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Ha'aretz Article, June 12, 2001

By: Dr. Sara Bender
Copyright Permission Granted By Ha'aretz and Dr. Bender

Jedwabne Was Not The Only Place
By: Sara Bender
In April 1983, I arrived in Warsaw with my father and with several hundred other Jews who had come there to mark the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. As we traveled in the bus taking us to our hotel, my father began to plan our trip to the small town where he was born, Grajewo, in northeastern Poland, which, on the eve of the Second World War, had a population of nearly 3,000 Jews. At the hotel, we found a taxi driver who was willing to take us there. My father, the sole survivor of a large Jewish family who had perished in the Holocaust, reached British Mandatory Palestine in 1945 while I was born in Israel soon after it achieved independence. The two of us were very excited about the trip.

Haim Kubersky, who was the director-general of the Interior Ministry at the time, heard that on our way to Grajewo, we were planning to stop for a while at Radzilow, a small town not far from Lomza in the Bialystok region.

When he was only a youth, Kubersky had left Radzilow before the outbreak of WWII. He wanted to join us and the three of us set off on our journey the next day.

From my father, who was one of those Holocaust survivors who told their children about their experiences during that period, I learned, even as a young girl, that Poles had burned alive my father's brother, Meir [Meyer Lipszyc, born in 1914 in Grajewo, who just happened to be in Radzilow on that day, visiting friends], in a barn in the town of Radzilow in 1941. Since my father recounted to me that the murder had been carried out by Polish fascists and since I knew about the alarming level of anti-Semitism that existed in Poland during the second half of the 1930s, I was not surprised by the account of his brother's death. At the time, I was busy writing my doctoral dissertation on the Jews of Bialystok under the Nazi occupation. Since I knew that Lithuanians and Ukrainians had collaborated with the Germans in the murder of Jews, I thought that it was only logical to assume that Poles as well had murdered Jews during the Holocaust.

When we arrived in Radzilow, we immediately proceeded to the Town Hall. Before making our trip, we knew that, on the site where the Jews of this town had been burned alive, a memorial stone plaque had been placed. We asked to be taken there. We arrived at the site of the mass murder and, when my father saw the small stone with its blurred inscription, he fell upon that stone and burst into heart-wrenching tears. I will never forget the painful scene before the silent memorial stone over the mass grave of the hundreds of Jews of Radzilow who were burned alive in July 1941.

We continued to Grajewo and saw the house where my father was born. We then returned to Warsaw.

The next day I visited the home of Professor Shimon Datner, who had been a teacher at the Hebrew Gymnasia (high school) in Bialystok. He decided to remain in Poland after the war and became a historian at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. I told him who I was and about our visit to Radzilow.

Datner told me that Poles had murdered Jews not just in Radzilow but also in several small towns in the area. He emphasized that the most massive murder of Jews had taken place in the small town of Jedwabne. It was as if I had received confirmation from a trained historian for all the things that my father had told me.

Datner walked over to his well-stocked library and produced an article he had written in Polish about the liquidation of the Jews of the Bialystok region. He added a small dedication in Hebrew and, visibly moved, he gave me a copy of his article.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Jan Tomasz Gross wrote his book "Neighbors" about how Poles had carried out the mass murder of the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941. The book aroused an extensive public debate in Poland. In the wake of the discussion of the role that the Poles had played in the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland's National Memorial Institute, which primarily deals with war crimes committed against the Polish people, decided to uncover the truth about the massacre by means of eyewitness accounts and to thereby bring the participants in the murder to trial on a charge of genocide.

In an article that appeared in December 1966, in the bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Datner did not explicitly state that the murder of Jews in various towns in the Bialystok region in July 1941 had been carried out by the Poles themselves. It is quite possible that Datner, who considered himself a Polish historian, did not want to specify the nationality of the murderers, or perhaps the article had even been censored. In any event, in the figures he provides in his article, he explicitly distinguishes between Jews who had been shot to death, generally in forests outside the communities where they had resided, and Jews who were murdered in their own communities. Since the mass shootings were carried out by the Germans and the "local murders" were carried out by the Poles, the readers of the article are left to come to their own conclusions.

From Datner's figures, which are based on eyewitness testimonies, it emerges that, on a single day, on July 7, 1941, between 1,000 and 1,200 Jews perished in Jedwabne, 1,500 Jews were murdered in Radzilow, and 1,185 Jews were liquidated in Wasosz - to cite some of the communities where the killings took place on that date.

These figures must be carefully examined, because, if they are authentic, they totally change the image of the Polish people as a collective victim during the Second World War.

The sincere aim of the researchers at the National Memorial Institute in Warsaw to bring the truth to light about the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne will undoubtedly encounter certain difficulties. One of those difficulties will be the fact that most of the eyewitnesses have already passed away. Nonetheless, effective use can be made of the endless quantity of eyewitness accounts found in Polish archives, in Remembrance Volumes on Jewish communities and in the archives of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority. Yad Vashem's archives contain, for example, hundreds of pages of testimony on the mass murder of the Jews of Radzilow by the Poles.

No apologetic argument that Jews collaborated with the Soviets between 1939 and 1941 - when the Bialystok region was annexed by the Soviet Union - and handed over Poles to the Russians can ever justify the mass murder of thousands of Jews by the Poles. If Poland wants to free itself of its anti-Semitic image and to ensure its place among the enlightened nations of the world, it must display the courage needed for facing up squarely to its national past, because that is the only way that Poland can ever hope to build its future.

Copyright 2001  

Dr. Sara Bender teaches at the Department of Jewish History at Haifa University and is managing editor of the Lexicon of the Righteous among the Nations at the International Center for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

My thanks and appreciation to Dr. Sara Bender for allowing Ha'aretz to grant me permission to reprint this article.

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