I got a text this week from a Polish friend that was particularly disturbing: the monument to the victims of the Jedwabne Pogrom was defaced by vandals who wrote, “I’m not apologizing for Jedwabne” and “they were flammable.”
Jedwabne is a tinderbox sparking all kinds of debate about Polish-Jewish relations. While anti-Semitic graffiti and racists vandalism incidents occur across America each week, they never make the papers. Jedwabne on the other hand, it always will.
No one questions whether the Jews were herded into the barn and burned in one of many such incidents during the WWII. The question Poles debated was who did it? The Nazis, Soviets, and Polish neighbors were all suspect.
The government wanted to settle the matter, and an excavation of the barn was ordered. Forensic anthropologists who had investigated mass graves in Balkans began a painstaking excavation.
In order to ensure that any human remains were treated according to Jewish law, I supervised the site several times on behalf of the Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland.
After the excavation and interviews with residents and witnesses, it was determined that the barn was burned by local residents who then tried to bury the victims in a hastily dug trench next to the burned barn. Eyeglasses, shoes, and thousands of bones remained interred next to the site of the barn.
The entire area was then entombed in concrete and covered and a large monument. I was on hand when, in an unprecedented moment in Polish-Jewish relations, the Polish President himself apologized to the Jewish community on behalf of Poles and unveiled the monument.
In addition to the vandalism in Jedwabne, Police are investigating neo-Nazi vandal attacks aimed at minority groups in the past few weeks in eastern and northeast Poland.
In Orla, anti-Semitic slogans and Nazi symbols were found on the former synagogue. In Bialystok, they broke into the Islamic Center and attempted to set the building on fire.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said “There is no room for such behavior in Polish society — even if it is the work of but a small group of extremists. We stand in solidarity with all those who feel personally affected by these despicable acts.”
I want to echo his words: there is no room for such behavior in any society.
I’m not sure any other cabinet-level minister of another European country would issue a condemnation so quickly over an anti-Semitic incident in a tiny town without Jews.
The victims of Jedwabne and other infamous murders never seem to get any rest.
Just when we think that the wound has healed, someone comes along and rips it open to remind us that our work in riding the world of racism has a long way to go.