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New York Times Article, April 19, 2001

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.

Soul-Searching at Another Polish Massacre Site
-- Reluctance to Share Blame With the Nazis
By: Steven Erlanger

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RADZILOW, Poland - Sixty years ago this July, the Jews of this impoverished town were collected in the central square, supposedly to weed between the cobblestones. The Jews were taunted, beaten, tormented and stabbed, then forced together into a barn, where they were burned alive.

Today, at the site of the barn, 1,000 yards away down Piekna Street, is a memorial plaque that reads: "In August 1941 fascists murdered 800 people of Jewish nationality, and among those, 500 were burned alive in a barn." One memorial candle, in a rusting holder, rests in front of it.

The plaque is not only wrong about the date, but about the perpetrators. The Nazis encouraged the murder, but it was carried out by the Poles of Radzilow.

After the publication last May of newspaper articles and a book, Poles have dug deep into their souls - and the archives - to examine their own responsibility for nearly identical events in nearby Jedwabne, where up to 1,600 Jews were killed and burned alive in a barn by their Polish neighbors.

But Radzilow happened first, on July 7, 1941, three days before Jedwabne. And similar massacres happened in the same period in two other towns, Wasosz and Stawiski, historians have discovered.

On June 27, just five days after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and seized the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, the Nazis set the model, burning Jews alive in a synagogue in Bialystok, the district capital.

Poland's debate has been overwhelmingly open and anguished. And it continues to grow, centering on the roles of the Germans and of Poland's Roman Catholic Church, which in this destitute region of northeast Poland before World War II was deeply nationalistic, anti-Communist and anti-Semitic.

Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born sociologist and historian at New York University and the author of "Neighbors," the book about Jedwabne, says the church, almost by its nature, has been more closed and reticent than society as a whole.

"For Poland," he said, "this is a chance to gain credibility and face up to past sins."

Even today, Bishop Stanislaw Stefanek of Lomza says that the people of this region were innocent and that the charges are an American conspiracy to defame Poles. His comments were echoed by the Rev. Henryk Jankowski - once confessor to Lech Walesa - who erected a model of the charred barn from Jedwabne in his church to symbolize efforts to blame Poles for the crime.

While Radzilow's memorial still stands, in Jedwabne a similarly false memorial to the dead has been removed entirely, so only bare earth and a few memorial candles and stones remain. On the 60th anniversary of the burning, on July 10, a ceremony will take place there attended by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who says he will offer an apology "for what our compatriots did."

Mr. Kwasniewski has spoken forthrightly about Polish responsibility for Jedwabne, as has Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and, after vital prompting from Polish-born Pope John Paul II, officials say, the church's primate in Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp. "In particular," the cardinal said in an early March address, "the burning alive of the Jewish population, forcibly herded by Poles into a barn, is indisputable."

Yet there are worries that the continuing debate, particularly new details about Nazis encouraging the killing of the Jews, may somehow undermine those statements.

The country awaits, almost breathlessly, the conclusions of a team of historians from the Institute of National Remembrance, charged with getting to the bottom of the events in northeast Poland in 1941.

Pawel Machcewicz, a historian who heads the research and education branch, says the weight on him and his colleagues is excruciating. "Polish involvement in the beating and killing of Jews is beyond any doubt," he said. "The details don't change the moral meaning. But you have to understand the details of what happened. And today, in Poland, every detail becomes so extremely important."

The history of Central and Eastern Europe for the last century has been one of spurned loyalties and vicious betrayals, of cruelty and kindness forgotten and remembered in tune with prevailing political winds.

For Poles who grew up believing that theirs was the "Christ of nations" - romantic, freedom-loving and brave in war, a victim of both the Germans and the Soviets and never a perpetrator, many of whose citizens helped Jews and many who died alongside them - the current debate has been an unhappy journey.

"Even for me, the story of Jedwabne came as a big shock," said Stanislaw Krajewski, the co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. "All of us thought we Poles were the victims only."

He knew something about Jedwabne from a 1966 article by Szymon Datner but thought that the Nazis and "Polish criminals" had done the deed. "Only recently have I understood that there was the passive approval of the many and no moral condemnation at the time or later," he said. "This I didn't know."

There are more surprises for Poles from the summer of 1941. For instance, Mr. Krajewski said, many Poles welcomed the Germans as liberators from the Soviets, who had annexed the area, giving out Soviet passports and requiring daily meetings to learn and praise Socialism.

Some Jews collaborated with the Soviets, who also carried out a series of deportations - one the day before the Nazi-Soviet war erupted - which helped feed Polish anger. Mr. Krajewski said he also had not realized how some of the heroic Poles who had helped Jews were treated "as suspicious by their neighbors, even now."

What occurred around Radzilow and Jedwabne, in brutality and scale, appears to have happened nowhere else in Poland, Mr. Gross said. "But Jedwabne is a new endpoint on the scale of events," he said, "and you will find other events that cannot now be dismissed. People think of the Holocaust as Jews killed in camps, but many were killed on the spot. People will have to investigate local histories with a new lens."

As that occurs, as Cardinal Glemp said, Poles fear that their country's reputation will suffer, especially in America. Some on the right, as Poland presses to join the European Union, even wonder if this effort to "whitewash the Germans" and render Poles responsible is "the price of Europe." But few Poles pay open heed to the far right.

The Roman Catholic monthly Wiez, or Bond, has published a remarkable collection of articles on the Jedwabne debate called "Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles on Jedwabne."

The magazine's editor, Zbigniew Nosowski, said the church was slowly recognizing what it admitted, last August, to be its own historical "indifference and enmity toward Jews." And he noted that a Lomza priest had been beatified for his friendship with Jews in the 1930's.

The debate roils on, concentrating now on how much responsibility the new Nazi authorities had in organizing so-called self-cleansing actions on the part of angry and traditionally anti-Semitic Poles, as the Nazis also did in neighboring Ukraine and Lithuania.

How many Germans were present in Jedwabne and Radzilow on the crucial days, and what did they do or say? Did they order Poles to kill Jews or simply give them the impunity to do it? Did Mr. Gross underplay the role of the Germans?

New documents found in German archives indicate the presence in the region of an Einsatzgruppe led by an SS Obersturmf6hrer, Hermann Schaper, who Mr. Machcewicz, the government historian, says was in Radzilow on the key day of July 7.

Polish distress is tangible in the two towns. While Jedwabne's mayor, Krzysztof Gedlowski, a 45-year-old schoolteacher, is thoughtful and emotional, the mayor of Radzilow, Kazimierz Gwiazdowski, 38, a farmer, is tentative and embarrassed. In his view, "there are only a few people left who remember those times," and their stories "may not be reliable."

As for Mr. Gross's book, Mr. Gwiazdowski said, "I don't think a book should be written based on one story. I can invent any story right now."

On the square in Radzilow, on the stones where the Jews were forcibly collected, Mariusz Gryczkowski spoke as others tried to hush him. He lives in a formerly Jewish house his father bought after the war from the state, he said. He worries about his title to it. "I feel sorry and sad about all this," he said. "It makes me not want to be a Pole."

Still, he grew up knowing about the burning. "The Jews had money and the Poles were jealous," Mr. Gryczkowski said. "When the Russians were here the Jews had contacts with them and denounced some people, and people were deported. When the Germans were here Jews were in a bad situation. And when the Russians were here Poles were in a bad situation. That's the bottom of the story. But it shouldn't have happened."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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