- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

When Alexander Kwasniewski spoke to the people of his country last week, he became a figure of deep emotional meaning to them immediately a mixture of admiration and ethical gratitude to many, and of nationalist anger and religious resentment to others

He spoke of something that had happened in a small town exactly 60 years earlier, and has come back to demand a moral judgement of the people by the people in his country and others that had gone through hell.

"This was a particularly cruel crime" he said. "It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless. For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Today as a man, citizen and president of the Polish Republic, I ask in my own name and in the name of those Polish people whose consciences are shocked by this crime."

He talked in the small Polish town of Jedwabne. On July 10, 1941, up to 1,600 Polish Jews were massacred beaten, shot and burned alive during the beginning of the German occupation. Poles and almost all of those who ever even heard of Jedwabne said the massacre was committed by the German occupational forces. A monument was erected to say so.

Then early this year "Neighbors'' a book by Jan Gross, a Polish-American, was published in Polish, presenting evidence that Poles of the village had carried out the crime that would have been unbelievable anywhere else but Nazi Europe. Few social shocks since the Holocaust itself were as stunning to the country that did as much as any Continental nation to fight the Nazis.

After months of study, many Poles of standing and sensitivity came to accept the horrendous story as true. It was denounced by much of the public but accepted by many Poles including top government and political officials.

The reaction from high members of the church ranged largely from icily neutral about the book to icy.

It has been a long time since I wrote and lived two years in Poland under the then-communist regime. Then that regime expelled me with a week's grace for probing into "the internal affairs of the government, party and leadership." I have not missed the stifling fears and grayness of the totalitarian government or the plainclothes cops in my garden scaring my young sons, before we got out.

My heart still tightens when I remember the secret police suddenly grabbing my Polish assistant for no crime whatsoever and keeping him in brutal arrest for months until they expelled me

I asked a Polish editor I knew was also a colonel in the U.B. secret police: "You know Tommy, a good man. Help me get him out." He shook his head, said he could not, "but don't worry. Tommy will not be beaten much even though he is a Jew." He said it quite casually. Tommy was held and beaten month after month, for the crime of selling a couple of used sweaters his aunt had sent to him from the United States.

Tommy was freed some months after I was out of Warsaw. He managed to escape to Vienna from Poland in the bottom of station wagon, with the help of a young American attache, who was defying his ambassador. Tommy made his way to America and said it was his true country, the only free one. He became a professor and died brave, wise, free.

The government of Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Polish dictator, was a certain kind of communist model the kind that constantly assured the West that it was really liberal, but of course could not say so to the Soviets. It had a way of blaming all the viciousness it had committed or was planning to commit on the Soviet Union. The Polish communist bureaucrat would just make a silent knowing nod Eastward toward Moscow "what could little Poland do against them?"

When I had left India after four years of reporting there, I left a room full of notes and books on India, as most of my predecessors had for me. I took only a few innocuous notebooks in Poland and burned those before leaving.

Everybody I knew in Warsaw was intelligent enough to avoid restaurant walls and the microphones foreigners were steered to. So when we had a party at home no politics was talked except unwittingly, when one of the boys uttered a street profanity about Gomulka. Ignorantly, I repeated it in a New York Times magazine piece.

Little anti-Semitism was flung at me personally. But I knew that for centuries Poland had been a sewer of anti-Semitism; my Polish friends told me it was still true and so did Jews masquerading as Poles to get a job.

When I was an editor in New York, the visiting anti-communist leader Lech Walesa explained anti-Semitism by saying, "See, there are two Polands, Polish and Jewish," my reaction was not pleasant.

President Kwasniewski's apology came from deep enough in him that he made it on television. He has declined to add that the Nazi occupiers were the root blame. Jews and some Poles say his refusal to say that totally devalues his talk ; I disagree.

The Polish president believes the Polish are strong enough that now they can say Poles committed the slaughter 60 years ago in Jedwabne. His gift to his country and the world was the message that, without the inner realization that the guilty are the guilty, fratricide will repeat itself a history without end.

A.M. Rosenthal, former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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