A bell peels in a church steeple above a small square in the
dreary hollow of Jedwabne, some 90 miles northeast of Warsaw.
For more than half a century, this rural town concealed a
terrible secret. In the summer of 1941, shortly after Nazi troops
invaded the country, the town's ethnic Poles turned on their Jewish
neighbors. They assaulted and herded hundreds of them into a barn,
dousing it with gas, and setting it ablaze. All told, 1,600 Jews
died on that July day.
For decades, the official "truth" held that a handful of Poles
had played a part in the pogrom, but that it was the Nazis who were
mainly to blame. This version of events was chiseled in stone on a
monument to the victims here.
But in recent months, the release of the book "Neighbors" and a
television documentary have sparked unprecedentedly open discussion
and soul-searching among Poles, forcing them to face uncomfortable
truths hidden or hushed up during the Communist era. The evidence
now coming out shows that they were not only victims during World
War II, but victimizers as well.
In March, the memorial was carted away along with the whitewashed
version of history, which was shattered by the publication of
"Neighbors," by the Polish-born, American historian Jan Gross. His
book, published in Polish last year - English this year - relies on
eyewitness accounts to chronicle Polish culpability at Jedwabne.
Some still doubt that the Poles acted alone, while others contend
that Jedwabne was one piece of a wider systematic slaughter of Jews
in the area at the time.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, concerned that the
controversy may set back efforts over the past decade to heal
wounds between Poles and Jews, says his compatriots must face the
truth. He has set aside July 10, the 60th anniversary of the
massacre, for a nationwide commemoration, to include the unveiling
of a new memorial.
"The Holocaust is coming to Eastern Europe," is the way Gross
describes the unprecedented discussion that picked up in April when
the airing of a two-part TV documentary beamed the troubling issue
into the living rooms of millions of Poles. "Censorship was a fact
of life under the Communists. Freedom of speech is relatively new.
I think it is very healthy discussion. You have all of society
taking part, in the press, on the streets, on the Internet in chat
"It's a cathartic discussion," adds Marian Turski, head of
Warsaw's Association of the Jewish Historical Institute.
That debate has been heated at times, marked by nationalist
rhetoric and, occasionally, anti-Semitism, highlighting the uneasy
historical ties between Poles and Jews.
Last week, a prominent priest in the Baltic port of Gdansk was
barred from the pulpit after placing in his church a display of a
burned barn - a reference to Jedwabne - with a skeleton and signs
reading "Jews killed Jesus Christ and prophets and also persecuted
Many Poles feel Jewish efforts focusing on their suffering during
the war diminish the Poles' own, says Andrzej Richard, a
sociologist at Warsaw's Central European University.
Three million Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Poland,
which had the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time. About
3 1/2 million Poles died as well, as a result of the Nazi terror -
many worked to death as slave laborers or killed in underground