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Israeli seeks killers at WWII site of family's slaughter

HIBAT ZION, Israel -- It was a crime that unfolded on the sidelines of the Holocaust: Farmers in Nazi-occupied Poland killed six members of a well-to-do Jewish family for their possessions.

And there the story might have stayed, swallowed up in the enormity of Hitler's genocide, had the owner of a biotechnology company in Israel not decided at age 57 to find out what happened to his grandmother Gitl and her five children.

As Rony Lerner would discover, the wounds are still raw.

In a Polish village, he confronted a 92-year-old man alleged to be the last surviving suspect.

''Apparently trying to reconcile, he opened his arms as if to hug me," Lerner said. ''I shoved him aside out of disgust."

The story began in 1942 at the height of the Nazis' persecution of Jews in Poland, when the Lerners were forced into a ghetto. A Nazi officer shot Gitl's husband, her sister, and one of her sons.

Another son, Yitzhak Lerner, was hiding in Warsaw, posing as a gentile. He persuaded Polish farmers in the eastern village of Przegaliny to save most of the family from the ghetto, apparently after bribing Nazi authorities.

After World War II ended, he submitted a complaint to Polish authorities in which he said the farmers took ''a large payment" for hiding the family, and then started pressuring Gitl Lerner to hand over her other belongings, knowing the family owned a bakery and sold sewing machines.

When the 45-year-old mother had nothing left, the complaint said, the farmers raped her two daughters, ages 22 and 20. Eventually, it said, they stabbed one daughter to death and shot the rest of the family and two boys who had come with them from the ghetto.

The slayings were committed at a time when Poland's German occupiers were annihilating its 3.5 million Jews. Although Poles were not directly involved in the Nazi death machine, ''the cases of murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors was quite widespread," said Jan Gross, a specialist on Polish history with Princeton University.

It was particularly common in the Lublin district, where the Lerners' hometown of Komarowka Podlaska is located, Gross said in a telephone interview.

After the war, there were several hundred court cases over the murder of Jews, but often the evidence was insufficient, he said.

On the other hand, he noted, many Poles saved Jews, as evidenced by those honored as ''Righteous Among the Gentiles" by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. After the war, and after filing his complaint, Yitzhak Lerner immigrated to Palestine. In 1948 Israel won statehood. and he had a son, Rony.

Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Rony Lerner did not like dwelling on family history and did not ask his father many questions. His curiosity was aroused only after his father died three years ago and he visited Warsaw. There he discovered the complaint his father had filed. It contained villagers' testimony and named five suspects, of whom only one, Jozef Radczuk, was alive.

Lerner hired investigators posing as Polish historians to interview and film Radczuk and other villagers in Przegaliny, near the Lerners' hometown, and made a documentary, parts of which were shown on Israeli TV in April.

He said that in his presence, Radczuk told of being present at the rapes and killings on the property of a farmer named Franciszek Uzdowski.

In the film, Radczuk condemned the killings and showed the cameras where the bodies were buried near a pig sty and then reinterred at the edge of the village cemetery.

When Radczuk was told that Rony Lerner was sitting next to him, Radczuk tried to hug him.

''Don't you do it," Lerner said, speaking English, angry tears in his eyes, and pushed Radczuk's hand away.

''You killed my grandmother and you killed five of my uncles and aunts."

Off-camera, things turned even nastier, with Lerner alleging that Radczuk showed him and the investigators the second burial site and spoke of the ''Jewish dogs" buried there.

Since Polish media reported the story in April, following its publication in Israel, Radczuk's family has refused to let him be interviewed. A reporter who approached his home was barred by his daughter from seeing him. The daughter, who would not give her name, confirmed she had heard of Jews being killed at Uzdowski's place but said, ''My father did not take part in it."

Uzdowski was arrested for the crime but apparently not convicted. He died a long time ago. His nephew, Kazimierz Uzdowski, who still lives in Przegaliny, said that after the war people did not discuss the killings because they were ashamed of them.

''It was unnecessary, but it happened," said Uzdowski. ''The truth should see daylight, should be revealed."

Lerner said Polish prosecutors told him that after the war Radczuk was accused of involvement in the slayings and was also a suspect in killing or turning over to the Nazis three other Jews, but most charges were dropped for lack of evidence. A prosecutor, Jacek Nowakowski, said a new investigation has been opened, and suggested that Radczuk might be questioned.

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