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Originally published Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 2:57 AM

Ceremony honors Jews killed by Polish neighbors

State and religious leaders are marking 70 years on Sunday since Polish villagers murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a World War II massacre that caused painful soul-searching in Poland when it was revealed in 2000.

Associated Press

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JEDWABNE, Poland —

State and religious leaders are marking 70 years on Sunday since Polish villagers murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a World War II massacre that caused painful soul-searching in Poland when it was revealed in 2000.

In an agonizing debate at the time Poles were forced to modify their belief, shaped by decades of communist-era propaganda, that they were always heroic victims - never collaborators - in Nazi-era atrocities.

The date of the massacre in the village of Jedwabne has entered Poland's remembrance calendar and the state and church leaders have apologized. But it still remains to be seen to what extent the entire nation has acknowledged cases of Polish wrongdoing against the Jews.

"Coming to terms with a difficult past is a process," the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, told The Associated Press. "The commemoration on Sunday will be another step in this process."

For the first time, a high official of Poland's Catholic Church will attend a ceremony at Jedwabne, some 190 kilometers (120 milers) northeast of Warsaw.

"The ceremony will be centered on prayers, in a gesture of solidarity, sympathy and of remembering the victims," said Bishop Mieczyslaw Cislo, the Church's envoy.

Schudrich said Cislo's attendance will mean that the "Church is taking it seriously, and the Church is probably the most important moral voice in Poland," a predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Schudrich will say Jewish prayers at the stone monument that says in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish: "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, and children, fellow-dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941."

A representative for Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli and German ambassadors are to attend. A victims' relative, Icchak Levi, is to come from Israel.

That state investigation that closed in 2002 said that some 40 Polish men killed between 300 and 400 Jewish men, women and children in Jedwabne, in Poland's northeast, beating some to death and burning others alive in a barn. It was impossible to state the exact number of victims, the investigators said.

The probe was ordered after Polish emigre historian Jan Tomasz Gross described the massacre in his book "Neighbors" published here in 2000. According to Gross, some 1,600 Jews were killed in Jedwabne.

Poland's then-President Aleksander Kwasniewski apologized for the crime during a state memorial ceremony in Jedwabne in 2001. Days earlier, Poland's bishops made an apology for the Jedwabne massacre and other crimes against Jews under the German occupation, in a special ceremony of prayers in Warsaw. It was viewed as a step toward reconciliation with Jewish groups who often accuse the Catholic Church of being too tolerant of anti-Semitism.

That sentiment seems to linger among some Church figures in Poland. Recently, the Foreign Ministry asked the Vatican to admonish a Polish priest, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who called his own country a totalitarian state that "hasn't been ruled by Poles since 1939." The latter remark was understood as anti-Semitic.

In 1949, a communist-era court convicted 12 Poles in the Jedwabne massacre, saying they assisted German forces in the killings, which took place after German troops occupied Poland during World War II.

Some 3 million of the nation's prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million were killed in the Holocaust.

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