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Jedwabne shoud be a symbol of reconciliation
A conversation with Michael Schudrich, Rabbi of Warsaw and Łódź
by the Catholic Information Agency's Bogumił Łoziński and Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz.

[The following is an unofficial translation by Peter K. Gessner of the conversation as reported on March 14, 2001 by the Warsaw-based dailies Rzeczpospolita and Życie. -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

"Unfortunately the voices of the Polish Rabbis, who say that collective responsability should not be invoked and that the whole Polish nation should not be blamed, are not reaching the American press. These voices are very much needed by the American Polonia, particularly now." - Editorial comment in the Warsaw daily Życie on March 21, 2001

Q.: The Primate of Poland, in answer to your letter has informed you that he plans to meet with you in prayer on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the slaughter in Jedwabne. What spiritual meaning for the Jews has asking God for forgiveness for the spilling of innocent blood.

A.: In the Jewish tradition on the anniversary of the death of one of one's relatives or co-religionists is the saying of prayers for the dead in the place where they are buried. In regard to Jedwabne we know where are the graves of the victims of the tragedy, and for me as a Rabbi it would be a natural thing for the prayers to take place in that place. I am open, however to other proposal, although I understand that the descendants of the deceased wish to gather over the graves of thier kin and to join in mourning.

Q.: How do you envisage the course of such prayer.

A.: There should be a Jewish prayer for the deceased should that uttered with all the people of good will who wish to join us in mourning. We - Jews and Christians - have a common tradition, among other the Book of Psalms. It would be natural, if someone who is not a Jew but wishes to take part in our prayers, would recite, for instance, a funerary psalm. Of course we should agree earlier which will be the prayers, for that's of some importance. For me the most important is that our remembrance of that tragedy will be a joint one. It should not be an occasion for settling accounts, for saying who did what, for accusations, but for prayers and a joining in mourning.

Q.: Should there be, in context of the joint mourning, apologies which the Jewish community expect from the Polish side? The Primate that he will apologize to the Jews for the crime carried out by Poles. Do you expect a specific format, or will the very fact of joint prayers and a joining in mourning suffice?

A.: Everyone must consult their own conscience as to what is the best manner to as for forgiveness. I am not going to instruct anybody. Our Jewish tradition demands that we undertake definite actions in response to specific events. If I did a wrong, I must ask the wronged person for forgiveness. It's insufficient here however to ask God for forgiveness, First one must apologize to one's neighbor, only then turn to God. So teaches our religion.

Q.: We are interested, what format of forgiveness is accepted in Judaism, particularly in the event that the worst has happened - a brutal murder?

A.: When I was writing to Cardinal Glemp, I found my inspiration in the Book of Repeated Law. We read there about Eglah Arufa, a special offering which should be given upon finding in the field the body of a murdered person: "Our hand did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes look upon this. Cleanse Your Israeli people, who you have redeemed Lord, don't hold Your Israeli people responsible. The they will be cleansed of that blood." This is a little known fragment of the Tora - if you have found someone murdered in the field and it's not know who is the murderer. you must go to the nearest town and that town's elder has to make a special offering, and then ask God's forgiveness. In the case of Jedwabne, it is known who were the murdered, although the historians argue what was the contribution of Poles and Germans, but it is known with certainty that Poles also took part in it. That's painful, but the truth is the truth.

Q.: Who than, besides God, should be the definite addressee of the request for forgiveness?

A.: There are descendants of the victims, there is Rabbi Baker and several persons from Jedwabne. The most important is that, if someone feels a deep feeling of a need for such a gesture, he will also find the appropriate form. The key to it could be the cited passage from the Book of Repeated Law. (...)

Q.: What has to be done so that the tragedy in Jedwabne will not divide people, that it contribute to bringing closer the faithful of our religions?

A.: The first step is to ask for forgiveness. In what manner - that's an open question. In my view, today people are more open to truth, even when it is very painful, even if it is contrary to earlier perceptions of the Polish nation about itself. I know this is very difficult. But I see that this has stared and I am much gladdened that I live among people who are willing to think, to pray, to admit to guilt of the past.

For me personally it is painful that when the word "Jedwabne" is uttered, it engenders bad emotions. Thoughts occur about conflict, slaughter, victims, people are divided. It's unimportant what version of the events the sides in conflict accept, but they think of above all about the violence and the tragedy that took place here. But that's not right. Why don't those people recall the 500 years of common history? They think of only a few hours, horrible, tragic, difficult to believe. That's human and natural. But I heard form Rabbi Baker, who is originally from Jedwabne, of Poles who lived in the town. The slept over in his house, they maintained contacts. It was a shock for him - how did it happen, how was it possible. Those several hours, though so tragic, cannot caused Jedwabne to be the worst town in Poland. Maybe on that one day it was the worst town, but not forever.

Q.: In Poland no one questions the fact that the Poles contributed to the death of Jews in Jedwabne. We have been to the town, we listened the people, they are aware of what happened. The problem is that Jan Gross, the author of the book "Neighbors" has created a specific vision of the tragedy and is supporting it with documents which are not entirely credible. But on the basis of that vision he has come to generalized conclusions. He states, for instance, that the Jews in Jedwabne were slaughtered by the Polish community. In your opinion can the whole nation be blamed for a crime committed by some dozens of Poles. Can one say, that all the inhabitants of the town, or that the whole nation perpetrated that crime.

A.: Guilty of murder is he who committed it. He should be judged, if not in this world, then certainly in the next, and it would be better for him it it were in this world than the next for there it will be worse. But there is something, precisely that Eglah Arufa. Why should the elder of the nearest town pray for the man who perished by the hand of an unknown assailant? It wasn't even in his jurisdiction, and yet though not guilty, he takes on the responsibility what has happened. There is a shadow and it falls on everyone. The individual who murdered is individually responsible for the act. However, another person can seek forgiveness and this does not mean it bears the same guilt as the perpetrator.

Q.: Does Jedwabne and events in several other localities change the historical perspective so greatly that it is possible to accuse Poles as a nation responsible for the Holocaust, for the systematic slaughter of Jews, can one equate Poles with hitlerites?

A.: Certainly not. I raise objection even the question itself. One cannot even ask such questions! That's unbelievable that someone can formulate such a statement. That's not just against Poland, but against the truth and history.

The holocaust was planned and carried out from the beginning to the end by the Germans, in which representatives of other nations participated. I don's want to give percentages, generate lists of who share the guilt. That's a problem for God and historians, but the principals perpetrators are beyond discussion.

Q.: Why then so many Jews accuses Poland of collaborating in the Holocaust?

A.: Not only now, it has always been thus. I can even foresee who, after reading Gross's book in the States will thus assert. I underscore however, that accusing Poles of participation in the Holocaust is a sin.

Are not concerned that the, in our view, dishonest book by Gross, will create in the American public opinion a perception regarding Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War?

For Poles it should be more important what they will tell God and what their own attitude to Jedwaben will be rather than what they will say about this tragedy in the United States. When one straightaway says the truth and apologizes, form a moral standpoint that's always better. There no need to hide anything here. We cannot change what happened 60 years ago. At the same time we can change what's happening today.

Asking for forgiveness comes from a moral imperative, it shapes our relationship with God and that's most important. Asking for forgiveness, although it takes place in a moral dimension, is of great practical importance in contacts between Jews and Poles.

Of course, I realize we live in a real world and American perception of Jedwabne can be a problem. On the other hand and event the new of which will span the globe, will be the act of asking for forgiveness by either the Primate or the President. Then all will remember about the apology and that will be news. The world will say, Jedwabne did happen, but the Poles apologized.

Q.: You have lived in Poland for nine years. Is the anti-Semitism of which the Poles are accused by many Jews, is a characteristic attribute of the Polish community?

A.: Things are not as bad with Polish anti-Semitism as Jews suggest , nor as well as Poles believe of themselves. The truth lies between. For me the problem are not the anti-Semites, but people who keep quiet when anti=Semitic excesses take place. The Pope says that anti-Semitism is a sin, hence we should not remain silent in such situations. Let's say that someone in a gathering tells a racist joke: we must react, say - I don't want to hear that, its not for me. Good people remain too silent.

Indeed, Jews often say that Poles are anti-Semites, but that derives from a certain psychological mechanism. If you are assaulted by two individuals, one a stranger the other a friend, then naturally you will remember not that what the stranger did, but what role had your friend. Your hear will ache that your friend wrong you. Before the war Jews and Poles lived together in close communion with each other and maybe this is the genesis that great bitterness for the attitudes of Poles during the war. Jews feel roncor towards their friends, next to whom they lived for 1000 years.

Q.: It's undisputable that the slaughter in Jedwabne requires that we Poles apologize for the crime committed against the Jews. Yet, in the Polish community there is a feeling of having been wrong by some people of Jewish ancestry for their comportment: first in 1939-41 in collaborating with the Russians in the extermination of Poles, and also for the discreditable role that a portion of them played in ushering in communism in the years 1945-53. (...) Do you believe that Jews should apologize to the Poles for the sins of their Jewish ancestors?

A.: Humans must apologize for every committed wrong. That is also the duty of Jews. We must recognize that we were not only victims, but that we had amongst us people who wronged others. The Jews currently must have to open wider their eyes regarding their own history in the last few decades. (...)

Q.: Then if you make such a review of history and come to recognize the guilt of Jews for wrongs done to Poles in the last several decades, will you be ready to apologize to the Poles?

A.: We Jews must admit that there have been Jew We Jews must admit that there were Jews who actively worked for the communist, even the hitlerites and who committed crimes against the Poles, and also against the Jews. They never claimed, however, that they were acting in the name of the Jewish nation. Nonetheless the time has come that if we Jews want the Poles to feel and understand our pain, then we must understand and feel the pain of the Poles.

Michael Schudrich is 45 year old, born in New York as the son of a Rabbi. He has been a rabbi since 1980. In 1983-89 he was the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Japan. In 1992-1998 he lived in Warsaw where he was the Director of the Polish Section of the American Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Since June 2000, he is the Rabbi of Warsaw and Łódź. He is married and has a daughter.

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