New York Times 7/11/01
At Site of Massacre, Polish Leader Asks Jews for Forgiveness
By IAN FISHER
WARSAW, July 10 Sixty years after as many as 1,600 Jews were killed
in eight hours in a village in northeast Poland, the nation's president offered
a strong apology today: it was not Nazi soldiers, he affirmed, but ordinary
Poles who beat, stabbed and, finally, burned their fellow villagers alive in
"This was a particularly cruel crime," the president, Aleksander
Kwasniewski, said in a rainy ceremony in the village of Jedwabne, broadcast
live on Polish television. "It was justified by nothing. The victims were
helpless and defenseless."
"For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness," he said. "Today, as a man, citizen and president of the Polish republic, I ask pardon in my own name and in the name of those Polish people whose consciences are shocked by this crime."
His apology, planned for several months, has not been popular in Poland, a
nation whose people suffered terribly in World War II and has now been forced
to confront allegations of its own crimes against its Jewish citizens.
The issue has, in fact, angered many Poles, who have seen themselves primarily as victims, and brave resisters, caught between the Nazis and the Soviets during the war.
But that opposition seemed only to add to Mr. Krasniewski's dramatic gesture,
regarded as a milestone in Poland's relations with Jews and a move toward a
more complex reckoning of what happened here in World War II.
In Jedwabne today many villagers, including the parish priest, boycotted the ceremony. And the nation's Roman Catholic Church was not officially represented, amid reports that the nation's highest prelate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, has said that Jews should apologize for collaborating with Soviets in Poland from 1939 to 1941.
"We do not apologize," read a sign on several doors in town.
"It was the Germans who murdered Jews in Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation."
The priest, Edward Orlowski, said: "These are all lies. I am spending the day quietly at home. It is Holocaust business. It is not my business.
"Germans are responsible," he added, "so why should we apologize?"
It has long been known that a massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, only two weeks after Germans defeated Soviet troops and occupied the area. For decades the site was marked by a plaque, officially replaced today, that blamed "Nazi Germans."
A recent book by a Polish-American scholar, Jan T. Gross, and a documentary
on the killings assert that, while Nazi soldiers were in Jedwabne and encouraged
the massacre, it was the townspeople who planned it and carried it out.
The new evidence has come as a blow to Poles' sense of themselves, during the war and now as one of the Eastern European nations that has made the most progress since the fall of Communism. Before the war, Poland was the home to some three million Jews, the largest population outside the United States.
The issue has stirred strong emotions in a nation where many Poles protected
Jews from Nazi persecution, as well as questions about the extent of Polish
anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis. Cardinal Glemp has been quoted
as raising the issue of to what extent Jews collaborated with the Soviets as
the Germans captured the region.
Today, the police banned some 30 protesters from disrupting the ceremony.
In his speech, the president was careful to dispel any notion of Polish "collective responsibility" for the massacre, even as he apologized on behalf of all Poles.
"The authors and instigators of this crime bear sole responsibility for
it," he said. The president has faced criticism, mostly from the far right,
that the apology is aimed largely at pleasing the United States and Western
Europe, which have donated heavily to Poland's revival.
The ceremony was attended by some 3,000 people, among them former residents
of Jedwabne and relatives who had traveled from the United States and Israel
to remember the victims killed six decades ago today. After the speeches from
the president and others, the crowd walked silently from the town square to
the former site of the barn where most of the victims died, burned alive.
There, a new six-foot-high monument made of stone was officially unveiled. In Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish, the new inscription reads: "To the memory of Jews from Jedwabne and the surrounding area, men, women and children, inhabitants of this land, who were murdered and burned alive on this spot on July 10, 1941."
In the days leading up to the ceremony, many Jewish leaders expressed anger
that the inscription did not explicitly blame the Polish townspeople.
Today, Shevach Weiss, the Israeli ambassador in Poland who was himself saved
from the Holocaust by Poles, said he was "convinced that after an investigation
an inscription will be added to the monument telling the historical truth."
"Then justice will be done definitively to the victims of this massacre," Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.
The Polish authorities have begun an investigation into the massacre, as one of many uncomfortable acts of discovery and contrition here. In May, leaders of the Polish Roman Catholic Church expressed sorrow at the killings in Jedwabne, though it was not an official apology.
Last month, the state National Remembrance Institute, which investigates war crimes, unearthed evidence of more than 200 bodies at the site, though the exhumation has been criticized by Jewish groups who called it desecration.
To some Poles, a question mark was raised over the new allegations in that
investigators said rifle cartridges found in the digging appeared to be of German
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company