Holocaust Memorial (archive)
Holocaust Memorial (archive) iStock

A senior state historian in Poland is seeking the exhumation of bodies of Jews murdered by Polish villagers, citing a witness whom he said claims that Germans organized the slaughter.

Krzysztof Krasowski, a leader of the regional office of the Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN, in Białystok, last month sent the request for exhumation in the village of Jedwabne to his organization’s headquarters in Warsaw, the PAP news agency reported Wednesday, citing the testimony of an 89-year-old woman identified in the Polish media only as Antonina K.

The 1941 massacre at Jedwabne, where according to historians from IPN and beyond at least 340 Jews were butchered by the neighbors amid a power vacuum following Germany’s invasion into Poland, became a highly polarizing issue in Poland since 2001, when historian Jan Gross published a groundbreaking book about it.

Revisionist historians and nationalistic activists who insist that Poles were merely victims of Nazi savagery who never perpetrated atrocities against Jews have disputed the findings by Gross, a Princeton professor, and others, alleging the massacre was either perpetrated or orchestrated by Germans.

The campaign to exhume bodies at Jedwabne intensified following Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party’s rise to power in the 2015 elections. However, leading historians for IPN had not formally pressed for an exhumation prior to Krasowski’s request. Last year, Jedwabne’s mayor added his voice to those demanding an exhumation.

In the past, the presence of German bullet cases in Jedwabne was cited as proof of German intervention in the killing. But historians dismissed this find as inconclusive, arguing the bullets could have been introduced at various points in time after the massacre had already taken place.

In recent years, Polish authorities have cracked down on individuals they find attribute German atrocities to Poles. Last year, Poland’s parliament passed a law prohibiting the labeling of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland a “Polish camp.” And Jan Gross, who exposed the Jedwabne pogrom, is under a police investigation for allegedly insulting the honor of the Polish people — an offense in Poland — by saying in 2014 that Poles killed more Jews during World War II than Poles killed Germans during the same period.

The Jedwabne massacre was one of about 20 anti-Semitic atrocities during or immediately after the Holocaust perpetrated by Poles, according to Polish Chief rabbi Michael Schudrich. At least 1,500 and possibly 2,500 people died in the pogroms, he said.

Polish authorities conducted an inconclusive dig at Jedwabne in 2001, which did not include an exhumation and which was stopped as soon as human remains were encountered.

Halacha, the Jewish Orthodox law, forbids disturbing human remains except when doing so has the potential of preventing a larger desecration or to save human life.

IPN decided to interview the witness cited by Krasowski for the record, Rzeczpospolita reported Tuesday. A neighbor of the woman told the daily the woman “was in Jedwabne during the war. She says she saw it being run by the Germans and their people,” the neighbor, Krzysztof Piaszczyński, said.