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Wasosz Pogrom Mass Murder Investigation Sharply Divides Jewish Leaders

Did Nazi occupiers, or Polish villagers, slaughter some 250 Jews in 1941?
An exhibition of photos of the Jewish residents who victims of the Jedwabne massacre are on display July 20, 2001 in Lomza, near Jedwabne, Poland.
An exhibition of photos of the Jewish residents who victims of the Jedwabne massacre are on display July 20, 2001 in Lomza, near Jedwabne, Poland.East News via Getty Images file

The small Polish town of Wasosz was the scene of a terrible massacre one summer night in 1941. Around 250 Jews were slaughtered in their homes, their bodies tossed into the cobbled streets where they lay in pools of blood.

The corpses were taken by horse-drawn carts and buried in a pit on the outskirts of town, according to post-war testimony. Today, a large menorah stands in the meadow marking the site of the mass grave.

More than 70 years on, questions still hang over the massacre: Were the slayings carried out by the country’s Nazi occupiers, or the victims' Polish neighbors?

Efforts to prove who was behind the July 5, 1941, killings are sharply dividing Jewish leaders. Polish government investigators have asked permission to dig up the bodies at Wasosz, thought to be one of 30 similar attacks in the region, in an effort to gather forensic evidence that could identify those responsible.

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich is among those who says exhuming the bodies would be a violation of Jewish law regarding the respect for the dignity of the dead.

"We have to examine all the evidence about the murders before anyone can even think of exhumation," he told NBC News via telephone from the Polish capital Warsaw. "And the gathering of that information is still going on." Schudrich says most rabbis agree with him.

Priests and rabbis pray at the memorial at Wasosz, Poland.
Priests and rabbis pray at the memorial at Wasosz, Poland.K. Bielawski

The historical murder inquiry is being conducted by the Institute for National Remembrance, a government agency created to investigate crimes against Poles during both the German occupation and post-War era.

Communist Poland downplayed Jewish suffering in the Holocaust because it was not consistent with its version of history. It maintained that all Poles were equal victims of the Nazis and blamed members of the fascist German regime for crimes committed against Jews by Poles.

One of the most prominent backers of the investigation is Piotr Kadicik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. Kadicik strongly disagrees with the chief rabbi, arguing the remains should be exhumed and buried in a Jewish cemetery with a traditional religious ceremony. Not only would this satisfy religious custom, he said, but also provide clues as to who was responsible for the killing.

"The local hooligans went from door to door, murdering people inside and outside"

Kadicik cites Rabbi Joseph A. Polak, a prominent Boston rabbi, to support his case. "It is not only appropriate but also obligatory to re-inter someone buried in an inappropriate grave," said Polak, commenting on another massacre that happened just five days after Wasosz, 18 miles south in Jedwabne.

One account of what happened was written by a 22-year-old named Menachem Finkelsztejn who lived in the area at the time. He said the Wasosz atrocity was carried out by Poles. "The local hooligans went from door to door, murdering people inside and outside, raping women, cutting breasts, smashing newborns against walls," said a transcript of his story at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

But many Poles don’t believe their ancestors killed Jews, according Princeton Professor Jan Gross, the author of "Neighbors," a seminal work on the Jedwabne pogrom. He believes, however, that if the bodies were uncovered this theory would be disproved.

The memorial at Wasosz, Poland.
The memorial at Wasosz, Poland.K. Bielawski / K. Bielawski

"The evidence will show that the Jews were killed by axes and pitchforks by their Polish neighbors," Kadicik said. The German death squads that followed the German army did their killing with guns, not axes and pitchforks.

Others think the Nazis played their part. Krzysztof Persak, a historian for the Institute of Remembrance, said the Germans took advantage of the deeply rooted anti-Semitism in this region of Poland and in neighboring Ukraine.

"The Nazis encouraged the Poles to cleanse their areas of Jews"

A leading Nazi called Reinhard Heydrich encouraged local Polish anti-Semites to instigate pogroms, Persak said, citing secret Nazi archival documents that were recently made available to the Institute.

"The Nazis encouraged the Poles to cleanse their areas of Jews, but stressed they should conceal any German involvement," said Persak.

He also refers to the trial in Poland of Marian Rydzewski in June 1951, in which Rydzewski was acquitted of participating in the Wasosz killings. Persak said that during the case, Polish witnesses acknowledged townspeople participated in the killings, but the witnesses refused to provide names.

The question of Polish participation in Holocaust-era crimes is controversial and divisive today because Poland depicts itself as a heroic symbol of resistance in the face of Germany’s brutal occupation.

Exhuming the 250 Jews murdered at Wasosz could provide definitive answers that risk undermining this heroic self-image. But the prevailing interpretation of Jewish law will likely ensure this mass-murder mystery remains unresolved.

NBC News' Alexander Smith contributed to this report.