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IT WASN'T JUST GERMANS

The Economist, 26 April 2001

The discovery of a Polish atrocity against Jews in the second world war is making many Poles rethink their past.

 

THERE is a hole in a field at the edge of Jedwabne, a town in north-eastern Poland, where a memorial used to stand. The words on it said that on July 10th 1941 Germans burned alive 1,600 of Jedwabne's Jews. This July, on the anniversary, Poland's top politicians, churchmen and rabbis will unveil another monument. This one will declare a more painful truth: that it was Poles, admittedly incited by Germans, who exterminated their neighbours. Tongues were sliced off, eyes poked out. After the adults had been herded into a barn and burned, the exterminators scoured Jedwabne for hidden Jewish children who, when found, were roped together and pitchforked alive on to the embers of their parents.


This new account, based on the research of Jan Gross, a Polish academic who works in America, has shattered the average Pole's belief that in the second world war his country was solely a victim. Some 6m Poles, half of them Jews, were killed during the war. But the revelation from Jedwabne challenges Poland's "paradigm of innocence" and shows that it was not only Germans who slaughtered Jews in the days of Hitler.


A painful self-examination has begun. WPROST, a weekly paper, has listed ten major episodes of Polish anti-Semitism. The most recent was in 1968, when an outburst of anti-Jewish feeling led many of Poland's surviving Jews to flee the country. Some impressive investigative journalism has uncovered new facts for the historians to consider. People are talking about it in bars and living rooms. "For the first time it doesn't avoid anything, and it is public. It is tremendously positive," says Stanislaw Krajewski, a leader of Poland's Jewish community, which nowadays numbers only about 7,000.


Catholic intellectuals have led the debate. The Polish primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, has issued an apology. But Jedwabne's local priest, and some right-wingers, have seen less cause for contrition. Lech Walesa's former confessor, Father Henryk Jankowski, has shocked many people by denying any
Polish role in the killings. Most right-wingers do not go so far. The killing of Jews was wrong, they admit--but so was the deportation of Poles to Siberia, often, they say, the result of collaboration by Jews with the Soviet secret police (half of Poland was under Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941).


Such talk is rare, however. Most Poles, even Jewish Poles, confess themselves surprised about what happened at Jedwabne. President Alexander Kwasniewski captured the general mood by declaring Jedwabne a cause of national shame which should be written into the history books. Whatever the level of German involvement, the president said, it was Poles who did the killing.


The mayor of Jedwabne, Krzysztof Godlewski, wonders what all this is doing to his shabby town, 40% of whose workers are unemployed. Council business has come to a halt in preparation for the July ceremony, which Mr Godlewski hopes will be a dignified call for reconciliation. "Jedwabne is not Poland, and a group of murderers is not Jedwabne," he says. Local people resent the journalistic invasion. After all, they explain, most of the town's families went to live there after the war. Nobody has consulted Mr Godlewski about the wording on the new monument. If it is too condemnatory, he fears somebody will deface it.


All this is the latest step in a delicate re-examination of Polish-Jewish relations. In 1991 the church had a letter read out from its pulpits condemning anti-Semitism. Visiting Israel in the same year, Mr Walesa, then the country's president, apologised for the crimes of some Poles against Jews. The pope, a
Pole himself, raised the tone in 1997 by referring to Jews as "elder brethren", a phrase from a famous nationalist poem. In 1999 the government removed the controversial crosses planted by Catholic fundamentalists by the Auschwitz concentration camp.


Now the pressure is on the historians. A government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, has been charged with producing a clearer picture of what happened in Jedwabne and nearby places where similar atrocities took place; in neighbouring Radzilow, 800 Jews were burned alive. It has already uncovered new evidence in German and Belarussian archives. But the debate is, perhaps inevitably, messy. Some historians have accused Mr Gross of shaky scholarship, suggesting that the Germans had a more direct hand in the killings than he reckons.


It is, in one way, an argument in a void. As in many other Polish towns and villages, all traces of Jewish life in Jedwabne have vanished. "I saw a Jew visiting here once, a couple of years ago, and it was an exotic abstraction," says Mr Godlewski sadly.