, somehow it never ignited much media or scholarly interest. It was only Jan Gross's book "Neighbors" that unleashed a fierce debate that shows no signs of subsiding any time soon. In essence, the Polish-born scholar alleged that on July 10, 1941 the Polish residents of the small northeastern town of Jedwabne in the Bialystok region murdered the Jewish half of the population. According to Gross, most of the 1,600 victims were locked in a barn and burned alive. Poland's National Remembrance Institute (IPN) has been investigating the crime but its findings can hardly be called conclusive. A partial opening of the burial site revealed the remains of between 150 to 250 people, a far cry from the 1,600 alleged by Gross. But the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem has on file the names of more than 400 alleged victims, and every deposition by a survivor attributes the pogrom to Poles. "The Poles are the ones who did it. They had clubs and axes and things, but not guns. They did it with the permission of the Germans," one survivor who was 16 at the time of the massacre said on Polish Television. But a Detroit-based Polish anti-defamation group, the Heralds of Truth, did some research of its own, found an eye-witness who was doing roof work during the pogrom in Jedwabne and stated that armed German troops were mainly involved in the operation.
Gross stated that 92 Poles took an active part in the massacre, but the post-war communist regime put only 23 men on trial, of which only 12 were found guilty and sent to prison. Another still unresolved controversy are the circumstances under which the pogrom occurred. Gross contends that Poles initiated and carried out the killings voluntarily, in order to get their hands on the murdered Jews' homes and valuables. Only a handful of Germans was on hand to photograph the event. Historian Tomasz Strzembosz and other of Gross's intellectual opponents have found evidence that the town's adult Polish males were ordered by the German gendarmes, possibly at gunpoint, to herd the Jews into the square and later march them over to the barn. Anyone who refused or tried to hide risked death. Many critics have also accused Gross of sloppy scholarship or even deliberately ignoring evidence that did not fit his preconceived notions.
Due to the large number of loose ends, Leon Kieres of the National Remembrance Institute now says the investigation will take till the end of the year to complete. New witnesses keep emerging but not all of them agree to have their identities publicized. Some Poles felt holding the ceremony on July 10th was premature since the investigation is still under way. Many Jews want the names of the victims enumerated on the monument, and Poland's Monuments Council has left a space on one side for such a list. But that is a seemingly impossible task in view of Jewish opposition to a full-fledged exhumation for religious reasons. Jews grudgingly permitted the opening of the graves at the massacre site in June, but opposed removing and counting the bodies. But even that partial exhumation produced three major surprises. The estimated number of bodies was many times smaller than Gross's 1,600. The discovery of some 100 German rifle bullets and cartridge casings at the site clearly suggested Nazi involvement in the massacre. An even bigger surprise was the discovery of a second grave below to floor of the barn together with fragments of a statue of Lenin the Jews were ordered to remove from the square and carry in procession. According to eye-witness reports, the statue and the bodies of those carrying it were said to have been buried at the nearby old Jewish cemetery. The fact they were found at the barn site illustrates the unreliability of both Polish and Jewish accounts of what occurred 60 years ago.
The inscription on the monument that many Jews take exception to reads:
"In memory of Jews from Jedwabne and environs, men, women and children, co-masters of this land, murdered and burned alive at this spot on 10 July 1941."
But they were even more adamantly opposed to the original version which added the following words to the above: "As a warning to posterity so that the sin of hatred enflamed by German Nazism might never set the inhabitants of this land against each other." Jews feared that future generations would take that to mean the Germans were responsible rather than the town's Polish inhabitants.
Perhaps a more accurate inscription would warn generations to come against the "sin of hatred enflamed by German Nazism and Soviet Communism and fanned by selfish human shortsightedness." In his book Gross stated that the Jedwabne massacre would never have occurred if the Germans had not invaded and occupied the area. That is probably true. And it is also probably true that the pogrom would not have occurred if the Soviets had not annexed and occupied the area for nearly two years prior to the German takeover. During that time the local Poles lost their jobs, were discriminated against, arrested, beaten and often killed, or were sent into Soviet exile, many never to be heard from again. All too often, they were denounced by Jewish neighbors they had lived next door to and gone to school who were now collaborating with the Soviet aggressors.
In his latest book, Gross has tried to and soft-pedal such charges, and with good reason. His earlier works, which highlighted Jewish collaboration with the Soviets, were largely ignored by America's largely pro-Jewish cultural establishment, whereas his sensationalized "Neighbors" turned him into an international celebrity overnight. Some Jews contend that a Jew ceasing being a Jew the minute he becomes a communist. Poles sometimes counter such self-serving argumentation with the retort that Polish Catholics could not have murdered Jews, because Poles are known for their chivalry and honor and a true Christian does not kill his fellow-man. But all sophistry aside, the problem with the Jedwabne dispute and other similar controversies in Poland, the Balkans, Middle East or wherever is that they tend to degenerate into a confused tangle of ethnic, religious, moral, political and historical issues which defy rational analysis. They can be better understood, when such considerations are set aside, if only momentarily, and the issue is viewed solely through the prism of pragmatic self-interest.
 There were Polish "szmalcowniks" who blackmailed Jews, while other Poles denounced fellow-Poles, Jews, Russians and others to the Nazis, served as a Nazi-era "blue policeman" or even collaborated with the Soviets. And there were Jews who denounced Poles to Stalin's NKVD, collaborated with the Soviet invaders against Poland or served the Nazis as members of the "Judenrats" (Jewish Councils) or ghetto police. All of them were acting in what at the time seemed to be their own best interests. Had the Polish Jew-basher foreseen that within a few years he would be face the gallows for his misdeeds, and the Jewish red militiamen had known he would be burned alive for his collaboration, we can be rest assured that neither would have acted as they had. But some undoubtedly viewed the Soviet occupation as the wave of the future, the prelude to Stalin's world-wide "workers paradise" and acted accordingly. When the Soviets were routed, others undoubtedly swallowed the propaganda of Hitler's purportedly invincible 1,000-year Reich.
 In the case of Polish-Jewish relations, that might be a more useful approach to understanding the situation, hence the rhetorical suggestion that "selfish shortsightedness" could well be added to the inscription to explain what had happened. It would be very difficult to balance the wrongs committed by Poles with those suffered they suffered at the hands of the Germans, Russians and even Ukrainians. And it would be even more difficult to speak of Jewish wrongs against Germans in view of the enormity of Nazi crimes against the Jewish people. But Polish offenses against Jews and Jewish offenses against Poles during World War II and the post-war period seem to roughly balance out. Amid the hullabaloo of endless claims, speculations, accusations and demanded apologies -- that simple fact seems to have slipped everyone's attention.

TST, Vol. 8, Issue No. 22-23/2000

The Summit Times

Copyright 2001 by Andrzej M. Salski