Catholic Bishop Apologizes for Jedwabne Massacre

Bishop Rafal Markowski, attending memorial event for first time, says church 'mourns the death of all those who suffered torture, pain and humiliation, and who died here in vain'

A group photograph of Jewish students and teachers in Jedwabne, Poland, in 1938.
Yad Vashem Archive

At a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom on Monday, a Catholic bishop apologized in the name of the Catholic Church for the murder of the Polish town’s Jews in 1941.

Bishop Rafal Markowski, who heads the Council for Religious Dialogue and the Committee for Dialogue with Judaism, was participating in the memorial ceremony in the northeast Poland town for the first time.

“The Catholic Church mourns the death of all those who suffered torture, pain and humiliation, and who died here in vain,” said Markowski, at a ceremony attended by about 100 people. “At the same time, the church strongly feels the pain of the members of the Polish nation, particularly the Catholics who contributed to this pain, to the humiliation and, ultimately, to death,” he added.

Historians who have studied the background to the pogrom were harshly critical of the Catholic Church at the time for not preventing its believers from participating in the massacre, and even contributing to anti-Semitic incitement against the Jews in the region.

At Monday’s ceremony, a speech was also read in the name of Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari. “Israel is observing the difficult route being taken by Poland while it is still confronting its past,” said Emil Jezowski, from Israel’s Warsaw embassy.

Azari’s speech was referring to the stormy public, political, legal and historical discussion that has been taking place in Poland in recent years regarding the manner in which Poles treated their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation.

Evidence of the complexity of Poland’s confrontation with its past could be witnessed in the fact that, for the first time, the head of Warsaw’s Jewish community, Anna Chipczynska, was accompanied by a bodyguard during the ceremony.

Jedwabne has become a symbol of the rift in Polish-Jewish relations after historical research revealed that the town’s Jews were murdered at the initiative, and with the full cooperation of, their Polish neighbors, without any Nazi intervention or orders.

The precise number of those murdered is unknown, but historians estimate that it ranges from between 800 to 1,600 people.

To this day there is an ongoing dispute in Poland about the circumstances of the pogrom. On the Polish right, including some government officials, some claim that the Germans, rather than the Poles, were responsible for the atrocity. There are even right-wingers who claim that the mere mention of Polish involvement in the massacre is a libel that is meant to disgrace the proud name of the Polish nation.

On the other hand, Polish-Jewish historians who researched the pogrom in depth – including Jan Tomasz Gross and Anna Bikont – found that the Poles were wholly responsible for the planning and implementation of the atrocity.

Yitzhak Levin, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the residents of a nearby town (who were later named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem), also visited the monument to the massacre on Monday.

Levin was 10 when he fled the Nazis with his family from a town close to Jedwabne. From afar he saw the smoke rising from Jedwabne - presumably evidence of the fire in which the Jews were murdered after being corralled into a barn, which was then set ablaze by their neighbors.

Levin delivered a conciliatory speech at the memorial ceremony, conveying a message of hope and brotherhood between the two nations. He said there were also good Poles, like the family that hid him and his family and saved their lives.

The ceremony was also attended by Mateusz Szpytma, the deputy president of the Institute of National Remembrance, a group that previously expressed controversial views about the Jedwabne pogrom. They even suggested opening the graves of the Jewish victims in an attempt to prove, presumably, that they were shot to death by Nazis and not murdered by their Polish neighbors.

A representative on behalf of the office of Polish President Andrzej Duda also attended the ceremony, as did Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and the German ambassador to Poland.