JEDWABNE, Poland (AP) — Poland's president made a repeated apology during ceremonies on Sunday marking 70 years 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.
An agonizing debate at the time forced Poles 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, some 190 kilometers (120 miles) northeast of Warsaw, 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.
"The nation must understand that it also had an active role," President Bronislaw Komorowski said in a letter that was read out during the ceremony.
"Today, Poland can still hear the never-fading cry of its citizens," Komorowski said.
"Once again, I beg forgiveness."
In 2001, then-President Aleksander Kwasniewski apologized for the crime during the first state memorial ceremony in Jedwabne. Kwasniewski attended Sunday observances as a private person.
On Sunday, Bishop Mieczyslaw Cislo was the first ever high ranking member of Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church to attend ceremonies in Jedwabne..
"Let us not be divided by the graves in Jedwabne, but let us be united in prayers for brotherhood and close ties between Poles and Jews," said Cislo, who chairs the Church's council for relations with the Jews.
Poland's bishops made an apology for the Jedwabne massacre and other crimes against Jews under the German occupation during World War II, in a special ceremony of prayers in Warsaw in 2001.
On Sunday, Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, said prayers for the dead at a monument to the massacre victims.
A relative of the victims, Icchak Levi, came from Israel. He cried over 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."
At the end of the ceremony, the participants places pebbles at the monument, in a sign of mourning.
A statement from an organization of Holocaust survivors in America said Jedwabne is an example for the cases when the local populations collaborated with the Nazi's in killing Jews.
"The ceremonies today at Jedwabne is a welcome and important step in the confrontation with the truth by the Polish nation," said the statement signed by Elan Steinberg, Vice-President of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
He noted, that the absence of Jedwabne mayor, Krzysztof Moenke, "shows however that much remains to be learned and taught."
Some residents from Jedwabne participated in the observances.
A 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.
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 at the start of the war.
Some 3 million of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million were killed in the Holocaust.