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POLAND tries to atone for wartime slaughter of Jews by Polish neighbors

Updated:
JEDWABNE, Poland (AP) _ Seeking to atone for a wartime massacre of Jewish villagers blamed for decades on Nazi troops, Poland's president formally admitted at a ceremony Tuesday that Poles carried out the killings and asked for forgiveness.

``This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless,'' Aleksander Kwasniewski said at a grim, rain-soaked ceremony in the impoverished northeastern farm village of Jedwabne.

``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 speech and dedication of a new memorial, broadcast live on national television, marked the 60th anniversary of the day half a village went on a murderous rampage and killed the other half _ the Jewish residents _ on July 10, 1941.

Polish leaders hope the historic ceremony will help repair Jewish-Polish relations and cool a burning national debate about how far Poland should go toward apologizing for Jedwabne and similar pogroms.

Among about 3,000 people at Tuesday's ceremony, held under gray skies and intermittent rain, were some elderly massacre survivors and 40 to 50 relatives of victims. Many came from the United States and Israel.

After Kwasniewski's speech, they marched silently out of the village for a ceremony at the site of a barn where hundreds of Jedwabne Jews were locked inside and burned alive.

Though the truth has always lurked beneath the surface _ a Stalin-era court in 1949 convicted some villagers of collaborating in the pogrom _ it was buried during decades of communist propaganda that taught Poles to regard themselves only as heroic victims of Nazism.

The killings leaped into national focus last year when ``Neighbors,'' a book by Polish emigre historian Jan Gross, revived the story and sparked a searing national debate. An English-language version published this year in the United States drew wide international attention.

Gross, who teaches at New York University, drew on witness accounts and court records to detail the killings. Though some right-wing groups dispute his account, it seems to have left little doubt in the minds of many officials.

A stone monument that for decades blamed ``Nazi and Gestapo soldiers'' for burning alive 1,600 Jews was removed in March, and a government-led investigation was launched.

Though Kwasniewski's apology was straightforward, Jewish leaders are less likely to approve of his contention that the killing was ``committed with Nazi permission, at Nazi inspiration.''

Right-wing groups have sought to explain the pogrom by saying it was incited by Nazi invaders who moved into eastern Poland after Soviet occupiers retreated.

Language to that effect was removed from a new monument after Jewish leaders protested. The inscription still angers many Jews because it fails to specify that Poles did the killing.

It 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.''

The 6-foot-tall rectangular stone monument stands in the center of a grassy area where the barn once stood. Its foundations are marked with knee-high granite stones.

``May the heavenly father shower his blessing on each and every person who comes here from far and near,'' said Rabbi Jacob Baker, who was born in Jedwabne but left before the massacre.

Visitors who lost relatives in the massacre were invited to say Kaddish, a traditional prayer for the dead, and lay special white stones from Israel on the monument. Many exchanged tearful hugs or embraced the stone memorial.

Embittered villagers, who have endured a harsh media spotlight for months, don't see much reason for apology.

``We do not apologize,'' read a sign on the door of a grocery store. ``It was the Germans who murdered Jews in Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation.''

It was signed by a ``Committee for the Defense of the Good Name of Poland.''
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