The Politics of Apology
Seventeen years ago, I discovered the horrible fate that had befallen twenty-six of my relatives. On July 10, 1941, just days after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and took over northeastern Poland, practically the entire Jewish population of a town called Jedwabne--as many as 1,600 men, women, and children--were brutally murdered. Soon after I entered college, I read the Jedwabne yizkor (memorial) book published by former Jewish residents and learned that the Jews there were not killed by Nazi soldiers but by their Polish neighbors.
My First Visit To Jedwabne
In 1985, at the end of my freshman year, I enrolled in a summer study program in Poznan, Poland. There, I became friends with Marek, a non-Jewish Pole, who accompanied me to Jedwabne in search of my roots.
Not even a remnant of the vibrant Jewish life described in the memorial book remained in Jedwabne; all evidence of the 300-year Jewish presence had been completely obliterated. At the post office, the postmistress suggested we speak to the keyboard player at the local Catholic church who kept all of Jedwabne's birth and death records. We knocked on his door. A man in his sixties appeared. With Marek translating, I explained that my ancestors were from Jedwabne. The keyboard player said he'd never heard of the Radzik family (my grandfather had changed his last name to Rogers after immigrating to the U.S. in 1899). Then I showed him my great-grandfather's birth certificate.
When he turned to the last page and saw that it had been signed in Yiddish, his face turned red and he started yelling and ranting. "Your family was Jewish," he blurted out. "Jewish records were destroyed along with the synagogue during the war." He then told us that the Germans had forced all of Jedwabne's Jews into a barn and burned them alive, and indicated the direction of the barn by pointing out a window facing west.
From the yizkor book, I knew that the barn was actually on the east side of town. Several times I pressed him about this. I even took out a map that I had traced from the yizkor book, but he continued to insist that the barn was to the west. He then told us about the "last Jew" in Jedwabne, a man named Grondowsky who had converted to Catholicism. His first wife and their children were killed during the war, but he survived and married a Polish woman. Grondowsky was no longer alive; his second wife still lived in Jedwabne.
The name sounded familiar; the yizkor book had mentioned a traitor who had informed on Jews in hiding and then converted to Catholicism. "Israel Grondowsky?" I asked. The keyboard player gasped. Within seconds, he was changing his story. The barn was on the east side of town, after all, and a monument marked the site. He agreed to get in our car and show it to us.
Two minutes later, we were driving down a dirt road. In front of us, within sight of the twin steeples of the Catholic church, stood the first physical confirmation that Jews had once lived in Jedwabne--a stone monument to the 1,600 victims. I quietly pondered what surely would have been my grandfather's fate had he remained in Jedwabne. Then my friend translated the inscription on the monument: "Place of the extermination of the Jewish population. The Gestapo and Nazi police burned alive 1,600 people on July 10, 1941." The Polish government had falsely blamed the Nazis alone for the massacre. I seethed in silent anger.
My visit to Jedwabne that summer had a profound impact on my Jewish identity. Until then, I had little connection to the Jewish world. My father had been raised Jewish and my mother Catholic, and I had been raised without religion. Yet after visiting Jedwabne, I felt more than ever that I was a Jew and that I owed it to my relatives who perished there to make the truth known about Jedwabne to Poland and to the world. My goal became to replace the false monument with one that cited the real murderers.
I had little hope that this would happen as long as Poland remained Communist. Even seven years after the collapse of Communism, Poland was still unprepared to confront the subject. In 1996, The New York Times published my letter on the false Jedwabne monument, prompting accusations of revisionism and slander from some right-wing newspapers in Poland; the mainstream Polish press ignored the letter.
Searching for Survivors
About seven years ago, I began to search the Internet for survivors of the Jedwabne massacre. I located Yankel Neumark in Melbourne, Australia. He had been inside the burning barn, but managed to escape when the door burst open. Unfortunately, he was too ill to talk, but his wife repeated to me what he had told her all of his life: "In Jedwabne, the murderers were Poles."
I became the clearinghouse for information on Jedwabne. Together with Rabbi Jacob Baker, the editor of the yizkor book and a Jedwabne native, we posted the book's English text on the JewishGen website. Still, knowledge of Jedwabne remained confined to a small number of survivors and their families--that is, until Professor Jan Gross phoned Rabbi Baker in the fall of 1999.
A few days later I met Professor Jan Gross in Manhattan. He had been conducting research at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, he explained, where he found the 1945 testimony of a Jew, hidden during the massacre by a Christian family in a nearby farm, stating that Poles had murdered their Jewish neighbors. Gross was planning to write a book about this atrocity. I shared my information with him and put him in touch with survivors in Israel, Costa Rica, Argentina, and the United States.
After Jan Gross' book, Neighbors, hit bookstores in Poland in May 2000, I started receiving e-mails from Poles, some of whom expressed deep regret and shame over the actions of their compatriots sixty years ago. Polish officials acknowledged that the existing monument blaming the Germans was a lie, promising to replace it with a historically accurate one in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre on July 10, 2001. The old monument was removed, and I--now the primary representative of the Jewish families from Jedwabne--was assured in early April that the new monument would clearly state that the Jews had been murdered by their Polish neighbors. Polish officials also extended invitations to me and other family members of the victims to come to Poland and attend the ceremony as guests of the Polish government.
Then politics set in. Not everyone was ready to accept that Poles could have murdered Jews en masse. Right-wing Polish newspapers critical of Neighbors ushered in a backlash. In May, the Polish monuments commission announced the text for the new stone, which stated, in part, that such hatred should "never again set the residents of this land against each other." The text did not mention that the murderers were Poles and was so ambiguous it could be interpreted as blaming the victims for their fate. The same officials who had assured me two months earlier that the monument would tell the whole truth now made the excuse that the town's residents would deface it if the inscription named "Poles" or "neighbors" as perpetrators.
Angered at the government's betrayal, we told Polish officials we would not attend the ceremony if the monument equated the victims with their murderers. We issued press releases opposing the planned text and several Jewish organizations--the World Jewish Congress, Yad Vashem, the ADL, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center--added their voices in protest.
Two weeks later, the Polish government announced that the second sentence of the monument text would be deleted. What remained was a watered-down inscription that contained no falsehoods but still did not tell the whole truth. We decided to attend the ceremony, while protesting the monument.
Return to Jedwabne
On the morning of the official observance, we joined a convoy of buses from Warsaw to Jedwabne. The town square was packed with government officials, undercover police, reporters, families of the victims, and Polish citizens--but not the town residents, most of whom had followed the call of their parish priest to stay at home.
Following the speeches, the crowd walked solemnly in the rain from the town square to the site of the barn, tracing the final steps of the Jedwabne Jews sixty years earlier. Ten minutes later, we arrived at the field where the burned barn had stood. Facing the new monument, the Israelis among us spontaneously began singing "Hatikvah."
The rabbi of Warsaw, Michael Schudrich, began the memorial service. I had the honor of reciting the 23rd Psalm. And then Cantor Joseph Malovany of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan sang El Moleh Rachamim, his incredible voice crying out into the heavens. As he sang, the bells in the church a half-mile away started chiming, announcing the noon hour. For me, hearing these bells dispelled any claims by deniers that people standing in the center of town could not have heard the frightful screams of the Jews.
As we walked back toward the buses, a middle-aged man came up to me. In halting English, he said that he was not a politician or a reporter but an ordinary man from Gdansk. With tears in his eyes, he told me that it was not just the president who was sorry. "I am very, very sorry for what happened here."
I left Poland as I had entered--with mixed emotions. Poland has yet to acknowledge in stone the whole truth of Jedwabne, but its courageous president set a noble example for his people. Hopefully, someday the great majority of the Polish people will embrace his words. At least the fate of the Jews of Jedwabne is now known to the world, and their memory sanctified on this blood-stained piece of earth.
Morlan Ty Rogers, an attorney, is a member of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in NY.