WARSAW (Reuters) - The World Jewish Congress has demanded an apology from the Polish education minister over her refusal to recognize the complicity of Poles in a 1941 massacre of several hundred Jews at Jedwabne in the country's northeast.

Speaking to private broadcaster TVN24, Education Minister Anna Zalewska refused to openly admit Poles' complicity in the pogrom, saying it was a "historical fact, which has been misunderstood many times, with many very biased opinions".

"The dramatic situation which took place in Jedwabne is controversial. Many historians, distinguished professors, paint a completely different picture," she said.

Before World War Two, Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community of some 3.2 million people. Most of them were killed by the Nazi occupiers, who built death camps including Auschwitz and Treblinka on Polish soil.

But a 2000-2004 inquiry of Poland's state Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) found that on July 10, 1941, Nazi occupiers and local inhabitants colluded in a massacre of at least 340 Jews at Jedwabne. Some victims were burned alive after being locked inside a barn.

The revelation disturbed the Poles' belief that, with a few exceptions, they conducted themselves honorably during a vicious war that killed a fifth of the population, and some still refuse to acknowledge the IPN's findings.

The issue of Poles' attitudes to their Jewish neighbors during World War Two is also key for Poland's ruling conservatives, who surged to power in October, partly on a promise to make Poland feel proud of its achievements and win it more respect on the world stage.

Anti-semitism was rife in Poland in the run-up to World War Two. After the war, a pogrom in the town of Kielce and a bout of anti-Semitism in 1968 sponsored by the communist authorities forced many survivors who had stayed in Poland to flee.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the WJC's President Ronald Lauder said Zalewska should "immediately issue clearly worded apologies and retract" the remarks.

"It is disturbing to think that senior government officials in Poland, a country that ... has done so much to advance the cause of Holocaust education and scholarship, now seem to be lurching backward to the days of obfuscation and misinformation," Lauder said.

The WJC's demand for an apology comes on the day Poland's parliament approved the candidacy of Jaroslaw Szarek to head the IPN, which investigated the killings in Jedwabne.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee earlier this week, Szarek was reported by news agency PAP to have said that Jedwabne was a crime committed by Germans, who "forcibly used a group of Poles in (their) machine of terror".

(Reporting by Wiktor Szary; Editing by Catherine Evans)