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Jews in Occupied Poland: The Massacre in Jedwabne

(Summer 1941)

After being controlled by Russia for two years, Jedwabne, a small town in northeastern Poland, was captured by Germany on June 22, 1941. One of the first questions the Poles asked the Nazis, their new rulers, was if it was permitted to kill the Jews.

Brutal killings by the Poles immediately began, and included a Jew stoned to death with bricks as well as a Jew slashed with a knife, his eyes and tongue cut out. According to Jan Gross's book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, the Nazis tried to persuade the Poles to keep at least one Jewish family from each profession, but the Poles responded, "We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive."

Gross writes that Jedwabne's mayor agreed to help facilitate a massacre and that Poles from local villages came in to watch and celebrate the event as a holiday. About half the men of Jedwabne's 1,600 Catholic community participated in torturing Jedwabne's 1,600 member Jewish community, corralling them into a barn, which was then set ablaze.

Until recently, a stone memorial in Jedwabne blamed the massacre on Nazi and Gestapo soldiers, but Gross's book uncovered that the mass execution was actually performed by locals, who, for decades, had shifted the blame away from themselves. Since Neighbors publication, Poland has been engaged in a nationwide debate over whether or not to accept blame for the atrocities Poles committed against the Jews during the Holocaust, or to continue to pass them onto the Nazis

Sixty years after the massacre, on July 10, 2001, about three thousand people helped Poland's president, prime minister, local officials, Jewish leaders and relatives of the murdered commemorate the deceased by unveiling a monument at the site of the slaughter. "This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless," President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in an apology long awaited by the international Jewish community. "For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today, as a citizen and as president of the Republic of Poland, I apologize."

The monument now reads, "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, and children, fellow-dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941."

Although the new monument does not blame the Nazis, some are angered that it does not specifically mention the Poles.

Sources: JTA; New York Times (July 10, 2001); Newsweek (July 10, 2001); Gilbert, Martin The Holocaust. Henry, Holt and Co. 1985.