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July 12, 2024
Expert Analyses Poland's History WWII

Interview with Professor Andrzej Kola, Archaeologist who Led the Exhumation in Jedwabne.

Andrzej Kaczyński, Rzeczpospolita

Fczarnowski – Own work

How did the archaeological research in Jedwabne start?

PROF. ANDRZEJ KOLA: The Council for the Remembrance of Fighting and Martyrdom (Rada Ochrony Pamięci Walk i Męczeństwa), with which I cooperated previously on searching and examining graves of Polish officers in Katyn and Kharkov, asked me to examine the aerial photographs of Jedwabne from 1950 and 1952. I confirmed that the site, as disclosed by witnesses, might be a remnant of the burned barn and a mass grave. In March, my team was entrusted with the task of locating objects in the ground and precise demarcation of the site. The Council also asked whether the investigation could be done by applying non-invasive methods. I replied that there was no ideal method of noninvasive research in archeology, but it could be tried. So with the use of the so called GeoRadar (GPR) we determined the approximate size of the tomb.

Why the aerial photographs revealed traces of a larger tomb outside the barn, but there was no trace of the tomb inside?

The remnants of the burnt barn blurred the image of the inside. The outside tomb, beyond the burned barn, was covered with sand, which drew sharp marks against the background of black earth. In 1950 and 1952 it was still very legible.

Did the GPR survey on the old Jewish cemetery not yield any results?

There was no search in the old cemetery. Originally, we were to look for the grave there allegedly it was located in front of the barn, on the opposite side of the road. But when we arrived in Jedwabne, the search at the cemetery was stopped. The Jewish side did not agree to it. We were allowed to look only by the road. We made 160 probes and came across no graves. In any way, this tomb, which was to be at the cemetery, was finally found in the barn.

We should probably assume that the tomb inside the barn was built, filled and buried before the barn was burned, and that it was hidden from the people who were herded into a barn.

Yes. It happened before burning. We localized the tomb during archaeological site survey. At a depth of 60 centimeters we discovered something burnt, and a shapeless concrete structure. We descended deeper. All the time we were discovering burned bones. We dug further, and found the head of the Lenin statue, and under it more bones resting in an anatomical position. Rabbi Ekstein, who supervised our work, allowed uncovering and inspecting the bones using a brush. They were singed. These remains were already buried when the barn was burned.

In contrast, the outside tomb was built after a fire, because in its upper part there was a lot of burnt debris, mixed with singed bones that were pressed. Not moved to the excavated pit, only pushed back.

It confirms the report of a witness who was summoned and forced to dig a grave and bury the victims.

Yes. The bones have been pressed on top of bodies that have been there. Those that were below were positioned in anatomical order. We were allowed to unearth them, expose and view them, but not to examine them. Our original project involved archaeological and exhumation work. The archaeological work included examination of a barn, its interior and rim. The second task was supposed to involve exhumation work for the purpose of a criminal investigation. It was supposed to include an exploration of the tomb, including removing the material covering the tomb, exposing the remains, raising them, dissecting and performing full anthropological and forensic medicine work. The anthropological studies were to be performed by our team. The forensic medicine research was supposed to be done by a team from the Medical University of Bialystok. After 10 days of our presence at the site it was decided that a proper exhumation would not be carried out. Meanwhile, we conducted archaeological work. Because in the material covering the tomb we were finding skeletal remains – not in the anatomical order we were allowed to dissect them, sift the earth structures. Only these were analyzed by anthropologists and forensic physicians.

With this analysis, we were able to get some knowledge. Studying for example the teeth that were found, we could establish that among the victims were children, including under the age of 5, having milk teeth, without formed root system, and even infants, with only a hard tissue. There were, of course, women and men of all ages. We managed to establish the number of people whose burned, shredded remains we found. We counted the number of lower parts of the chin, because it is the anatomical element which in each frame occurs only once and is not as easily deformed as the larger bones. We identified over twenty of these items, but we were not able to examine all of the material.

Were these studies conducted on the remains gathered at the outside grave, or on the inside grave of the barn?

Both, but definitely more material was from the external grave. To examine the other one we only had a few hours. After the examination, the remains were put back by rabbis in the two graves with appropriate religious rituals, and buried.

Please tell us about the discovered objects. In March you found in the barn four rifle cartridge cases, discharged, clustered in one place, which would indicate that they were not fired in the barn, only brought, for example in a pocket, perhaps by a child. You found another one separately, not fired, right?

No. One husk from Mosin-Nagant, found in the corner of the barn, was indeed not fired; it could be used e.g. to play. These four cases were found in the pile of the earth dug from a shallow trench to locate the foundation. Normally we would be carefully localizing them, analyzing positions, but it was only a one-day reconnaissance. Therefore, I cannot confirm whether originally these four cases were lying next to each other.

Later, at the turn of May and June, when we dug the whole area of the barn, there was a lot of cases not located in any typical pattern.

They weren’t excavated from the tomb?

Yes, they were. There were also shells found in the grave, for example one of Mauser type lying under the head of the Lenin statue. They should be associated with events of July 10, 1941. They were lying at a depth of not less than 60 cm. They had to get there when the tomb was built. They could not be inserted later.

In the outside grave, on top of the remains found in anatomical order, we found, by sieving burnt bones from the dirt, a bullet from a 9 mm pistol. In fact, only the outer jacket of the bullet what deformed. What does this indicate? That it was fired at a man and got caught in the soft tissue. Then the soft tissue burned and the lead core melted.

Prosecutor Lucjan Nowakowski from IPN believes that since the majority of the cases found were not made of brass, but steel, they could not be used in 1941, because the Germans began to produce them only in 1942.

To me this interpretation is not convincing. It does not explain, for example, the reason for such a large number found in one place. Some of the cases, specifically the brass ones, had had the year 1939 stamped on their base plate.

In the laboratory, Professor Kola and his associates let me see the findings for which the maintenance was completed. There were a large number of coins, the majority was Polish silver. Several 10 zloty and 5 zloty pieces, very scorched from the heat, could hardly be separated. There were a few coppers, but also a dozen of gold five- and ten- ruble pieces. There were wedding rings, a few pocket watches, keys, cabinet keys, buckles, buttons, safety pins, brooches. As well as a gold bracelet and one golden heavy elaborate tallit clip, prayer shawls, sewing machine drum, and a knife recognized by rabbis as a slaughter knife. This knife confirms reports that rabbi and slaughterer were put at the head of the procession, which was told to flaunt fragments of the Lenin statue. Where did you find these items?

We found them in the upper parts of both graves, but — I note — only those parts we were allowed to explore, as well as within the barn, as loose things. And some things we found in two dumpsters, shallow, up to 60 cm, holes, where everything was thrown at the end that was not scraped to the outside grave. We removed nothing from the deeper layers of graves, because we were not allowed to look there. We are certain that there are additional things next to the skeletons.

When we determined that the inner tomb had a regular shape, we suggested to Rabbi Ekstein to allow us to dig a well next to the grave, in order to assess its depth. We had experience of work on the cemeteries in Katyn, where we thus estimated the approximate number of people buried there. We estimated it a 40 to 50 people. That corresponded with the testimonies about the first group of Jews that, with the rabbi at its head, was led from the market in the direction of the cemetery.

This method could not be used at the second grave, which is much larger, with a length of 7.5 m and a width of 2.5 m. There the remains were lying not in a horizontal regular pattern, but disorderly. We could not uncover all of it, first because we were waiting for a decision and then because we run out of time.

So you could not examine the remains to determine the cause of death, e.g. if someone could die from the gun shot?

There was no such possibility.

And with the full exhumation it would be possible?

Probably yes. We could determine whether there were traces of shootings or other injuries that could cause death.

And who was entrusted with providing an estimation of the number buried?

It was us. We have done measurements and we had a comparative scale. But the number was given quite inadvertently. My colleague, an anthropologist said, in the presence of the Minister Kaczynski that he believed in the two graves there could be buried from 150 to 250 people, but probably no more than 200 people. I think that we should consider this number to be in the range of 300 to 400, and cautiously about 300. Later I discussed this number with my colleague and he admitted that I was right, that indeed, based on our experience from Kharkov, that estimate sounds reasonably accurate.

This is an important amendment.

But this is only an estimate. It is based on our knowledge and capabilities of reasoning, and comparison, and not on accurate research. I repeat, in my opinion, it should be carefully said that the victims number 300 to 400.

We are dealing with a significant discrepancy.

My colleague mentioned that lower number only once. I was present there and I immediately voiced a correction. But this first number is the one that went out into the world.

Are there any data on which we could adopt a different result? Is it possible to carry out any further analysis, measurements?

No. Only the full exhumation would provide more reliable data. It would also be only approximate, not certain. Some of the corpses were burned after all.

Is this an estimated number of 300 to 400 you gave in the report?


Interviewed by Andrew Kaczynski


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