Vol. 9, Issue No. 28/2002
Report blames 40 Poles for 1941 pogrom
by Robert Strybel
Poland¹s National Remembrance Institute (Instytut Pamieci Narodowej or IPN) has announced the result its two-year investigation into the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, but some of the mysteries surrounding it will probably never be solved. The IPN timed its announcement to coincide with the pogrom's 61st anniversary rather than waiting to analyze a possibly crucial batch of evidence arriving from Israel. In general, the IPN admitted that it had to base its findings on often contradictory testimony, inadequate records and none-too-reliable witnesses who after so many years often confused what they themselves had seen with what they later read or heard.
Although Jedwabne had been written about earlier, it was Jan Gross' book "Neighbors" that unleashed the fiercest debate since Poland dumped communism in 1989. In his hastily researched, pseudo-scholarly pamphlet, which mixed facts with hearsay and conjecture, the Polish-born sociologist contended that the Polish residents of the small northeastern town of Jedwabne in the Bialystok region had murdered the Jewish half of the population. According to Gross, most of the 1,600 victims were locked in a barn and burned alive.
In its report, the IPN reconstructed the tragic events of July 10, 1941 as follows: "From the morning hours the routing of the Jewish populace from their homes and assembly in the town square went on. They were ordered to pull out the grass protruding from between the stones with which the square was paved. Acts of violence and force were committed against those assembled. They were committed by residents of Jedwabne and vicinity of Polish nationality. Numerous questioned witnesses indicated the arrival in Jedwabne on that day of uniformed Germans. Those Germans, probably in a small group, assisted in the operation of leading the victims to the square, and there their active role ended. In remains unclear, in light of the evidence collected, whether they had taken part in convoying the victims to the massacre site or were present at the barn."
The IPN said a group of Jewish men numbering 40-50 had been forced to smash a statue of Lenin in the square and, around noon, to carry a fragment of it on wooden stretchers. "The victims of that group," the report continued, "were annihilated in an unknown manner and their bodies were flung into a pit dug inside the barn. Fragments of the smashed Lenin bust were thrown on top of the corpses. The other larger group of Jews was led away from the square one to 1-1/2 hours later. (...) In that group there were probably about 300 people. (...) Those people were led into the wooden, thatched-roof barn belonging to Bronislaw Sleszynski. After it was closed, the building was probably drenched with kerosene from the supply dump left by the Soviets. (...) The figure of 1,600 victims or anything close to that seems highly improbably and was not corroborated by the investigation."
The key passage of the IPN report apportioning guilt for the massacre stated: "It may be assumed that the crime in Jedwabne was committed under German inspiration (...) It should be stated that in a penal context it is justifiable to ascribe to the Germans the perpetration of that crime in the broad sense. The executors of that crime in the strict sense were Polish residents of Jedwabne and environs -- men numbering at least 40." The IPN added that after receiving the names of Jedwabne victims from Israel it planned to close the case.
Predictably, the findings were hailed by the liberal and leftist media worldwide, and the German press particularly welcomed the verdict. Piotr Pacewicz, a columnist for Poland's staunchly pro-Semitic Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote in a front-page editorial: "We have proved capable of honesty in revealing the truth of 60 years ago. (...) It was a group of Poles that committed the murder of their Jewish neighbors in plain sight of the entire town. That is how Polish anti-Semitism manifested itself. (...) The German inspiration mentioned by the IPN does not take away the shame or blame from me, a Pole born 10 years later. (...) Our response to Jedwabne should be: no tolerance for anti-Semitism. I believe the Jedwabnian examination of conscience will help us in that respect."
Jewish circles in Poland, Israel and the US immediately reacted to the IPN report by demanding that the wording on the Jedwabne monument be changed to brand Poles as the murderers. The inscription on the memorial, dedicated last year in the presence of Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, reads in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish: "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 July 10th, 1941." Poland's news channel, TVN-24, reported that an informal chat-group survey on the popular Internet portal Onet showed that 54% opposed changing the wording on the monument, 38% were in favor and the rest had no opinion.
Kwasniewski, who has frequently been criticized in Poland and Polonia for siding with Jews, this time surprisingly called them insensitive for pressing such a demand so soon after Poland's painful soul-searching. Prime minister Leszek Miller also criticized the demand as hasty, noting that time should be allowed for "emotions to subside and wounds to heal." Otherwise, public opinion will get the impression that someone is again dictating something to Poles, he added.
The findings have antagonized Polish and Polonian circles who question their reliability. In an open letter to the IPN, a group of 32 prominent Polish-American intellectuals has criticized the IPN¹s failure to exhume the Jedwabne graves, count the bodies and have autopsies performed to determine the exact number of victims and the actual cause of death. It was the Solidarity government of former Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek that bowed to Jewish pressure not to disturb the bodies in violation of Judaic religious law. Beneath a banner headline "Attack on Poles," Poland's right-wing Catholic daily "Nasz Dziennik" wrote: "The Institute has accused Poles of committing a massacre on the basis of contradictory witness testimony without presenting credible evidence or naming the perpetrators. The results were not long in coming. The New York Times did not hesitate to provide its article with a scandalous headline: Investigation confirms massacre of Jews by Poles during World War II.¹"
It appears likely that the next Polish-Jewish controversy will erupt over the wording on the Jedwabne monument. If the IPN were to ever insist on a full exhumation of the massacre site and nearby Jewish cemetery, a worldwide Jewish-led uproar would surely ensue. As things now stand, Poland has emerged from the dispute with a deeper anti-Semitic image than before Gross published his book in 2000. Jews and their Gentile supporters claim that the soul-searching has had a cleansing effect on Poland's collective conscience: the Polish nation, which had prided itself as a victim and hero of World War II, has finally admitted its part in the Holocaust. But nobody sees Jews rushing to "cleanse" themselves by shouting about the atrocities for which they were responsible.
During World War II, thousands of Soviet collaborators with Jewish roots turned their Polish neighbors over to the NKVD and helped the Russians hunt down Polish officers, officials and other patriotic citizens whose only crime was loyalty to their homeland. In 1943, a band of Soviet Jewish partisans slaughtered 128 Poles in the village of Naliboki. A year later, Soviet Jewish butchers massacred some 300 Polish men, women and children in the village of Koniuchy. After the war, new atrocities were perpetrated under communist secret police boss Jakub Berman and his sadistic fellow-Jewish henchmen -- Fejgin, Romkowski and Brystygierowa, who were responsible for the brutal torture and death of thousands of Poles. Countless other examples could be cited.
The questions arise: Should such mutual recriminations continue? Should past wrongs be repeatedly dredged up and monuments unveiled to memorialize each such episode? Will that serve the cause of mutual understanding and rapprochement? Without conducting any investigations, in 1965 Poland's Roman Catholic Bishops simply said in a letter to the German Episcopate: "We forgive and ask for forgiveness."
In 2001, Polish Bishops begged God on their knees at Warsaw's All Saints Church to forgive the wrongs of Jedwabne. Pope John II, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Lech Walesa, President Kwasniewski and other prominent Poles have on more than one occasion publicly apologized for any anti-Jewish sins committed by their countrymen over the ages. Except that, whenever any two very different nations are forced to cohabit at close quarters, the way Poles and Jews have for 800 years, the wrongs are almost never a one-way affair.