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Vol 3, No 10
12 March 2001
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News from Poland News from Poland
All the important news
since 3 March 2001

Joanna Rohozińska


Ghosts rise

View today's updated headlines from Poland

A new book by Polish-born historian Jan T Gross has caused an uproar over the subject of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War. The book claims that Poles in the eastern town of Jedwabne killed around 1600 of their Jewish neighbours in July 1941. His research is based on the testimony of surviving Jewish and Polish Jedwabne residents.

The sad, though unfortunately probably not unique, story tells how residents herded the Jews into a barn near the town's Catholic and Jewish cemeteries, set it on fire and subsequently buried the charred bodies in a ditch. Witness testimonies suggest residents of several nearby villages may have also killed their Jewish neighbours.

Reportedly, the majority of the town's population of 2000 settled there after the war and feel little connection or responsibility for the killings. "The Germans did it, just as in the other towns throughout Poland. The Poles only helped with the transportation, and they were forced to do so. Or maybe there were also hooligans," said the local parish priest, Edward Orłowski.

"But we cannot apologise for what happened until the Jews apologise first for turning their Polish neighbours over to the Soviets before the German occupation. What happened in Jedwabne was a battle against Communists and not the Jews," said one resident.

"We were taken to Siberia because of the Jews," adds one elderly resident.

The town's mayor, Krzysztof Godlewski, has called for frankness and honesty and is attempting to reach some sort of consensus, in order to change the current plaque at the site of the killings, which blames German troops, and to mark the victims' mass grave. "We are not the same town anymore. The horrific stories told during long winter evenings proved to be real," says Godlewski. "You have to realise that asking the town to make peace with its past is tantamount to desecrating its deepest beliefs, of patriotism and Catholicism. And this is difficult, especially since our town was probably not an isolated incident," he added.

"Jedwabne has been treated harshly. It has become a symbol and will remain one forever," says Godlewski, who fears the town's rising anger against the media and researchers might end in violence. "I am afraid my children could become anti-Semites after they are accused of being the children of murderers." His efforts have earned him several threats.

President Aleksander Kwaśniewski told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth:

There are indeed black stains on our history, and we will no longer be able to ignore them. With all the pain, they must be exposed and not plastered over...Whatever the background may be to this horrible deed, one thing must not be forgotten: it was a mass murder of Jews by Poles... A request for forgiveness and pardon from the Jews must be heard from our mouths, the mouths of the Poles.

He pledged to deliver apology on 10 July—the 60th anniversary of the murder.

Following the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said:

The Jedwabne murder was not committed in the name of Poland... As a nation we can live only in truth. The participation of Poles in the crime at Jedwabne is unquestionable—no historian denies it... if, as a nation, we are proud of those Poles who risked or even lost their lives to rescue Jews, we must also recognise the guilt of those who participated in murdering them... [however] we object to the use of the Jedwabne case for propagating false theses about a shared Polish responsibility for the Holocaust and an innate Polish anti-Semitism... We need to confront the darkest facts in our history.

Buzek did not make any commitment to attend the commemoration ceremony.

Cardinal Józef Glemp said he would not attend, "I don't want politicians to tell the church how it should express its sorrow for crimes committed by some group of its believers. Nor should they propose an ideology to be expressed by the church."

The uproar naturally has found its exploiters. Michał Kamiński, a right-wing parliamentarian from the Jedwabne region, frothed, "This book has become a bible. Someone wrote it and everyone believes him. Whoever does not, is an anti-Semite." He also told a recent town meeting, "The situation calls for self-defence. The Germans killed Jedwabne Jews and, unquestionably, some Poles participated. But all of Jedwabne is being spat on, and the entire country is being put on trial."

"We do not bring our children up to be anti-Semites. But the situation is very tense in the town, and we are all very tired," said a local teacher, who declined to be named.

The book will be published in the United States and Israel shortly. Unsurprisingly, it has reopened the ugly Pandora's box of defensiveness and anti-Semitic rhetoric (see: A Complicated Coexistence in CER). But there have also been several voices of reason, which is a cause for great optimism. There is to be a full investigation by the state Institute of National Memory later this year.


Almost restitution

Though far from being satisfactory to all, the Sejm finally passed the long-delayed restitution bill but rejected the Senate's amendments. The Sejm voted 331 against 101 to limit the number of people eligible for restitution in the form of either property refund or financial compensation for property that was seized by the regime from 1944 to 1962.

Only those holding Polish residency status on 31 December 1999 will be entitled to restitution. The Senate had previously decided to extend the scope of the bill's beneficiaries by removing the citizenship clause, thus allowing many émigrés to file restitution claims, which particularly affected Jews who had emigrated and lost or gave up their citizenship.

"This is an anti-Jewish act and an outrage," said Arye Edelist, president of the Association of Polish Jews in Israel. The government and the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) parliamentary caucus supported the amendment. Sejm speaker Maciej Plazynski on 2 March delayed a final vote on the re-privatisation bill.

Finally, the Sejm also limited the number of heirs who would be able to vindicate their rights: only the dispossessed person's spouse, children or grandchildren. Mainly Parliament members of Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Polish Peasants Party (PSL) and some AWS voted against the Senate modification. However, President Kwaśniewski, whose economic adviser, Marek Belka, said that the restitution measure is "dangerous" to the Polish economy, will probably veto the bill.


Too hip—too progressive?

It could simply be a matter of poor taste or too much pressure from the higher ups. Whatever the reason, after serving eight years, Anda Rottenberg, director of the Zacheta Gallery, announced her resignation. Minister of Culture Kazimierz Michał Ujazdowski assured, "This isn't my decision, but that of the director herself. Of course, her successor will be selected by way of a competition. Until then, Ms Rottenberg will continue as director."

The Gallery, or rather its recent series of exhibits, has provoked nationwide discussion over the past several months. Piotr Ukłanski's "Nazis" and Catellan's sculpture "Holy Father" did what art should—provoke. The gallery transformed from a traditional centre for contemporary Polish art into an innovative edgy gallery during Rottenberg's tenure. It may have all been too much, and hostile reactions to several recent exhibits finally convinced Rottenberg that she should leave.


Women Work

The Freedom Union (UW) marked International Women's Day (8 March) by accepting a resolution that will assure women a minimum of 30 per cent of the places on its election lists to the Sejm and Senate. UW's attempts to introduce this regulation to the electoral law came to naught due to objections from the AWS.

The Sejm has already accepted the UW's earlier proposal for more flexible maternity leave, but the Senate rejected it. The proposal gave women the right to decide whether to take advantage of full-time maternity leave. If they decided to return to work after 16 weeks, the father could use the rest to play Mr Mom.

Joanna Rohozińska, 9 March 2001

Moving on:


Gazeta Wyborcza
Prawo i Gospodarka
Zycie Warszawy
Polska Agencja Prasowa

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