In a somber ceremony held under rainy skies and presided over by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, mourners Tuesday honored the memory of hundreds of Jews massacred by their neighbors here 60 years ago during Nazi German occupation of this rural town.
"For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness," Kwasniewski said. "As a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland . . . I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime."
Kwasniewski said that although Nazi occupiers had incited the July 10, 1941, massacre, "we know with all certainty that Poles were among the oppressors and assassins."
"We cannot have any doubts: Here in Jedwabne, citizens of the Republic of Poland died at the hands of other citizens of the Republic of Poland," Kwasniewski said.
For decades, a simple stone memorial at the site of a barn where many of the victims were burned to death blamed the incident solely on the Nazis.
That monument was removed in March. In its place Tuesday, a new memorial was unveiled with an inscription that states simply: "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."
The failure of the new inscription to identify the killers as the victims' neighbors has provoked criticism from some Jewish organizations. But many Polish and foreign Jews see the response of Kwasniewski and other leading Poles to the revelations--and the general tone and content of most mass media coverage--as an important step forward in Polish-Jewish relations.
Shevach Weiss, Israel's ambassador to Poland, thanked Kwasniewski.
"This rain maybe is a symbol that God also wants to cry with us today," Weiss added. "Maybe, after all, we are all children of one God."
The degree of Nazi involvement in the massacre and the exact number of people who died--by some counts as many as 1,600--remain matters of heated dispute and conflicting evidence. But massive public discussion about the incident has been based on broad acceptance of the thesis that Polish residents of Jedwabne played an active role in the killings.
"This is an extremely emotional day for me," said Ty Rogers, a New York lawyer who lost more than 20 relatives in the massacre. "Walking here I think of the confusion and the chaos of 60 years ago. I think of my family, of what they went through. I think it's the beginning of a healing process."
Also in attendance was Judith Kubran, 49, an American whose father, Janek Kubrzanski, was saved from the massacre by a Polish woman, Antonina Wyrzykowska.
"It's overwhelming," Kubran said.
Weiss called on listeners at the ceremony in Jedwabne's town square to imagine what it had been like six decades ago: "the carriages tied to the horses and the children playing in the marketplace . . . this beautiful town, where Poles and Jews lived together."
"This reality . . . came to an abrupt and shocking end, on a tragic summer's day, exactly 60 years ago," Weiss said. "People who lived together with the Jews of Jedwabne, who knew them by name and were friendly with them, these same people set upon their Jewish neighbors, dragging them to the local barn before slaughtering them and burning them alive."
But Weiss, who grew up in Poland, added that he "was fortunate to get to know other neighbors."
"Thanks to these people, my family and I were able to survive the Holocaust," he said. "Thanks to these people, I am standing before you today. I know also of other barns, where Jews were hidden away. For the sake of a better future for us all, I feel the need to state this fact here and now."
The ceremony began with Chopin's "Funeral March." After speeches in the square, the dignitaries and the crowd of about 1,600 people walked to the memorial site, taking the same route that many victims were forced to walk.
The main catalyst for a reassessment of the massacre was the book "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne," by Jan T. Gross, a naturalized American of Polish and Jewish heritage who is a professor of politics and European studies at New York University. The book came out in Polish last year and in English this spring.
Stanislaw Michalowski, 49, head of the town council and a third-generation resident, said in an interview that the atmosphere in Jedwabne on Tuesday was "very tense." Most residents believe that Gross' account is unfair, he said.
Michalowski added, however, that he knows many of the allegations are true.
"I know what happened here, and the old inhabitants of Jedwabne know it too," he said. "Even though my family did not participate in the killings, I feel morally guilty because I come from here and also because I am head of the City Council, and the City Council at that time contributed to the fact that no Jews were left alive."
Michalowski said he and Mayor Krzystof Godlewski, 45, who moved to the town in 1964, have been under enormous pressure throughout the controversy and that they considered resigning.
"We have really had enough, but we were afraid that extremists will come to the forefront and then people all over the world will start thinking that not only 60 years ago people changed into animals but that we are the same today," Michalowski said. "My hopes are for the younger generation. They think differently. There is no hate in them."
Times staff writer Holley reported from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and special correspondent Kasprzycka from Jedwabne.