(JTA) — In September 1941, a group of villagers wielding axes and other tools descended upon the homes of their Jewish neighbors and murdered every last one, according to testimonies gathered by Holocaust scholars.
Not much else is known about the massacre in Wasosz, a village 100 miles east of Warsaw, including basics like the number of victims. Current estimates range widely, from 180 to 1,200.
In an effort to provide conclusive forensic evidence about the massacre, in July a Polish prosecutor asked Jewish community leaders for permission to exhume the bodies. The plan has split the community, with some passionately supporting what they see as a last chance for justice and others claiming it would violate the dignity of the dead and Jewish religious law, or halachah.
“Once the bodies are in the ground, halachah teaches us they are not to be disturbed except when it is done to protect the dignity of the dead or to save lives,” Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told JTA. “I and other rabbis and the leadership of the Jewish community in Warsaw, among others, feel neither stipulation applies to Wasosz. A desire to clarify history is not enough.”
Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, the country’s main Jewish umbrella group, called Schudrich’s position “a serious mistake, with detrimental implications.”
“We have tools to determine details about both victims and perpetrators in a matter which is still a criminal matter,” said Kadlcik, who is seeking an exhumation followed by Jewish burial of the human remains. “If we let this chance go, the case of Wasosz will become history – an unclear one and subject to falsification.”
In a move to undermine opponents to exhumation, Kadlcik has requested an opinion from Rabbi Yakov Ruza, a prominent authority in Israel on forensic medicine. Polish prosecutors have also reviewed the Israeli law that permits exhumation in cases involving a murder investigation, Kadlcik said.
Meanwhile, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance – the government body whose prosecutor, Radoslaw Ignatiew, initiated the investigation of Wasosz – is holding off on any exhumation until at least 2015 while the issue is discussed within the Jewish community.
The debate has ramifications well beyond an internal Jewish dispute over halachah and forensics. In the background are echoes of Jedwabne, an earlier investigation of another wartime mass murder of Jews by Poles.
The opening of that probe in 2001 was a watershed moment for Poland, according to Joanna Michlic, a historian at Bristol University, who wrote a 43-page paper chronicling how the debate split the Catholic Church, generated ultranationalist protests featuring anti-Semitic hate speech, led to the replacement of a memorial plaque that blamed the Germans for the murders and, finally, yielded the first admission by a Polish president of Polish guilt.
Before Jedwabne, Holocaust-era crimes by Poles were taboo because they undermined the communist narrative that all Poles were equal victims of Nazism. The subject remains divisive today because it undermines the current government’s focus on Polish wartime heroism and resistance to totalitarianism.
From a forensic perspective, the dig in Jedwabne was inconclusive. Though an excavation of the site revealed some human remains, it never progressed to include exhumation – as per understandings reached between Polish authorities and rabbis, including Schudrich.
Without exhumation, it was impossible to answer such basic questions as how many people died, which in turn left the door open to revisionism in far-right circles. Several nationalist lawmakers, clergymen and journalists continue to dispute Polish complicity.
“Jedwabne was ultimately a missed opportunity,” Jan Gross, the Princeton historian whose research triggered the 2001 debate, told JTA. “Some important findings were recovered, but questions persisted because the probe was interrupted before basic facts could be recovered.”
For Kadlcik, Wasosz is a chance to correct the opportunity missed at Jedwabne.
“For the ultranationalists, the bottom line from Jedwabne is as follows: The Jews made accusations but hid behind their religious laws at the first attempt to corroborate,” Kadlcik said. “Well, this time we need to settle this and serve justice.”
But Schudrich also drew painful lessons from the Jedwabne probe.
“The entire place was littered with human remains – not just the area where we thought the bodies lay,” he said. “So as soon as the digging began, we saw bones fused together in fire, earrings of little girls. We found children’s bones. To any reasonable person, that settled any doubts there may have been about a massacre. There is no justification to violate the dignity of the dead.”
As for serving justice, Schudrich said, “The perpetrators will get justice from God. The small minority that refuses to face reality and historical evidence, no exhumation is going to change their minds.”