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Polish apology for Jewish massacre

JEDWABNE, Poland -- Thousands of people gathered in pouring rain on Tuesday to hear Poland's president apologise on behalf of the nation on the 60th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Jews.

A concrete and wood monument was being dedicated to the 1,600 Jews rounded up in Jedwabne village square and chased to their death into the surrounding rye fields -- many of them burned alive in a barn -- in 1941.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski led the commemorations attended by some 3,000 people, including families of the victims and top Polish officials.

"For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness," Kwasniewski said.

"This is why today, as a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon. I beg pardon in my own name, and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime."

After Kwasniewski's speech, they marched silently out of the village 190 kilometres north-east of Warsawfor a ceremony at the site of the massacre.

The new monument replaces a smaller one built in the 1960s blaming "Gestapo and Nazi soldiers" for the slaughter.

In March, that monument was removed after a national debate about Poles' role in the massacre sparked by the publication of "Neighbours," a book by Polish Jewish emigre Jan Tomasz Gross.

Gross's book alleged that villagers living in Jedwabne had been responsible for the murders. He said a mob butchered much of the local Jewish population before rounding up the rest in a large barn which was then set alight.

The new inscription, in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish reads: "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, and children, fellow-dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941. Jedwabne, July 10, 2001."

But their was still resentment among victims' relatives and Jewish groups that the monument still did not say that Poles were responsible for the crime.

"Poland has yet to acknowledge in stone that it was the people of Polish nationality that killed the Jews of Jedwabne," said Morlan Ty Rogers, 35, of New York, who counts 26 relatives among those killed.

Jakub Pecynowicz, 84, one of two survivors who returned to Poland for the ceremony, along with several dozen victims' relatives from Argentina, Israel, Mexico and the United States, said he was not convinced there could be reconciliation.

"There were good people in Jedwabne," he said -- he was saved by a woman villager who hid him -- "but it was one good person per 1,000."

Marek Siwiec, an adviser to Kwasniewski, told CNN the Polish president's apology was "not on behalf of the nation, because the whole nation was not guilty for the Holocaust.

"The new monument... reflects part of the truth, it reflects the victims but doesn't reflect who is guilty," Siwiec added.

"Prosecutors are investigating this and when we conclude it... we can say more about who was guilty and who contributed." Poland's National Remembrance Institute, which is investigating the massacre, has still to report.

Though the truth has always lurked beneath the surface -- a Stalin-era court in 1949 convicted some villagers of collaborating in the pogrom -- it was buried during decades of communist propaganda that taught Poles to regard themselves only as heroic victims of Nazism.

Among the villagers themselves, under the media spotlight for months, there was considerable resentment.

"It's a terrible thing that's happening to Jedwabne," said a local government clerk, who gave her name as Teresa, 55. "Do we have to apologise? It was a time of war. People were fighting and it's really hard to say who is to blame for the killings."

Polls show 50 percent of people see no need to apologise for the massacre while a separate survey revealed that one-third of Poles doubt that villagers were involved in the killings.

"We do not apologise," read a sign on the door of a grocery store. "It was the Germans who murdered Jews in Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologise to the Polish nation."

It was signed by a "Committee for the Defence of the Good Name of Poland."

"The Germans were responsible. There was nothing Poles could do, Germans were here with pistols and machine guns. Some Poles were forced to cooperate. How many Poles were killed here? Nobody remembers," said Marianna Kwasniewska, a local woman in her 60s.

Leaders of Poland's powerful Catholic church did not attend the ceremony, saying a Warsaw ceremony in May when they asked for forgiveness for Jedwabne and condemned anti-Semitism made the church's position clear.

Local Catholic priest Edward Orlowski also stayed at home, like many residents of the village of some 2,000 people.

"These are all lies. I am spending the day quietly at home. It is Holocaust business. It is not my business. Germans are responsible, so why should we apologise?" Orlowski said.

But other Poles had made the journey to Jedwabne to take part in the ceremony. Retired engineer Jozef Piekarz said it was important to try to set the record straight.

"I came to apologise and show compassion," he said.

• Institute of National Remembrance
• Jews in Poland
• Polish Institute of National Remembrance
• Jedwabne Tragedy

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