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Poles like to see themselves during this period as either victims or heroes, but not as perpetrators, University of Warsaw sociology professor Antoni Sulek told the Forward during an interview last fall.
According to Jan Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, this new inquiry into the Bzury murders 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” (Center for Holocaust Research, 2011) said he and other scholars at the Center for Holocaust Research were able to identify thousands of Jewish victims who perished directly or indirectly due to the actions of their Polish neighbors.
Grabowski’s book describes the last phase of the extermination of the Jewish population in one Polish county in southeastern Poland. The Polish police, night village watchmen, Polish youth brigades and local firefighters were all complicit in this extermination, according to the historian’s findings.
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. Jan Gross, a professor of European history at New York University, documented this pogrom in his book “Neighbors” (Princeton University Press, 2000).
In fact, according to Grabowski, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of Polish anti-Jewish violence that took place throughout the German occupation.
Ignatiew, prosecutor of the newly opened case, is quite aware of this; he also investigated the Jedwabne case. Asked why he was reopening the 71-year-old Bzury case, Ignatiew told the Forward in a July 1 interview that “information we obtained [indicated] that not all the perpetrators of the crime were arrested in the past. We want to find out whether some of them are still around. Also, we might find witnesses to tell us where the women are buried.”
Konstanty Gebert, a Gazeta Wyborcza columnist and important member of Poland’s modern day Jewish community of some 15,000, described Ignatiew as someone who “believes anti-Semitism is a moral and legal outrage and won’t stop fighting it.”
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. The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem recognizes 6,135 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, the largest national group to earn that designation.
“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.
Contact Donald Snyder at email@example.com