75 Years After Jedwabne Massacre, Polish Right Wing Still Blames Germans

Could the exhumation of a mass grave of 340 Jews from the Holocaust finally settle the controversy of how they died and who was responsible?

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejemski burning down a barn to commemorate the Jedwabne pogrom.
Reuters

No senior officials of Poland’s ruling right-wing party last week attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom. Not even the township’s mayor bothered to visit the monument marking one of the most appalling WWII atrocities committed outside the Nazi extermination camps.

Three quarters of a century after some 340 Polish Jews were rounded up by their gentile neighbors and burned to death in a barn, their spirits continue to haunt Poland. Despite the many years that elapsed and despite the books, essays, studies and films about the pogrom, it remains a controversial, sensitive issue in Poland.

Last week Education Minister Anna Zalewska raised the issue again. “Jedwabne is a historic fact, which consists of a lot of misunderstanding and biased opinions. I’m not an expert on the subject, but this dramatic situation is controversial,” she said in an interview with a Polish TV station. Asked if she agreed that gentile Poles burned their Jewish neighbors, she said this was an “opinion” and that renowned researchers “present a totally different picture.”

Jedwabne Mayor Michael Chajewski last week joined those calling to exhume the skeletons from the mass grave and examine the circumstances of their death. In an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, he said, “We must check how many people were killed and by whom, to remove the doubt once and for all.”

At least two historians at the Institute of National Remembrance, a state research institute specializing in the examination of crimes committed by the Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland in 1939-1989, also supported this initiative. 

“It’s hard to discuss the issue without a complete exhumation,” one of them, Piotr Gontarczyk, said in an interview with Radio Poland. “A previous examination showed bullets had been found there, and I believe we’ll discover their origin.”

This group hopes to find evidence corroborating the prevalent Polish right-wing view that the massacre was carried out by the Germans, or at least with weapons they gave the Poles.

The most acute issue pertains to the murderers’ identity. Were they local residents who decided on their own accord to murder their Jewish neighbors? If so, did they do it as revenge for the Jews’ cooperation with the Russians, who had occupied the town previously? Or were they the German occupiers, who encouraged or ordered the gentile residents to murder the Jews? Above all, did only Poles take part in the slaughter, or did the Germans participate as well?

Researchers also disagree about the number of murder victims, which ranges from 340 to 1,600. Since Professor Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish-born American historian, published his book “Neighbors” in Poland in 2000, the story has been a hot topic. Gross wrote a scathing, reverberating indictment of Polish society, claiming on the basis of documents and testimonies that gentile residents had murdered their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne.

The book sparked a passionate controversy in Poland, and the Institute of National Remembrance appointed a team of historians to investigate the affair. The testimonies gathered included reports by local residents and quotes from the murderers’ trials that corroborated the assertion that gentiles had killed the Jews of Jedwabne.

After the book’s publication senior Polish leaders, including a prime minister and two presidents, admitted their nation’s part in the massacre. Twice Polish presidents apologized for the massacre. But someone wrote on the memorial in 2011: “We’re not sorry for Jedwabne.”

Professor Sara Bender, a historian of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust at Haifa University, says, “This is a political matter. It’s simply very hard for Poland to accept this guilt and the fact that those who initiated the massacre at Jedwabne and the villages, towns and cities throughout Poland were the Poles themselves.

“The issue has already been proved in studies, testimonies and documents,” Bender says. “Even the Germans stood by surprised at the Poles’ initiative. In other places, the Germans simply left the site, leaving the Poles to finish off the Jews.”

Bender says people in Jedwabne also admit that residents committed the pogrom, and she adds that it wasn’t an unusual incident but rather one of many in which gentile Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors during the war.