Poles Remember Massacre

Sixty years after hundreds of Jews in a Polish village were slaughtered by their neighbors, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski offered an apology.

"For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness," Kwasniewski told about 3,000 people gathered in the pouring rain at a ceremony in the village of Jedwabne.

"This is why today, as a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon," he said. "I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime."

Joined by government officials, Jewish leaders, survivors and relatives of Jedwabne victims, Kwasniewski walked in silence from the village center to the site of the barn in which as many as 1,600 Jews were burned to death on July 10, 1941. Other Jews already had been butchered in a frenzy of violence.

At the site, New York cantor Joseph Malovany said "Kaddish." Jedwabne-born Rabbi Jacob Baker led prayers, and a new wood-and-concrete monument to the victims was unveiled.

For decades, a smaller monument on the site had attributed the slaughter to German Nazis and the Gestapo.

This was removed in March after a book, "Neighbors," by Polish American scholar Jan Gross — followed by a documentary film and other on-site research — revealed that the massacre was carried out by local Poles.

"I learned about the massacre as a big secret, as a child," recalled Marta Kurkowska-Budza, who was born in Jedwabne and is a young social historian at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University.

"Neighbors" — and the ensuing debates and media attention — exploded these taboos. For some, it was a catharsis. For others, it was a valuable key to rethinking history. For still others, it provoked further denial.

"To contemporary Jedwabne inhabitants, but also Poles in general, the murder of Jews is this kind of traumatic, undomesticated history; the public debate is painful, but was inescapable," Kurkowska-Budza has said. "Public discourse is a battleground."

Many considered the controversy healthy. Even one of the policemen shepherding the crowds said he thought it was a valuable process. "We must talk about the Holocaust," he said, fumbling for the words. Over and over again, Poles urged outsiders to recognize that the country has changed, and that Jews should now feel welcome.

As the crowd streamed from the ceremony site to the place where the barn once stood, villagers, more curious than angry, watched from their windows or from within their gardens.

On Tuesday, three young Israelis were among the victims’ relatives at the site, brought there by their grandfather. They were carrying an Israeli flag, a poster listing the names of 40 victims and one honoring the villagers who rescued the few Jews that survived the massacre.

The rain, described by Baker as tears from God, soaked their white shirts, and the wind unfurled their flag as other family members laid flowers and stones on the monument. For a few moments, all the controversy was forgotten.

New Jersey Jewish News Staff Writer Elaine Durbach contributed to this story.