Jedwabne pogrom

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The Jedwabne pogrom (Polish: Pogrom w Jedwabnem, pronounced [jɛdˈvabnɛ]) was a World War II massacre committed on 10 July 1941 in the town of Jedwabne, in German-occupied Poland.[1] At least 340 Polish Jews, including women and children, were murdered,[2] some 300 of whom were locked inside a barn that was set on fire.

At least 40 ethnic Poles were implicated, and German Order Police were present.[3][4] The additional involvement of the German Gestapo[5] and SS paramilitary forces, especially the SS Einsatzgruppe B death squad, is a matter of academic discussion.[6][7][8][9]


Jedwabne Synagogue before 1913

The Jewish community in Jedwabne was established in the 18th century.[10] There were approximately 1,500 Jews out of a total population of 2,167 residing in Jedwabne in the 1930s.[11] It was a typical shtetl, a small town with a majority Jewish community coexistent with its Polish minority and surrounded by majority Polish countryside, one of many such towns in prewar Poland. The region politically supported the right-wing National Democrats,[12] who sought to counter what they said was Jewish economic competition against Catholic Poles, and opposed the Polish socialist government of Józef Piłsudski and his successors. Nevertheless, there were good prewar Polish-Jewish relations in the town, possibly better than elsewhere in the country.[13] At their most tense, a 1934 rumor that drew a connection between the killing of a Jewish woman and the killing of a Catholic man was quashed by a priest and a rabbi addressing the matter together, before it escalated.[13]

Residents of Jedwabne had memory of the nearby Radziłów pogrom of 1933, organized by National Democracy's far-right faction, the Camp of Great Poland (OWP).[14] The organization referred to the violence as a "revolution" against the Polish state, which it saw as a protector of Jews. One Jew was killed by the pogromists and four pogromists were killed by the Polish police; the OWP was then banned by Poland for anti-state and racist activities.[15]

According to Anna Bikont, archival documents show Poland's government at this time was hostile to the Polish nationalist movement, because of the latter's attacks on Jews as well as its opposition to the Polish state; the government felt responsible for Jews and tried to protect them (arresting violent nationalists) and it perceived Jews as trying to show loyalty to the Polish state.[16]

The start of World War II in Europe began with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. Later in the same month, on September 17, the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.[17][18] The area of Jedwabne was originally occupied by the Germans, who crushed the resistance offered by local Polish cadets[citation needed] and burned the synagogue.[19] Jedwabne was then transferred to the Soviets in accordance with the German–Soviet Boundary Treaty of September 28, 1939. At first, many Polish Jews were relieved to learn that the Soviets, rather than the Nazis, were to occupy their town. Unlike most ethnic Poles, some Jews prominently welcomed the Red Army as protectors from Nazism.[9][20] Some people from other ethnic groups in the Kresy (Polish borderlands), particularly Belarusians, also openly welcomed the Soviets.[20] In what Jan Gross has termed "the institutionalization of resentment", the occupiers used privileges and punishments to accommodate and encourage ethnic and religious differences among the local population.[21]

According to Julian Barnes, "though many Jews might have been relieved by the first arrival of the Soviets in 1939, which freed them from anti-Semitic Nazis who had invaded earlier in the year, the new arrivals brought their own (Russian and atheistic) anti-Semitism".[22] According to Anna Bikont, the Soviets brought in Russian and atheistic anti-religious policies: Poland's Hebrew schools were shut by the Soviets, who banned holy days that Poland had recognized, such as Yom Kippur, and appropriated shops and businesses, which were mostly Jewish.[23] Some Jews ("opaskowcy") formed militias and helped the NKVD compile lists of Poles to be sent to Siberia.[24] Bikont writes that Meir Grajewski (later Ronen), a native of Jedwabne, identified five Jewish "louts" who "lorded over" the town, denouncing Poles and, sometimes, fellow Jews.[25][26] A total of 22,353 Poles (entire families) were deported from the vicinity.[27][28][29] Red Army troops requisitioned food and other goods, depriving the local populace of resources.[9] The Soviet secret police (NKVD) accompanying the Red Army routinely arrested and deported Polish citizens, both gentiles and Jews, and spread terror throughout the region.[7][30] Waves of arrests, expulsions, and prison executions continued until 20–21 June 1941, the very eve of the German Operation Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union.[9]

Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, German forces overran the parts of Poland that had been occupied by the Soviets since 1939. In the small town of Wizna near Jedwabne, several dozen Jewish men were shot by the invading Germans under Hauptsturmführer Hermann Schaper, much as occurred in other neighboring towns.[31] The Nazis distributed propaganda in the area,[32] exposing Soviet crimes committed in eastern Poland and saying that Jews may have supported them. In parallel, the SS organized special Einsatzgruppen ("task forces") to murder Jews in these areas, and a few massacres were carried out. The guidelines for such massacres were formulated by Reinhard Heydrich,[33] who ordered his officers to induce anti-Jewish incidents in the territories newly occupied by the German forces.[34] Local communities were encouraged to commit anti-Jewish pogroms and robberies with total impunity.[35][36] Individual Soviet collaborators, both Poles and Jews, were lynched or denounced before the massacre.[37][38]

In the days before the Jedwabne massacre, the town's Jewish population increased as refugees arrived from places such as Radziłów and Wizna, from where 230 Jews had fled.[39] When the German occupying forces started establishing their new regime, they gave the Poles of Jedwabne "a few days to “self-cleanse” the town of Jews."[40] 

Some Polish villagers participated in massacres of Jews, with varying degrees of German involvement, in 23 localities in the region of Łomża and Białystok after German forces occupied it in the summer of 1941.[3] Aside from Jedwabne, generally smaller massacres also took place at Bielsk Podlaski (the village of Pilki), Choroszcz, Czyżew, Goniądz, Grajewo, Jasionówka, Kleszczele, Knyszyn, Kolno, Kuźnica, Narewka, Piątnica, Radziłów, Rajgród, Sokoły, Stawiski, Suchowola, Szczuczyn, Trzcianne, Tykocin, Wasilków, Wąsosz, and Wizna.[3]


Map of Jedwabne crime scene, compiled from Polish court documents. The Jews' route to Bronisław Śleszyński's barn is marked in red.

Accounts of the pogrom vary. There is general agreement that German secret police Gestapo officials were seen in Jedwabne on the morning of 10 July 1941. Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) forensic criminal investigation S 1/00/Zn, concluded in 2003, states that on the same morning Polish men from nearby villages began arriving in Jedwabne "with the intention of participating in the premeditated murder of the Jewish inhabitants of the town."[41] The IPN found that some Jews were alerted by non-Jewish neighbors to what was happening.[41] According to another account, by historian Tomasz Strzembosz, the men from nearby villages arrived by order of the German-appointed Jedwabne mayor Marian Karolak and the German paramilitaries billeted to the town; a group of Polish men from Jedwabne and neighboring settlements was assembled who, under German supervision, rounded up local Jews and Jews seeking refuge there from nearby towns and villages such as Wizna and Kolno.[1] Jan Gross writes that a leading role in the pogrom was carried out by four men, including Jerzy Laudański and Karol Bardoń, who had earlier collaborated with the Soviet NKVD and were now trying to recast themselves as zealous collaborators with the Germans.[42] He also says: "At the time, the undisputed bosses over life and death in Jedwabne were the Germans. No sustained organized activity could take place there without their consent. They were the only ones who could decide the fate of the Jews. It was within their power also to stop the murderous pogrom at any time. And they did not choose to intervene. ... But it is also clear that had Jedwabne not been occupied by the Germans, the Jews of Jedwabne would not have been murdered by their neighbors."[43] Peter Longerich says "closer analysis of the crime" now shows that the pogrom was "engineered by a unit of the German Security Police", probably a unit from the Zichenau Gestapo office that had been assigned to Einsatzgruppe B, and which "had recruited local Poles as auxiliary 'pogrom police'".[44]

There is general agreement that Jews were taken to a square in the center of Jedwabne, where they were ordered to pluck grass and were beaten by the assembled group of ethnic-Polish residents of Jedwabne and its environs.[41] Some Jewish men were forced to demolish a statue of Lenin that had been put up by the Soviets and carry it out of town on a wooden stretcher while singing Soviet songs. The local rabbi was forced to lead the procession of some 40 Jewish men, which included the kosher butcher. The group was taken to a barn,[27] killed, and buried together with fragments of the statue. There are varying theories about the manner of the killing, and varying witness testimonies as to whether the Germans were present at the barn and whether they took part in escorting the Jews from the square to the barn.[41] Several Jewish eyewitnesses reported that the Germans were directly involved in rounding up and abusing Jews in the town square, and that they shot at Jews who tried to escape from the burning barn. According to a diary penned during the war, citing reports by Jews who fled Jedwabne and Radziłów, "With the help of local farmers, the Germans gathered the Jews of these places, the rabbi and community leaders foremost, in the market square. At first, they beat them cruelly and forced them to wrap themselves in their tallitot and to jump and dance, accompanied by singing. All this was done under an unceasing stream of blows from cudgels and rubber whips. Finally, they pushed all the Jews, beating and kicking them, into a long threshing house and set it on fire with them inside."[45]

According to a memorial book first published in Hebrew in 1963, "The Jews who came from the towns told us terrible things. Rywka Kurc [who had managed to escape from Jedwabne (and is] now in Australia) told us that in Jedwabne, the S.S. enclosed all the Jews in a hayloft—men, women, children and old people, among them her husband and two children. They set fire to the building and everyone was burned alive."[46] According to another former Jedwabne resident who, shortly after the massacre, met Jews who had fled Jedwabne, they "told us when the Germans first entered their town, they had herded all the Jews into a barn and set it ablaze. Anyone who tried to get out was cut down by machine-gun fire."[47]

After the group of 40 Jewish men had been killed, most of Jedwabne's remaining Jews, estimated at some 250[27] to 300 (IPN final findings),[48] were led to the same barn, locked inside, and burned alive using kerosene from former Soviet supplies (or, by other accounts, German gasoline). The remains of both groups were buried in two mass graves in the barn.[27] The victims included women, children, and infants.[41]

Many witnesses reported seeing German photographers taking pictures of the massacre. Some sources say a film of the massacre, made by the Germans, was screened in Warsaw cinemas to document the alleged spontaneous hatred of local people for the Jews. No trace of such a film has been found.[49]

Between 100 and 125 Jews who escaped the massacre returned to Jedwabne. They resided in an open ghetto before being transferred to the Łomża ghetto in November 1942. A number of Jedwabne Jews escaped to other towns.[50] In November 1942, when the Germans began putting ghetto inmates on trains to Auschwitz for extermination, seven of the surviving Jedwabne Jews escaped again and made it to the nearby hamlet of Janczewko. There Polish farmer Antonina Wyrzykowska and her husband Aleksander Wyrzykowski harbored the seven Jedwabne Jews for twenty-six months from November 1942 to January 1945, despite hostility from neighbors and German searches of their property. The fugitives included Moshe Olszewicz, his wife Lea, and his brother Dov; Jacob and Lea Kubran; Józef Grądowski; and Szmuel Wasersztajn, a Jedwabne resident who later provided testimony about the massacre. After the war, the Wyrzykowskis were harassed and beaten up for what they had done.

The Wyrzykowskis had to move three times due to harassment including getting beaten up by locals for what they had done, eventually relocating to Milanówek, near Warsaw.[51] In 1976 the couple were awarded Israel's Righteous among the Nations medal.[52][53][54] Antonina Wyrzykowska was later also decorated with the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by Poland's President Lech Kaczyński.[55]

1949–1950 trials[edit]

After the war, in 1949 and 1950, the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland arrested and interrogated a number of suspects from the town and vicinity of Jedwabne, accused them of collaboration with the Germans in the pogrom, and put the Poles on trial. Of 22 defendants, none had a higher education and three were illiterate.[56] 12 were convicted of treason against Poland and one was condemned to death.[1]

Records show that extreme physical torture applied during pre-trial interrogation by the Security Office (UB) had caused some of the men to falsely confess to criminal acts—confessions they later retracted in court. Those who retracted their earlier statements, given under beatings by the security service, included Józef Chrzanowski, Marian Żyluk, Czesław Laudański,[57] Wincenty Gościcki, Roman and Jan Zawadzki, Aleksander and Franciszek Łojewski, Eugeniusz Śliwecki, Stanisław Sielawa, and several others, who were pronounced innocent and released by the court.[1]

The illegal interrogation methods were confirmed[when?] by Minister of Public Security Stanisław Radkiewicz, who admitted in an internal memo that the "fixing" of the investigation had included beatings, the complete omission of circumstances and evidence, and the rephrasing of testimonies, to aid the prosecution, in a way that did not reflect reality.[58] None of the Polish people who had rescued Jews in Jedwabne had been contacted, and no attempt had been made to establish the names of the victims. There had been no search for the mayor, Marian Karolak, who had vanished, and no effort to name the German units that had been present at the crime. The courts had, however, confirmed that the defendants' participation had been coerced by German police threats and acts of physical violence.[59]

German investigation, 1960–1965[edit]

Pogrom memorial in Jedwabne

Upon the outbreak of war between Germany and the USSR, Reinhard Heydrich ordered his security forces to "cleanse" the border areas of Jews, which led to formation of additional Einsatzkommandos. He instructed Nebe to organize pogroms (i.e. "self-cleansing") in the Bezirk Bialystok district. Nebe oriented his commanders including Birkner on their new duty on July 2 and 3,[60] but cautioned that the SS should leave "no trace" of its involvement in the pogroms.[61]

SS-Hauptsturmführer Wolfgang Birkner was investigated by prosecutors in West Germany in 1960 on suspicion of involvement in the massacres of Jews in Jedwabne, Radziłów, and Wąsosz in 1941. The charges were based on research by Szymon Datner, head of the Białystok branch of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CŻKH). The German prosecutors found no hard evidence implicating Birkner, but in the course of their investigation they discovered a new German witness, the former SS Kreiskommissar of Łomża, who named the paramilitary Einsatzgruppe B under SS-Obersturmführer Hermann Schaper as having been deployed in the area at the time of the pogroms. The methods used by Schaper's death squad in the Radziłów massacre were identical to those employed in Jedwabne only three days later, suggesting they had been involved in the second pogrom.[citation needed]

In 1963 a monument to the victims was placed in Jedwabne by the Polish communist state's Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy. Its inscription read: "The place of destruction of the Jewish population. Here Gestapo and Nazi gendarmes burnt alive 1600 people on 10 July 1941." [62]

The evidence collected by the West Germans, including the positive identification of Schaper by witnesses from Łomża, Tykocin, and Radziłów, suggested that it was indeed Schaper's men who carried out the killings in those locations. Investigators also suspected, based on the similarity of the methods used to destroy the Jewish communities of Radziłów, Tykocin, Rutki, Zambrów, Jedwabne, Piątnica and Wizna between July and September 1941 that Schaper's men were the perpetrators.

During the subsequent German investigation at Ludwigsburg in 1964, Hermann Schaper lied to interrogators, claiming that in 1941 he had been a truck driver. Legal proceedings against the accused were terminated on September 2, 1965, but Schaper's case was reopened in 1974. During the second investigation, Count van der Groeben testified that it was indeed Schaper who conducted mass executions of Jews in his district. In 1976 a German court in Giessen (Hessen), pronounced Schaper guilty of executions of Poles and Jews by the kommando SS Zichenau-Schröttersburg. Schaper was sentenced to six years imprisonment, but was soon released for medical reasons.[64] According to German federal prosecutors, the documentation of his investigation is no longer available and has most likely been destroyed.[citation needed]

IPN investigation, 2000–2003[edit]

In July 2000, following the publication of Jan T. Gross' book and the ensuing debate, the Polish Parliament ordered a new investigation into the Jedwabne atrocity. Parliament charged the Institute of National Remembrance with transmitting its findings for possible legal actions. Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, or IPN) had recently been created as an independent successor to the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, formed only after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Its major role was the promotion of historical research on topics that had been banned for over 40 years under communist rule (1945–89), including anti-semitic pogroms in Soviet-occupied Poland.

As its first project, the IPN investigated the Jedwabne pogrom in response to a heated debate among leading historians following the publication, first in the Polish language, of Sąsiedzi (English edition, Neighbors, 2001) by the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross.[65][66] His book catalyzed the investigation, though the first scholarly analysis reaching similar conclusions had been published in December 1966 by Szymon Datner in the Białystok bulletin, no. 60, of the Jewish Historical Institute. In 1976 that had been followed by a brief inquiry aided by German authorities.[65][67]


Over the course of two years, investigators from the IPN interviewed some 111 witnesses, mainly from Poland, but also from Israel and the United States.[65] One-third of the IPN witnesses had been eyewitnesses of some part of the Jedwabne pogrom. Since the event had occurred 59 years earlier, when most of the survivors still living today were children, their recollections varied. IPN also searched for and examined documents in Polish archives in Warsaw, Białystok and Łomża, in German archives, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.[citation needed]

In May–June 2001 IPN conducted a partial exhumation at the site of the barn where the largest group of Jewish victims perished. The scope of the exhumation was strictly limited by religious objections against disturbing the remains of the dead, embodied in Jewish religious doctrine. Gross criticized the decision to restrict the scope of the exhumation.[68] Rabbi Joseph Polak also took issue with the decision, asserting that Jewish law required the bodies to be reinterred in a proper burial ground.[69]

Based on a similar exhumation at Katyn, where Stalin's forces murdered 22,000 Polish prisoners of war in 1940, the IPN's forensic examiner estimated that the burial site in Jedwabne contained the remains of between 300 and 400 victims.[70] There were charred bodies in two mass graves, and also broken pieces of the bust of Lenin (previously assumed to have been buried at a Jewish cemetery).[citation needed]

Leon Kieres, the President of IPN, also met in New York with Rabbi Jacob Baker,[71] formerly Yaakov Eliezer Piekarz, who had emigrated in 1938 from Jedwabne to the United States. In January 2001, during his visit to New York, Kieres said that IPN had accumulated enough evidence to confirm that a group of Poles were perpetrators in the Jedwabne massacre. The IPN's evidence was subsequently presented in reports by IPN to the Polish Parliament and in various other public statements.[27] While the IPN's investigation continued for two more years, as of early 2001 the finding of Polish involvement in the Jedwabne massacre became public knowledge in Poland.[citation needed]

In June 2001, the IPN said ammunition shells recovered from the site were German, prompting speculation that German soldiers had fired at Jews fleeing the barn; nearly six months after the sixtieth anniversary commemorations and President Kwasniewski's apology, the IPN found that the shells were from a completely different historical period.[72][73]

IPN's final findings, 2002–2003[edit]

On 9 July 2002 the IPN released the final findings of its two-year-long investigation.[74] In a summary by chief prosecutor Radosław J. Ignatiew,[75] the IPN stated its principal "Findings of Investigation S 1 / 00 / Zn into the Murder of Polish Citizens of Jewish Origin in the Town of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941":

  • The perpetrators of the crime sensu stricto were Polish residents of Jedwabne and the environs; responsibility for the crime sensu largo could be ascribed to the Germans. The IPN found that Poles played a "decisive role" in the massacre, but the massacre was "instigated by the Germans". The massacre was carried out in full view of the Germans, who were armed and had control of the town, and the Germans did not intervene and halt the killings. IPN wrote: "The presence of German military policemen... and other uniformed Germans... was tantamount to consent to, and tolerance of, the crime."
  • At least 340 Jewish victims were killed in the pogrom, in two groups of which the first contained 40 to 50 men, and the second about 300 persons. The exact number of victims could not be determined. The previously estimated figure of 1,600 was "highly unlikely, and was not confirmed in the course of the investigation."[76]
  • "At least forty (Polish) men" were perpetrators of the crime. The majority of Jedwabne residents were "utterly passive," the IPN found, and did not participate in the massacre. The IPN wrote: "On the basis of the evidence gathered in the investigation, it is not possible to determine the reasons for the passivity of most of the town in the face of the crime. In particular, it cannot be determined whether this passivity resulted from acceptance of the crime or from intimidation by the brutality of the perpetrators' acts."[77][78]
  • A number of witnesses had testified that the Germans drove the group of Jewish victims from Jedwabne's town square to the barn where they were killed (these testimonies are found in the expanded 203-page Findings published in June 2003). IPN could neither conclusively prove nor disprove these accounts. "Witness testimonies vary considerably on this question."
  • "A group of Jewish people survived" the massacre. Several dozen — according to several sources, about a hundred — Jews lived in a ghetto in Jedwabne until November 1942, when they were transferred by the Germans to a ghetto in Łomża, and eventually deported to Treblinka, where they were killed. The seven Jews hidden by the Wyrzykowski family were not the only survivors of the Jedwabne massacre.

A greatly expanded version of the findings, in 203 pages of Polish text, was issued by the IPN on 30 June 2003. The original version of 9 July 2002 appears as the concluding five pages of this document. Pages 60–160 contain summaries of the testimonies of numerous witnesses interviewed by the IPN. The full 203-page text detailing the government-led investigation was published on the IPN website.[70] It was supplemented with two volumes of studies and documents concerning the Jedwabne pogrom, Wokół Jedwabnego, vol. 1: Studies (525 pp.) and vol. 2: Documents (1,034 pp.), available in Polish.[79]

Kieres delivered the IPN report at the 27 February 2002 session of the Polish parliament. A small opposition party, the League of Polish Families (LPR), called Kieres a "servant of the Jews" and blamed him and President Aleksander Kwaśniewski for "stoning the Polish nation." LPR MP Antoni Macierewicz made an official complaint against the IPN's conclusion that ethnic Poles and not the Germans had committed the massacre.[80][page needed]

Polish cultural anthropologist Ludwik Stomma questioned the IPN's downward revision of the number of victims, objected to the IPN's conclusion that the massacre was "committed directly by Poles but instigated by the Germans", and said that this formulation was meant to please the political right.[80][page needed]

Joanna Michlic described the activities of the IPN as "a very professional forensic investigation into the massacre." She added: "Members of the IPN team headed by Leon Kieres had refused to bend to the version of the crime presented in the strongly defensive camp, and thus came under attack in the nationalist press."[80][page needed]

American historian Jan T. Gross praised the conduct of the IPN investigation.[81][82] His findings were incorporated into a Polish secondary-school history text.[80][page needed]

On 30 June 2003 prosecutor Radosław J. Ignatiew announced that the investigation of "the mass murder of at least 340 Polish citizens of Jewish nationality in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941" had discovered no living suspected perpetrators in the Jedwabne atrocity who had not already been brought to justice, and so the IPN investigation was now closed.[83][84]

After the investigation, new archival evidence confirmed that the Germans employed paid agents to instigate pogroms. Prosecutor Ignatiew stated: "It is obvious that Poles could not just do whatever they pleased in the German-occupied territories. They could not therefore have organized pogroms. These were organized by the Germans. As the documents show, the Germans readied themselves to organize pogroms of Jews and had advance intelligence (from their agents) as to who among the Poles bore hatred toward Jews because Jews had denounced their relatives to the Soviets, and who was a bandit who would kill if paid money. And it was those people whom they chose to carry out the pogroms, turning them into ordinary criminal gangs."[85]


Polish film-maker Agnieszka Arnold made two documentary films interviewing witnesses of the Jedwabne massacre. (Gdzie mój starszy syn Kain) (1999, Where is my elder son Cain) [4] included interviews with Szmul Wassersztajn, and the daughter of the owner of the barn where the massacre took place. (Sąsiedzi) (2001, Neighbors) [5][6] dealt with the subject in greater depth. Jan Gross wrote a book of the same name, with Arnold's agreement as to title.[86] Arnold's work featured the mayor of Jedwabne Krzysztof Godlewski, who pioneered efforts to investigate and memorialize the murders.[citation needed]

The massacre and its aftermath is also the subject of Haim Hecht's documentary Two Barns (2014). Its title is a phrase used by Prof. Shevah Weiss, former speaker of the Israeli Parliament and Israel's ambassador to Poland, who was saved from death by Polish villagers who hid him in a barn, a fact that he recounted at the site of the burnt down Jedwabne barn over the mass grave at the memorial ceremony in 2001. The film features other prominent Holocaust historians, the sociologist Professor Jan Tomasz Gross and Literature Nobel-prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.[87]


One of the most significant features of the Jedwabne debate is that it was not

primarily a Polish-Jewish controversy, but one within Polish society and mostly among Polish historians and intellectuals.

— E. Barkan, E.A. Cole, K. Struve, Shared History – Divided Memory, 2007.[88]

Neighbors by Jan T. Gross (2000–2001)[edit]

Neighbors (Sąsiedzi) by Jan T. Gross provoked an intensive two-year debate in Poland on Polish-Jewish relations in World War II.[2][89] In Neighbors Gross gave a gripping account, containing horrifying scenes of Jews being assaulted, rounded up and killed, describing how on "one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women and children." Gross concluded that the Jews in Jedwabne had been rounded up and killed not by the Germans, but by a mob of their own Polish neighbors. Gross writes that "it is not just a question of character that plays itself out in this drama, but also the logic of incentives one encounters within the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century".[90]

Gross recognized that German forces were in Jedwabne during the massacre. and that German occupying forces had control of the town: "At the time, the undisputed bosses over life and death in Jedwabne were the Germans. No sustained organized activity could take place there without their consent."[91] Gross concluded that the massacre was carried out entirely by Poles from Jedwabne and the surrounding area. Gross said the Polish perpetrators were not coerced by the Germans (p. 133). One of Gross's principal sources was Szmul Wasersztajn, a witness whose testimony had been deposited in 1945 at the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH) in Białystok, Poland; and Stalinist investigation affidavits and records of the 1949-1950 trials - which caused other academics to dispute his credibility as a source. While some Polish historians praised Gross' having drawn attention to a topic which had received insufficient attention for half a century, several criticized him for relying too heavily on Wasersztajn and other testimonials from the Stalinist justice system, of including uncorroborated accounts and —wherever conflicting accounts existed— for choosing only those which showed the Poles in the worst possible light.[92][93][94][95] Some Polish readers refused to accept Gross' book as an account of the Jedwabne pogrom.[31]

Alexander B. Rossino, a research historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., commented: "By writing that Poles in Jedwabne and other small towns west of Białystok had taken part in the murder of local Jews, Gross challenged the long-cherished notion in Poland that all Poles—Christians and Jews—had suffered equally under the Nazis. Gross' portrayal also deeply offended Poles who clung to the myth that their countrymen had never collaborated with the Germans. But while Neighbors contributed to an ongoing re-examination of the history of the Holocaust in Poland, Gross' failure to examine German documentary sources fundamentally flawed his depiction of the events. The result was a skewed history that did not investigate SS operations in the region or German interaction with the Polish population."[96]

Around Jedwabne (Wokół Jedwabnego) (2002)[edit]

Around Jedwabne (Wokół Jedwabnego),[97][98] written in the Polish language, is the official two-volume Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) publication of documents produced by the 2000-2003 IPN investigation. Volume 1, Studies (525 pages) contains historical and legal studies written by historians working for IPN. Volume 2, Documents (1,034 pages) contains original documents collected by the IPN investigation. Included are testimonies by Jews on various anti-Semitic acts committed by Poles, as well as testimonies by Polish schoolteachers deported to Siberia who reported that Jewish communists had been moved into positions of authority in the Soviet occupation apparatus in eastern Poland. Volume 2 includes a Polish translation (from the Hebrew) of a remarkable memoir written by Chaya Finkelsztajn of Radziłów, describing conditions under the 1939-1941 Soviet occupation and the subsequent 1941 Operation Barbarossa German invasion. Chaya Finkelsztajn survived the 1941-1945 German occupation, under extremely perilous and difficult circumstances, after a Polish Catholic priest agreed to baptise her as a Christian. She later emigrated to Israel, where she wrote her memoir.[citation needed]

The Neighbors Respond (2003)[edit]

An extensive collection of articles from the Polish and international debate, in English translation, was published in 2003 by Joanna Michlic and Professor Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University. It appeared as The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland.[77][99] The book includes the IPN's Findings of Investigation S 1 / 00 / Zn into the Murder of Polish Citizens of Jewish Origin in the Town of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941, as well as essays from Polish daily newspapers such as Rzeczpospolita and Gazeta Wyborcza, written before the conclusion of the IPN investigation in 2002. The book includes articles published before the publication of Jan T. Gross' Neighbors. Other contributors include Tomasz Strzembosz, Bogdan Musial, Dariusz Stola; and, from outside Poland, Israel Gutman, Istvan Deak, and Richard Lukas. The collection features some archival documents and essays covering the entire 1939–1941 period.[77][99]

The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941 (2005)[edit]

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's book The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, and After[100] is based on a study of available postwar evidence. It challenges Jan T. Gross' interpretation of the events.[101] It suggests that the number of Germans participating in the massacre was far greater than previously assumed, including four or five truckloads of armed SS-men who arrived from Łomża, swarmed out, and terrorized the local population before leading Jews and Poles to the crime scene.[102]

Chodakiewicz's book was reviewed by Joanna B. Michlic, who wrote: "It does not accept the complicated history of Poland and the complex image of (ethnic) Poles, which depicts them not only as heroes and victims but also as evildoers committing crimes against Polish Jews and representatives of other ethnic and cultural minorities living in Poland."[103]

Piotr Wróbel, reviewing the book, wrote that Chodakiewicz's aim, stated in the introduction, was to show that Jan T. Gross was wrong. According to Wróbel, "each of the chapters contains enough controversial material for a separate discussion", but he focused on Chodakiewicz's analysis of Gross's work. Wróbel acknowledged that Chodakiewicz made some good arguments but wrote that they are "overshadowed by numerous flaws", lack a sense of proportion, and make selective use of information from sources that support Chodakiewicz's view. According to Wróbel, the book has a "visible political agenda" and is "difficult to read, unoriginal, irritating, and unconvincing".[104]

Peter D. Stachura wrote of the book: "The important debate about Polish-Jewish relations must continue to develop on the basis of informed, impartial scrutiny, analysis and interpretation, with reference to authenticated, solid evidence, as Professor Chodakiewicz has so ably demonstrated." In response, Michlic and Antony Polonsky wrote a letter to the editor of History, expressing their strong disagreement with the content and tone of Stachura's review; according to Michlic and Polonsky, Chodakiewicz's conclusions and Stachura's favorable review were very far from those reached by most historians who have examined the Jedwabne pogrom, including Poland's Institute of National Remembrance.[105] Stachura in his turn, in replying to their criticisms, took exception to Michlic and Polonsky.[106]


From May 2000 on, the Jedwabne massacre has been a frequent topic of discussion in the Polish media. A list compiled by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita contained over 130 articles for the years 2000-2002 alone.[107] The Catholic periodical Więź [pl] published a collection of 34 articles from that time period, Thou shalt not kill: Poles on Jedwabne, available in English.[108]

2001 anniversary speeches and Polish public opinion[edit]

In July 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom, Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski attended a ceremony at Jedwabne where he made a speech stating the murderers were Poles whose crime was both against the Jewish nation and against Poland. He said the murderers had been incited by German occupiers, but they alone carried the burden of guilt for their crimes. While ruling out the notion of collective responsibility, he also sought forgiveness "In the name of those who believe that one cannot be proud of the glory of Polish history without feeling, at the same time, pain and shame for the evil done by Poles to others."[109] The ceremony was attended by Catholic and Jewish religious leaders and survivors of the pogrom. Most of the locals of Jedwabne boycotted the ceremony.[110][111]

Prof. Shevah Weiss, Ambassador of Israel to Poland, also delivered a speech. He said Jedwabne was "typical of the Poland of those days - a colourful and alluring world, and a place where Polish and Yiddish were almost interchangeable." He said that people who were friendly with the Jews of Jedwabne "set upon their Jewish neighbors, dragging them to the local barn, before slaughtering and burning them alive." Weiss recounted his Polish birth, that he knew other neighbors, and other barns, thanks to which he and his family survived the Holocaust. "I have come here on behalf of the State of Israel... Living among us also are Holocaust survivors whose lives were saved as a result of the brave actions of their Polish neighbors," he said. He praised Poland's research and investigation process and appealed to young Poles in particular to "act with determination against any manifestation of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, evil and cruelty."[112]

Awareness of the Jedwabne massacre among the Polish public was very high. A March 2001 poll conducted by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita found that one-half of Poles were aware of the Jedwabne massacre; among Poles with a higher education the proportion rose to 81 percent. 40 percent of respondents supported Kwaśniewski's decision to apologize for the crime. A majority condemned the actions of the Poles involved in the Jedwabne massacre.[113]

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former Polish President Lech Walesa commented about the apology: "The Jedwabne crime was a revenge for the cooperation of the Jewish community with the Soviet occupant. The Poles have already apologized many times to the Jews; we are waiting for the apology from the other side because many Jews were scoundrels."[114]

Father Stanislaw Musial, a leading activist for Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation said: "One cannot be surprised that after the publication of the truth about Jedwabne, public opinion has split into two camps. One, undoubtedly the more numerous, is situated on the center and the political right, thinking nationally. It either negates the participation of Poles at Jedwabne, or tries to play it down.... The second, smaller camp sees in the publication of the truth about Jedwabne a chance for cleaning Polish memory of the period of the occupation, and a stimulus toward fighting anti-Semitism in Poland today."[114]

A monument had been placed in Jedwabne in the 1960s with the inscription: "Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi Gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People July 10, 1941."[115] In March 2001 this memorial stone was removed. A new monument was placed in July 2001, with inscriptions in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish: "To the Memory of Jews from Jedwabne and the Surrounding Area, Men, Women, and Children, Co-inhabitants of this Land, Who Were Murdered and Burned Alive on This Spot on July 10, 1941."[115]

In August 2001 Jedwabne mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, a pioneer for the commemoration of the massacre, resigned in protest at the local council's lack of majority support for it.[116] He became a recipient of the Jan Karski Humanitarian Award.[117]

Events, 2006–present[edit]

Part of core exhibition dedicated to Jedwabne pogrom at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

At a round-table discussion on July 7, 2006, Jan T. Gross said, "I repeat three times in the book (Neighbors) that the murder happened by order of the Germans" ("mord był z rozkazu Niemców").[82]

In 2008 Polish historian Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski recorded a 45-minute lecture for Telewizja Trwam, at his residence in the US. He pointed out that, in World War II, herding people into a barn, then setting it on fire, was German standard operating procedure which the Germans frequently followed in France, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine; that Jedwabne's Polish residents did not possess the wherewithal to carry out the Jedwabne murders; and that, after the war, a German officer was sentenced by a West German court to six years' imprisonment for them. Pogonowski provided additional corroborating evidence for exclusive German guilt in the matter. His lecture was played back by TV Trwam several times in the following years, usually on the anniversary of the massacre.[118]

In 2009 Polish politician Michał Kamiński was attacked by Britain's Labour Party and some British journalists for having in 2001 opposed a Polish national apology for the Jedwabne massacre. The criticism came shortly after Kaminski was made chairman of the European Parliament's group of European Conservatives and Reformists, which includes Labour's opponent, the British Conservative Party.[119] Kamiński denied that his opposition to an apology stemmed from antisemitism, and he was defended by the Conservatives and some journalists, including the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard.[120][121]

A 2009 play Our Class by Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, performed in Britain.[122] deals with a massacre of Jews by Poles in a small town during the Holocaust and is based on the Jedwabne massacre, though it does not mention Jedwabne by name. A review in The Daily Telegraph argued that the play misrepresented Poles as "just itching for the German invasion as the excuse to give violent vent to their deep-rooted anti-Semitism" and "too often [...] looked like an object lesson in gross simplification."[123]

On 11 July 2011 Poland's President Bronisław Komorowski asked for forgiveness at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre.[124] At the time of the event, Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, wrote that "Holocaust survivors view Jedwabne as a symbol of the widespread, but little acknowledged, collaboration by the local population in the countries occupied by the Nazis in the slaughter and the plunder of the Jews during World War II" and that "[t]he ceremon[y] today at Jedwabne is a welcome and important step in the confrontation with the truth by the Polish nation."[125]

It was reported on September 1, 2011 that the memorial to the Jedwabne pogrom had been defaced with a swastika and graffiti that read "They were flammable" and "I don't apologize for Jedwabne."[126][127] Poland launched an anti-hate crime investigation involving the country's domestic intelligence agency, the ABW.[128][129] Poland's President Bronisław Komorowski condemned the vandalism. Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated: "I utterly condemn these acts of criminality, alien to Polish tradition. There is no room for such behavior in Polish society."[130] Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, said the use of the Nazi swastika by vandals was anti-Polish as well as anti-Jewish and that "Non-Jewish Poles also suffered horribly under the Nazis ... the vast majority of Poles are appalled by what's just happened."[126]

In a 2016 television interview, Polish education minister Anna Zalewska expressed doubt regarding whether Poles had participated in the pogrom and said: "Jedwabne was a historic fact that involves much misunderstanding and biased views. I'm not an expert, but the facts around that dramatic situation are controversial."[131][132][133] When the interviewer asked her whether Poles had killed their Jewish neighbors, Zalewska described that as one viewpoint and said other researchers had reached other conclusions about what had happened in Jedwabne. She also described Gross' research as biased and untruthful.[131][133] In a radio interview two months later, she said that Poles shared responsibility for the massacre, while adding that the country was under Nazi German occupation and that the continuity Polish resistance state punished the murder of Jews.[133]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Grünberg, S. (2005). The Legacy of Jedwabne. Spencer, NY: LogTV, LTD.
  • Zimmerman, J. D. (2003). Contested memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and its aftermath. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-3158-6
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill. Poles on Jedwabne, Więź.

External links[edit]

Media related to Jedwabne pogrom at Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: 53°17′20″N 22°18′34″E / 53.288792°N 22.309542°E / 53.288792; 22.309542