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Sunday, 20 May, 2001, 02:52 GMT 03:52 UK
Poland allows Jewish mass grave exhumation
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski
President Kwasniewski apologised for the massacre
Polish officials have given permission for the opening of a mass grave containing as many as 1,600 Jewish victims of a World War II massacre.

The Institute of National Memory (IPN) requested permission to investigate the mass grave at the village of Jedwabne after revelations that the Jews were killed not by Nazis, but Poles.

The IPN wants to establish exactly how many people died in the July 1941 massacre.

It was an act of genocide which Poles from Jedwabne carried out against their Jewish neighbours

Polish President
Aleksander Kwasniewski

The revelation that local villagers - and not the German Gestapo, as was long believed - were responsible for the killings came as a shock to ordinary Poles.

The Jews were burned to death in a barn in Jedwabne, about 100km north-east of the capital Warsaw.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has accepted that it was the Jews' fellow-villagers who were to blame, and he and Polish bishops have apologised.

New monument

Although permission has been given for the graves to be opened, it is not clear that the exhumation will actually take place.

Opening graves is forbidden in most cases by Jewish law, and Poland's small Jewish community has objected to the plan.

Prisoners at Auschwitz
The Nazis built the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland
Officials say a cemetery and monument will be set up in time for the 60th anniversary of the atrocity.

A stone monument blaming Nazi and Gestapo soldiers for around 1,600 deaths in the area has already been removed.

It is to be replaced with a new memorial listing the names of the victims, but there is intense debate about how far the monument will go in placing blame on Poles for the killings.

There has already been a strong public reaction to the government's acceptance of the guilt of its own citizens.

A national debate over the Jedwabne killings was sparked when historian Jan Thomasz Gross wrote a book, Neighbours, which provided detailed accounts of how Polish people carried out the murders with German approval.

Official apology

Mr Kwasniewski faced a storm of protest when he announced in March that he was planning to apologise to Jews for the massacre.

"It was an act of genocide which Poles from Jedwabne carried out against their Jewish neighbours," he said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper.

"It was an exceptionally bestial killing of innocent people."

The mass grave, 7.5m (25 feet) long, was found using old air force photographs and specialist equipment.

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29 Mar 01 | Media reports
Jewish mass grave found in Poland
07 Mar 01 | Media reports
Fury over massacre apology plan
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