Tuesday, July 10, 2007

July 10

Ambiguity continues to surround the question of precisely who ordered and oversaw the massacre Polish Jews in the town of Jedwabne, sixty-six years ago today. In late June and early July of 1941, as German forces overwhelmed the eastern regions of Poland and pushed back their Soviet adversaries, thousands of Jews in towns like Bialystok and Radzilow were massacred by SS officers and ordinary Poles, who participated eagerly in the slaughter of their neighbors. On July 10 in Jedwabne, a small farming town in northeastern Poland, hundreds -- perhaps as many as 1600 -- Jews were burned alive in a barn on the edge of town. For decades afterward, Polish historical memory assigned total blame for the massacre on the German Einsatzgruppen, relieving Poles of blame which they most certainly shared with the SS.

German troops had occupied the city since the last week of June, and in the meantime hundreds of Jews from Wizna and Radzilow had taken refuge in Jedwabne, even as local Jews were beaten and murdered by their fellow townspeople. According to Jewish eyewitnesses, on the morning of the massacre, Polish peasants arrived by the cartload from surrounding farms and villages, as if they were going to market. Wielding axes, nail-studded boards and other weapons, the hooligans rounded up the town’s Jewish population and forced them to weed the public streets and walkways.

Rivka Fogel was one of the few who managed to survive the massacre. As she recalled forty years later,
[t]he Jews were kept in the hot sun from eleven in the morning until that evening. They selected forty people at a time and sent them to the cemetery where they were forced to dig ditches in which they were buried alive. In the market place the goyim put Lenin's statue on a board, and forced the Jews to carry it and sing Bolshevik songs. They put a big stone on the head of Rabbi Avigdor Bialystocki and made him carry it through the market place. The goyim grabbed Yudke Nadolnie's daughter Gitele, cut off her head and played with it as if it was a ball. Before nightfall, a man by the name of Weshilewski came and proclaimed the death sentence upon all the Jews by burning them at stake. He further said, “Because you are decent Jews, we therefore have chosen for you an easy way to die.” They had already prepared cans of benzine and ordered the Jews to move on to the cemetery. The goyim, with guns in their hands, beat and killed right and left and then after finally overpowering all of them, pushed the Jews into Shelansky's barn which was near the cemetery. They then poured benzine onto the barn and ignited it. From where we were hidden, we saw and heard the crying and lamentations of the suffering people before they died.
Except in memory, no trace of the Jewish community in Jedwabne survived the war.

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