Jedwabne mayor calls for exhumation of Jewish mass grave

Cnaan Liphshiz

Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi, reciting a prayer for the victims of the Jedwabne massacre at the town's Jewish cemetery on July 10, 2016. (JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz)

Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, reciting a prayer for the victims of the Jedwabne massacre at the town’s Jewish cemetery on July 10, 2016. (JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz)

(JTA) — The mayor of a Polish town where locals killed and buried hundreds of Jews added his voice to a growing chorus of officials seeking to exhume the bodies to see if Germans killed the victims.

Michael Chajewski, the mayor of the town of in northeastern Poland, told Gazeta Wyborcza late last week that he supports exhumation, amid an uproar over a noncommittal statement by Poland’s education minister who said on television that, even though state historians and leaders have blamed locals for the pogrom on July 10, 1941, she did not know who killed the Jews of Jedwabne 75 years ago.

“Yes. I’m going to do it,” Chajewski is quoted as telling the paper when asked if he would sign a petition calling for the exhumation.  “You need to determine how many people were killed and by whom, to finally dispel doubt.”

Poland’s state-owned Institute of National Remembrance determined several dozen locals killed at least 340 Jews at Jedwabne, some of whom they burned inside a barn. The incident, one of at least 20 pogroms against Jews by Poles during or immediately after the Holocaust, was largely unknown in Poland prior to the 2001 publication of a book on it by historian Jan Gross.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

But the institute “said that at the crime scene, dozens of bullets were found. It’s not all that clear,” Chajewski said. Revisionist historians say the bullets mean German troops were likely responsible for the killing because Poles were prohibited to carry guns in July 1941, when the German army was already present – though not fully controlling – the area. But dozens of testimonies by witnesses and survivors speak of the killing as done by willing locals.

The historical record on Jedwabne is highly controversial because many Poles perceive their nation, where Nazis murdered 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, as a victim of Nazi genocide. The Jedwabne discovery forced many to readjust this perception to include also some acts by local perpetrators.

Some forensic excavation was already carried out at Jedwabne in 2001, until it was stopped for fear it violated Jewish religious laws on not disturbing graves unnecessarily. But calls to exhume the bodies have intensified since the election last year of Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda.

Duda acknowledged the role of Poles in killing Jews earlier this month. But last year he attacked his predecessor for apologizing in 2011 for Jedwabne and denied that such events actually occurred.

“We did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said in a 2015 televised debate. “Lord knows that Poles didn’t take part in the Holocaust.”

The Jedwabne petition, which is being circulated by Ewa Kurek, a far-right historian from Lublin, received coverage in Polish media amid other articles about revisionist tendencies on Jedwabne, including at the Institute of National Remembrance.

Piotr Gontarczyk, a deputy director at the Institute of National Remembrance, said last week that “it is difficult to pursue a debate on the topic without a complete exhumation.” Marek Chrzanowski, a historian with the institute who is running to be elected as its next president, on Monday said: “I also believe that you must reconfigure the exhumation and get to the truth, because this case harms the image of Poles.”

Queried by JTA, an institute spokesperson said her organization does not support exhumation as a matter of policy, though some of its historians may take a different view.