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Sixty years ago . . .
Address by Aleksander Kwasniewski

[The following is an unofficial translation by Peter K. Gessner of the address made by President of Poland at the July 10th, 2001, ceremonies in Jedwabne marking the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne tragedy. The Polish text was published on July 10, 2001, in the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza. -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

Sixty years ago, on July 10, 1941, on this land, then conquered and occupied by the Hitlerite Germans, a criminal act was perpetrated against the Jews. It was a terrible day. A day of hatred and brutality. We know much about this crime, though still not everything. It may be that we shall never know the whole truth. That however has not stopped us from being here today. To speak with full voice. We know enough to be able to stand in truth - besides the pain, screams and suffering of those who were murdered here, in front of the victims' families present here today, before the judgment of one's own conscience. It was a criminal act. Nothing justifies it. Among the victims, among the women burnt here, were children. The terrifyng screams of the people locked in the barn and burnt alive - continues to hunt the memory of those who were witnesses to the crime. The victims were powerless and defenseless. The criminals had a feeling of immunity since the German occupiers encouraged them to these actions. We know for certain that among the persecutors and perpetrators there were Poles. We cannot have any doubt that here in Jedwabne, citizens of the Polish Republic perished at the hands of other citizens of the Republic. it was people who furnished this fate to people, neighbors to neighbors.

Then - sixty years ago - they wanted to wipe Poland off the map of Europe. There were no Polish authorities in Jedwabne. The Polish state was not in a position to safeguard its citizens against the slaughter carried out with the permission of the Hitlerites, and with the Hitlerites' inspiration. But the Polish Republic should of course endure in the Polish hearts and minds. And its citizens were constrained, should have been constrained, by the norms of a civilized state, a state with many centuries of traditions of tolerance and peaceful coexistence of various nations and religions. Those who took part in the herding, who beat, killed, kindled tha flames, therefore committed a crime not only with respect to their Jewish neighbors. They are guilty also vis-a-vis the Republic, vis-a-vis its great history and splendid traditions

We stand on tormented land. The name of Jedwabne, tragic to its current inhabitants, has become a byword eliciting in human memory the superstitious prejudices that were fanned with a murderous flame in the "era of the ovens." Responsability for the deaths, the wrongs, and the sufferings visited upon the Jews of Jedwabne rests with their perpetrators and inspirers. It's impermissible to talk about collective guilt, burdening the inhabitants of any locality or the nation with guilt. Every individual is accountable for his actions. Sons do not inherit the guilt of their fathers. But are we permitted to say that this was long ago, that these were others? A nation is a community. A community of individuals, a community of generations. And therefore we must look truth in the eye. Every truth. Say it was thus, it happened thus. Our consciences will be clean if, when remembering those days, we always retain in our hearts a horror and moral outrage. We are here to perform a collective accounting of consciences. We pay our respects to the victims, and we say - never again. Let us all today be inhabitants of Jedwabne. Let's feel as they. Let's share in common with them feelings of grief, despair, shame, and solidarity. Cain, of course, could have killed Able anywhere. Every community could have been subjected to a similar test. A test of evil but also of goodness. Of baseness but also of nobility. Just is he who was able to show compassion in the face of human suffering. How many Poles - also inhabitants of the surrounding area, also from Jedwabne - merit the appellation of just. Let us remember them today with the greatest gratitude and highest regard.

Thanks to the great national debate around the crime of 1941, much has changed in our lives in this year 2001, the first year of the new millennium. We have come to realize our responsibilites for our attitude towards the black pages or history. We have understood that those who counsel the nation to deny this past serve the nation ill. Such a posture leads to moral self-destruction. We gathered here, together with all the people of our country who have sensitive consciences, together with the secular and religious moral authorities, strengthening our attachment to basic principles, respecting the memory of the murdered and expressing the deepest sympathy because of the baseness of the perpetrators of the slaughter. We express our pain and shame, we give expression to our determination in seeking to learn the truth, courage in overcoming a bad past, an unbending will for understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shadows of the dead and their families forgiveness. Because of that, today, as a citizen and the President of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by the crime. In name of those who believe that one cannot be proud of the magnificent Polish history without feeling simultaneously pain and shame for wrongs that Poles caused to others.

I wish with all my heart that the name of this town remind one not only of the crime, but that it become a sign of a great accounting of conscience, that it become a place of reconciliation. The Polish bishops prayed on May 27 "for all those harboring averision and rancor towards the Jewish nation, that they might accept the grace of a change of heart." Those words express well the feelings of the vast majority of Poles. Let then that change take place! Let's seek it! The tragedy that took place here cannot be undone. The wrongs cannot be wiped away, the suffering forgotten. The truth doesn't possess that power. But only the truth - even if most scalding, burning, painful - will allow the cleansing of memory's wound. That's our hope. That's why we are here. We offer today words of grief and bitterness not only because that is demanded by simple human decency. And not because others expect it from us, not because the world is listening. We utter them because that's exactly how we feel. Because we need them most ourselves. We do this so as to be better, stronger in a moral sense, free of aversions, anger, hatred. To respect humans and love people. To turn evil into goodness.

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