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Poland confronts its role in Jewish deaths

In 1941, six Poles allegedly beat 20 Jewish women to death with metal-tipped clubs outside the hamlet of Bzury, in northeastern Poland.

Now, government prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew hopes to charge the killers, if they are still alive. He also aims to discover the identities of the women and the location of their graves.  

Ignatiew represents the Institute of National Remembrance, which was established in Poland 1998 to prosecute crimes committed during Nazi and Communist rule. 

“There is no doubt that the murderers were Poles,” Ignatiew told Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest newspaper.   

The case comes as Poland grapples with its World War II and Holocaust-era history. While Poles usually see themselves as victims of their Nazi and Soviet occupations, there are lingering questions about involvement in Holocaust-era atrocities.

Cold case re-opened
In the Bzury case, the women were allegedly taken from the ghetto in Szczuczyn, six miles from Bzury, on the false pretense that they were needed to tend a vegetable field. After they were raped and beaten to death, their bodies were reportedly dumped into pits in a forest.

Courtesy Agenja Gazeta

Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew examines his case files at Poland's Institute of National Remembrance.

These allegations were brought to light with the recent discovery of trial documents related to the killings.

The woman who uncovered the documents, Barbara Engelking, head of the Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, learned that at least six men were allegedly involved in the rape and murder of the women. But in 1950, just one man was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders and the case was closed. (According to court records, the defendant was never executed and died in prison).

Engelking’s discovery sparked the re-opening of the inquiry. “We want to find the truth about what happened,” she said in a telephone interview.

Victims or perpetrators?
The investigation triggered by the court records comes at an especially delicate point in Poland’s post-Soviet era effort to understand its own history. This sensitivity was reflected in the reaction to President Obama’s reference to a “Polish Death camp” during a Medal of Freedom ceremony in Washington, D.C., on May 29. 

The White House quickly apologized to an offended Polish government. By “Polish death camps” Obama really meant “Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland,” a White House spokesman said.

What many Poles find hard to accept is that while the Holocaust, in which more than 3 million Polish Jews perished, took place mostly in German death camps located in Poland, Poles also engaged in the killing of Jews during the same years.

Poles tend to see themselves as either victims or heroes, but not as perpetrators, University of Warsaw sociology professor Antoni Sulek told me during an interview in Warsaw last fall.

According to Professor Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa, this new inquiry was also inspired by recent scholarship revealing the killing of Jews by Poles during the Nazi occupation.

Grabowski, author of “Hunt for the Jews 1942-1945,” said he and other members of the Center for Holocaust Research were able to identify thousands of Jews who perished directly or indirectly due to the actions of their Polish neighbors.

Before this latest research, it was assumed that the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, when Polish villagers herded 300 Jews into a barn and set it on fire, was an isolated event. (The Polish-American professor Jan Gross first documented this pogrom in his book “Neighbors,” published in 2000).

In fact, according to Grabowski, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of Polish anti-Jewish violence throughout the German occupation.

Committed to the prosecution of Nazi crimes 
Ignatiew, prosecutor of the newly opened case, also was in charge of the Jedwabne case, which outraged him, according to Konstanty Gebert, a Gazeta Wyborcza columnist. Ignatiew “believes anti-Semitism is a moral and legal outrage and won’t stop fighting it,” according to Gebert.

When asked whether there is an expiration date for murder investigations, Ignatiew told me, through an interpreter, “Poland is committed to the indefinite prosecution of Nazi crimes of murder or genocide.”

“We want to find out whether any of the perpetrators are still around. Also, we might find witnesses to tell us where the women are buried.”

Ignatiew’s commitment reflects a newly emergent awareness among today’s young Poles of this darker side of Polish history. At the same time, it does not change the longstanding reality of Polish heroism on behalf of Jews during the same period. 

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, recognizes 6,135 Poles as “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation for gentiles who risked death to save Jews during the war years, the largest national group to earn that distinction.  

Still, it was a complicated era, with atrocities committed on all sides.

“People must know that history is not black or white,” said Andrzej Folwarczny, president of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a group that promotes relations between Poles and Jews.  

Don Snyder, a veteran NBC News producer for more than 25 years, is a special correspondent for NBCNews.com. A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. 


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