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
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
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
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.