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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company