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A bitter period in Europe's past

More than four million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis at concentration camps during World War II. On a visit to Poland, P. SUBRAMANYAM writes on the massacre of 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbours in a village. Beginning a series of articles on this ghastly period of Europe's history.

The post war monument says: "Jews were burnt alive by the Gestapo and Hitlerite gendarmerie."

SIXTY years ago, the inhabitants of a Polish village massacred its Jewish neighbours, the details of which when unearthed, dismayed many all over the world. Rumours as to who was behind this savagery were rife after World War II but subsequent communist leaders of Poland put the lid on the truth and brushed aside the real facts until the beginning of this year. This was when Jan Tomasz Gross, a New York academic and a Pole himself, after 30 years of painstaking research, chronicled ``in damning detail'' in his book — Neighbours — that the Poles were not only the victims of war but also war criminals.

Jedwabne is the name of this village. After Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, Germany annexed Poland. Soon after the surrender of Poland, as per the Treaty of Brest Litvosk of 1919, the other half of Poland was taken over by the former Soviet Union. Thus, Poland was occupied by two powerful nations. The Prime Minister of the Polish Government, General Wladystaw Sikorski, in exile in London and the British Government, to buy time to prepare for the war and to stall the Germans, were negotiating with Adolf Hitler. At this turn of events, the people of Poland were helpless and leaderless. Understandably, everyone lived in fear and suspicion.

Jedwabne was a peaceful community, where both Jews and Poles lived in perfect harmony. On July 11, 1941, the Poles, trying to survive after the onslaught by the Germans, for reasons unknown and still unclear to this day, ferociously rose against the other half of the village in a frenzy and with severest brutality. In the course of eight hours, they wiped out 1600 Jews. The details of the killings are gruesome, macabre and horrendous.

The first victims were 75 young men, who were beaten with clubs studded with nails and forced to break up a huge statue of Lenin, which stood in the centre of the village, as a punishment for their ``collaboration'' with the Soviet occupiers. With the local Rabbi as their leader, they were made to sing, ``the war is because of us'' as they carried the statue to the cemetery. They were forced to dig a hole in the grave to bury the statue. Once this was done, these men were axed and clubbed to death and thrown into the pit.

Then, according to the reports published in The Times, they were pulled out of their homes, clubbed, limbs were axed off and they were stabbed with the full arsenal of sharp-nosed tools available to farmers. Some were stoned to death. Children were hurled to the ground and battered with wooden staves. Men had their eyes gouged and their tongues cut out. Women clutching babies drowned themselves rather than be killed. Women were raped and beheaded; some were murdered and their babies thrown to the ground and trampled underfoot. Polish neighbours roamed from house to house with intent to kill every Jew. Torturing and beating them, they herded them into the main square.

``The screams were so loud and so full of terror that no one in this dreadful village could have failed to notice as the 1,600 men, women and children were whipped out of the village square to the farmstead where they were corralled into Farmer Slezynski's barn, which was then doused with kerosene and set alight. It just took two minutes for them to perish. The Poles played musical instruments to drown out the screams as they burnt.''

The Poles refused to admit responsibility and blamed the Germans for this massacre. A Memorial stone with an inscription was erected soon after the war for the Jews who were brunt alive by ``the Gestapo and Hitlerite gendarmerie.'' A natural outcome then was to blame the Gestapo and the SS Troops for the atrocities committed on the Jews. Further it was revealed that eight Gestapo soldiers watched the massacre and took photographs but did not intervene to stop the killings.

In remembrance... the present day monument in Jedwabne has names of victims engraved on it.

The Poles then pointed a finger at the Germans mainly because of the fact that as soon as the Nazis occupied Poland, the Polish intelligentsia, political leaders, doctors, engineers and the professional class were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, which at the beginning of the war, was a camp meant for ``special treatment'', meaning, death of the Poles. Initially, some 5,000 Poles including a handful of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were exterminated since 1941 after Germany invaded Russia.

Adding more misery to the Poles, Hitler ordered the evacuation of nearly five million Poles as ``Germany required more living space''. These unfortunate people were forced to leave their homes and dumped in the remotest parts of Poland by trainloads promising home, help and amenities. None arrived and the Poles became wanderers in their own country, and like gypsies, died of cold, disease and starvation.

Jan Tomasz Gross, who for more than 30 years, has been researching the history of his native Poland during the Second World War, exposed the poles in his book, The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. As per research findings, Jan Tomasz Gross revealed that 12 villagers were jailed in 1949 for ``complicity in murder'' but most of them were freed in the 1950s and one defendant who was sentenced to death though the sentence was not carried out.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Round-Table Conference on public debate in Poland concerning Jedwabne and in September 2000, The Institute of National Remembrance — Commission for Crimes against the Polish Nation, in its enquiry endorsed that the Polish are assumed to have actively participated in the crime.

On a recent visit to the village, this writer was met with a wall of silence. Nobody wants to talk about this event and journalists are looked upon with suspicion. The environment is cold and desolate, magnifying the tragedy that took place some 60 years ago.

Again, according to The Times newspaper, only one person of Jewish origin, a women married to a Catholic farmer, lives in this village and she walks in silence. Father Edward Orlowski, currently the local priest, does not accept any Polish involvement in the tragedy of Jedwabne.

To re-write history of what had truly happened in the Polish village in 1941, Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski and appeared on national television in March this year asking his people ``to seek forgiveness for what our compatriots have done'' and delivered an apology to the Jews. The President went on to add: ``This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless. For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why, today, as a citizen and as President of the Republic of Poland, I apologise.''

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