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Der Spiegel May 28, 2001

Poland

“The Perpetrators were Polish”

("Die Täter waren Polen")

Translated by: Ariane Hundt

Awigdor Nielawicki, survivor of the pogrom of Jedwabne,
on anti-Semitism and collaboration in WW II.

Spiegel: You survived the pogrom of Jedwabne, where 60 years ago about 1,600 Jews were killed - by their own Polish people, which was revealed in the meantime. The crime is currently being examined by a special state commission in Warsaw. Have Polish lawyers contacted you yet to take your statement down?

Nielawicki: Yes, a lawyer called me to ask if I would come to Poland. I rejected. I left the country where I was born and almost burnt in 1945 and never returned. On the 15th of May I was supposed to make a statement at the Polish embassy here in Israel, but nobody has contacted me since.

Spiegel: The question is whether Germans motivated the Poles to the crime. Especially Polish historians still search for pieces of circumstantial evidence for a German perpetrator ship. What really happened?

N: I think it is horrible that many Poles still don't admit to their country's anti-Semitic past. They have to understand: The perpetrators were Polish. They even came on the morning of the horrible day of murder with their horse carts to loot the houses of the dead Jews right after the Pogrom.

And I say: There were even more than 2,000 dead on this day. If you add the number of Jewish families who were in Jedwabne on that day, next to the inhabitants also many refugees, you have to find out that the numbers since made public are too low.

Spiegel: How old were you then?

N: I was almost 16 years old and actually came from Wizna, a small village about ten kilometers from Jedwabne. When the Germans attacked the Russians on the 22nd of June in Eastern Poland, Wizna was bombarded from the air. The Jewish quarter burned. All families, including mine, left. We left with a horse cart. Towards evening we were attacked by Polish bandits. They beat us and stole the few things we had been able to save from the fire.

Spiegel: Were they just bandits or were they motivated by anti-Semitism?

N: They wanted our money and knew that nobody would punish them for their actions. After the invasion of the Germans we Jews became prey for the Polish, especially for the Nationalists, who hated Jews and Communists. Many of the thugs had just been released from jail by the Germans. Such former prisoners also killed my aunt's father, who didn't manage to flee.

Spiegel: Had the Germans motivated the perpetrators?

N: The Germans didn't need to. Besides, the Wehrmacht (German military in WW II) and SS hadn't invaded this part of Poland at that time. They came step by step in the following days. We had lost everything after the raid, so my father took me, my mother, and sisters to an acquaintance, a Catholic inn owner, who hid us in his barn. But there we weren't safe from the Nationalists for a long time either, so we went back to Wizna to my grandfather's house, where a Polish family had already moved in, but they didn't betray us. A Jewish horse smith, about 75 years old, stayed in the inn. He said: “I know everybody here, I have no fear”. He was also beaten to death by released prisoners after they had drunk. About a dozen Jews from Wizna were killed this way.

Spiegel: How was the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Polish in your village before the Germans invaded?

N: Not bad, but not good either. As a little boy I was fighting with the Polish boys more than I was playing with them. During the 30's the relationship got worse and worse. Most traders on Wizna's market were Jews. More and more attacks happened, and booths were destroyed or raided. Behind it were often the followers of “Stronnictwo Narodowe”, a right extremist party, who had also organized the boycott of Jewish stores since the 30's. There was even anti-Semitic cooperation in Wizna. This way the Nationalists wanted to prevent the Polish to buy from Jews. Therefore, the massacre of Jedwabne had a long prehistory. The perpetrators didn't fall from the sky. Professor Jan Tomasz Gross, who wrote a book about it is right when he says that the murderers were “neighbors”.

Spiegel: Many Polish found this presentation of facts unfair because about 40,000 to 50,000 Jews were rescued by the Polish from the Nazis. In the Avenue of the Righteous of Yad Vashem many Polish names are listed.

N: I know that friends of my family were also hidden by Polish and were able to survive this way. But more died because of the Poles or with their help. Many Poles collaborated with the Germans. “Jews work, Jews work”, this phrase, with which they got Jews out of their houses still sounds in my ears. Oftentimes German soldiers had Poles show them where the Jews lived. When I was driven into the Ghetto of Lomza in August 1941 by the Germans, Poles were standing along the streets, teasing. They pulled our last belongings out of our hands. In the Ghetto they sometimes prevented us from picking up our rations of food or they threw the food on the ground, but the worst is: They killed my family.

Spiegel: How did it come to the massacre in Jedwabne?

N: We had fled to an uncle in Jedwabne. He was a miller. During the day we hid in the fields because everywhere were Poles who wanted to kill Jews, but also Germans. One evening the Polish daughter of our neighbors came to warn us: We would all get killed.

My parents had just left for our hometown Wizna, to get some money, so the next morning I fled into the fields myself. I wore three pants and three shirts at the same time, because the nights were cold. On the morning of the 10th of July I was discovered by Polish thugs, men about 20 years old, on a path in the field. I ran as fast as I could, but the many pants and shirts hindered me, so they caught me.

Spiegel: Were there Germans in Jedwabne?

N: Only a few cops. Several Jews, young men, worked for the police. The Poles called: “Give us the Jews”, many witnesses reported. But the cops said: “No, we still need them.” The Germans probably agreed. At the market place I didn't see any Germans.

Spiegel: All Jews were assembled at the market place. What happened there?

N: We were beaten by the Poles. They had bats, whips, and knifes. We had to sing: “We wanted the war”, we had to pull the grass out of the cracks in the street. I always remained in the center of the place, that's where I would get least beaten. The Rabbi was forced to wave a red flag. Others carried the Lenin statue, which the Russians had set up. I still see the hateful face of a farmer in the street when they dragged me into the village. She yelled: “Why didn't you finish the boy right away?”

Spiegel: How did you escape?

N: Suddenly I believed that I saw my mother, who was supposed to have returned that morning, but the woman was too far away and the crowd too large. Then we were driven away from the village towards the barn. I thought that if I kept walking with them I was certainly going to die. So I decided to flee in the fields.

Spiegel: That's where you were hiding?

N: Yes. There I was lying and crouching on the ground. I was waiting for the explosions and shots because Germans sometimes also had thrown hand grenades into Jewish homes. But it stayed quiet. Then I suddenly heard some sort of whining, which slowly got stronger, an unusual noise that like a wave drifted over the field. Today I know that these were the death prayers of the burning Jews. Then smoke clouds blew over the countryside. It smelled awful, like burnt cattle. When it smoked, the horse carts of the Polish started moving - to loot. But I thought: There's fire in the village, they have to extinguish the fire.

Spiegel: You couldn't imagine what really happened?

N: No, only at night, when a boy, who had also fled into the rye fields, told me what had happened.

Spiegel: Did you hear shooting?

N: No. Nobody was shooting. I know that they found bullet cases in Jedwabne. Interested Polish historians want to conclude that the Jews got shot. Then Germans would be the perpetrators. But that is not true. For a short time during WW I a German-Russian front line ran through Jedwabne. The remainders of ammunition may stem from this.

Spiegel: How did you survive the rest of the war?

N: I spoke Polish without any Yiddish accent. That saved my life. I met Polish partisans in the woods from the AK, the army, who accepted me.

Spiegel: They thought you were really Polish?

N: Yes. I had even read their Catholic religion books. But there I couldn't learn much, compared to Jewish books. Besides, I read: The Jews have killed Jesus. That's when I realized why they hated us.

Spiegel: Did the partisans see through your double role?

N: No, I was very careful because the soldiers also sang songs of mockery about Jews.

Spiegel: The followers of the home army are seen as heroes of the resistance in Poland.

N: But among them there were also anti-Semites who killed Jews. Also two uncles of mine, who were hiding in the swamps by Klescze, were killed by partisans - “by our people”, which I was told by inhabitants of the village later.

Spiegel: You made a statement about your experiences in Jedwabne in Bialystok still in the summer of 1945.

N: Yes, but my statements were later falsified. For example, I had declared how Germans, together with the Poles, went to hunt Jews. In the record, which I could only read a while ago, the part of the Poles wasn't even mentioned anymore. The collaboration was hushed up.

Spiegel: The Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski wants to apologize on the 10th of July for the Jedwabne pogrom. Does that comfort you somewhat?

N: Words won't make my family come alive again.

Box

The Jedwabne pogrom still concerns the Poles like no other event, even though it has been 60 years. It happened about three weeks after the Wehrmacht attack on the Soviet Union. Untill June 22, 1941, Jedwabne was occupied by the Russians; Eastern Poland fell to the USSR in September 1939 after the secret additional protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Agreement. In June and July, pogroms by the Poles against the Jewish population took place in the area. Avigdor N. is one of the few survivors of the crime. After being able to flee Jedwabne, the almost 16 year-old was caught by Germans and taken to the Lomza ghetto but managed to flee. He survived with Polish partisans, but did not admit to being Jewish. After an adventurous escape, N. arrived in March 1946 in what is today Israel and changed his name to Avigdor Kochav.

Photo Captions:

Pogrom survivor Nielawicki: “Many collaborated with the Germans.”

Village view of Jedwabne: “Many Poles still don't admit to their country's anti-Semitic past.”

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