Arts, Culture & Media

Photos: A Polish village still struggles with its history. In World War II, people killed their Jewish neighbors

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Higay and Adi from Israel, in front of the monument dedicated to the Jews murdered by the local population in 1941. The monument was erected in 2001. In the background stands the St. Jacob Church. 

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

If wars leave scars, then Poland has a deep red gash through its middle. For six years during World War II, the country was fought from both sides; the Soviet Union invaded from the east and Germany from the west. Five million Poles died during the war — that’s one-fifth of the population. Three million of them were Polish Jews. No village was untouched.

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Today fragments of the war are still everywhere in the country. In fact, just this past week unexploded World War II bombs were found in Bialystok — not too far from the village of Jedwabne. 

The Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne were brutally murdered on July 10, 1941. They were burned alive in a barn. The details of this atrocity are still highly contested. For years the village attributed the massacre to German soldiers.

However, in 2000, historian Jan Gross wrote a book entitled, “Neighbors” that told a different story. He wrote that the Jews were killed not by Germans, but by their Polish neighbors. Gross' book caused an uproar in Poland. For months Poland was consumed by a discussion of and reflection on the truth about the war. The Institute of National Remembrance, a government organization designed to look at crimes of the past, did an investigation of the massacre.

In 2001, the president of Poland at the time, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, went to Jedwabne to erect a new monument to commemorate the massacre. He apologized to the Jewish community.

Today the country continues to grapple with what happened that summer day in 1941.

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entrance to Jedwabne

The entrance to Jedwabne, Poland. 

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

altar boys

Altar boys wait before a service in St. James Church in Jedwabne.

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

Before Holy Mass. Children from the local primary school singing religious songs.

Children from the local primary school sing religious songs before mass. 

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Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

monument outside of a church in Poland

In front of St. James Church, a monument is dedicated to the Poles deported to Siberia during World War II. 

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

main square

Residents stand around the main shopping center in Jedwabne, Poland. 

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Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

Przestrzelska Street,

Przestrzelska Street leads from the main square to the Catholic and Jewish cemeteries and to the monument erected in memory of the Jews murdered by the inhabitants of Jedwabne in 1941.

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

entrance to cemetery

The Jewish cemetery is located next to the place where the Jews of Jedwabne were murdered in 1941. The Jewish cemetery was founded in the 19th century.

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture Doc

monument dedicated to those murdered in WWII

This monument is dedicated to the Poles murdered during World War II in Jedwabne. 

Credit:

Piotr Wojcik/Picture