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Nazi-Era Case Reopens Old Polish Wounds

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

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.

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 protected]


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