Nazi-Era Case Reopens Old Polish Wounds

Probe Spotlights Poland's Mixed Record During Holocaust

New Case, Old Crime: Polish prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew examines files about a Nazi-era massacre of Jews in the small town of Bzury.
Agenja Gazeta
New Case, Old Crime: Polish prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew examines files about a Nazi-era massacre of Jews in the small town of Bzury.

By Don Snyder

Published July 04, 2012, issue of July 13, 2012.
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Poland has just reopened a 71-year-old case involving the rape and murder of 20 Jewish women.

In the 1941 case — in the midst of World II, and two years after the Nazi invasion of Poland — six Poles allegedly beat the Jewish women to death with metal-tipped clubs outside the hamlet of Bzury, in northeastern Poland. Government prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew hopes to prosecute the killers, if they are still alive. He also hopes to discover the identities of the women and the location of their graves.

“There is no doubt that the murderers were Poles,” Ignatiew told Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest newspaper, speaking of the newly reopened rape and murder case. Ignatiew represents the Institute of National Remembrance, which was established in 1998 to prosecute crimes committed during Nazi and Communist rule.

The women were taken from the ghetto established by the Nazis in Sczczuczyn, 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 dumped into pits in a forest.

These facts were brought to light with the recent discovery by Barbara Engelking, head of the Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, of documents related to a 1950 government investigation of the Bzury murders. In a trial held back then, one man was convicted and sentenced to death. But according to court records, he was never executed and died in prison. Engelking’s discovery has sparked the re-opening of the inquiry.

“We want to find the truth about what happened,” Engelking told the Forward.

The probe triggered by the court records comes at an especially delicate point in Poland’s post-Soviet-era effort to understand its own 20th-century 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.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk accepted this apology, but called it unsatisfactory. According to Tusk, there should have been a more forceful repudiation of these words, so that no one would ever again refer to “Polish death camps.”

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 themselves engaged in the killing of Jews during these same years.


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