Polish probe into wartime murders of Jews closed
Authorities fail to find proof of suspects’ guilt in case of 20 Jewish women beaten, raped and killed by Polish villagers in summer of 1941.
Warsaw Ghetto monument in Poland Photo: Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
KRAKOW – Poland has closed an investigation into the 1941 murder of 20 Jewish women by Polish villagers in the north of the country during World War II. The case was reopened last year, but closed after failure to find conclusive evidence that any of the perpetrators were still alive.
In the summer of 1941, the women, aged between 15 and 30, were sent from the Szczuczyn ghetto in northern Poland to work on a farm in the village of Bzury.
Little is known of what happened after they reached the field, but evidence collected over the years indicates that a group of Polish villagers beat them with clubs reinforced with metal, then raped some of them and finally murdered all 20. Their bodies were buried in pits that had been dug in advance in the nearby forest.
Only one of the perpetrators, Stanislaw Zalewski, was arrested – by Communist authorities after the war – and stood trial. He was sentenced to prison, but the decision was changed to a death sentence before being overturned.
Zalewski was sent to prison for 15 years.
Last June, 71 years after the brutal murders, Radoslaw Ignatiew, prosecutor for the Polish Institute of National Remembrance – established in 1998 by the Polish parliament to preserve the memory of those killed in World War II – decided to reopen the investigation in an attempt to track down the other perpetrators and bring them to justice.
Shortly after announcing his decision to reopen the investigation, Ignatiew told the Polish media he had no doubt the perpetrators were Poles and that the murders had been planned in advance.
The investigation was closed after eight months.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Ignatiew explained the decision.
“We decided to close the investigation after we failed to find any of the other perpetrators that had been accused by the Polish court and the prosecutor after the war. Seven people were accused of the brutal murders in Bzury, one of them was sentenced to death, but the other six were released after the prosecutor decided that there was no proof of their guilt.”
Asked if there was any proof that the perpetrators were in fact dead, Ignatiew replied, “None of them remain alive, we know that for sure. However, we found some evidence that two or three other people may have taken part in this crime. After all the time that has passed, we were unable to find any evidence of their guilt. After making every possible inquiry, I decided to close the case.”
As to the names of the women, he said that authorities “only uncovered one name, but we are not sure if this woman was a victim of the murders in Bzury. A similar crime occurred in July 1941, also near Szczuczyn, where 11 Jewish women were killed in a field where they were working. It’s a very similar case, and we are not sure whether the women whose name we discovered was indeed murdered in Bzury.”
Ignatiew said he found a lot of personal data in the Polish national archive, and even an eyewitness, during the eight-month investigation into the murders.
“For example, we found documents about a very similar criminal case that occurred in southern Poland in 1945.
“One of the people involved in this crime was arrested by the Soviet army and sent to Siberia. He returned to Poland in 1957 and we discovered that he was also one of those accused of the murders of the Jewish women in Bzury.
He died in 1985. We found an eyewitness who was 11 years old at the time, but his testimony did not add any useful information to the case. After I had made all possible checks, I decided to close the case.”
Ignatiew said that he is now investigating a similar case that occurred in Wasosz, where, on the night of July 5, 1941, more than 100 Jews were killed by their Polish neighbors.