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Jedwabne pogrom

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July 10, 1941

Kielce pogrom, Iași pogrom, Aktion T4, Massacres in Piaśnica, The Holocaust in France

The Jedwabne pogrom (Polish: Pogrom w Jedwabnem [jɛdˈvabnɛ]) was an atrocity committed on July 10, 1941, during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. Described as a massacre or a pogrom by postwar historians, it resulted in the death of at least 340 Polish Jews of all ages, locked in a barn later set on fire. A group of 23 Polish males was involved, after being summoned in Jedwabne by a German paramilitary group known as the Ordnungspolizei. These are the official findings of the Institute of National Remembrance, "confirmed by the number of victims in the two graves, according to the estimate of the archeological and anthropological team participating in the exhumation," wrote prosecutor Radosław J. Ignatiew, who headed an investigation in 2000–2003 ordered by the Polish government.


Pile of dead people in black and white

In 1949 the Communist People's Republic of Poland launched a treason and murder trial which was later condemned as a miscarriage of justice because suspects had been tortured during interrogation. After a fresh investigation, concluded in 2003, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance stated that the pogrom was committed by Polish inhabitants of the town, with the complicity of the German Ordnungspolizei. The involvement of German paramilitary forces of the SS and Gestapo remains the subject of debate, especially the role of the Einsatzgruppe Zichenau-Schroettersburg. According to some later commentators, many people were shocked by the findings, which contrast with the rescue of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust.

The Polish Jewish Memorial has been vandalized


A monument in Polish Jewish memorial

The Jewish community in Jedwabne was established in the 18th century. According to the Polish census of 1921, the town had a Jewish community consisting of 757 people, or 61.9 percent of its total population, following Poland's return to independence. It was a typical shtetl, a small town with a very significant Jewish community, one of many such towns in prewar Poland.

The Polish Jewish Memorial has been vandalized

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. The area of Jedwabne was originally occupied by the Germans, who crushed the resistance offered by local Polish cadets. Jedwabne was then transferred to the Soviets in accordance with the German–Soviet Boundary Treaty of September 28, 1939. As soon as the Soviets entered Jedwabne, the local Polish government was dismantled. At first, many Polish Jews were relieved to learn that the Soviets, rather than the Nazis, were to occupy their town, and unlike gentile Poles, publicly welcomed the Red Army as their protectors. Some people from other ethnic groups in Kresy, particularly Belarusians, also openly welcomed the Soviets. Administrative jobs were offered to Jews who declared Soviet allegiance. Some Jews joined a Soviet militia overseeing deportations of ethnic Poles organized by the NKVD. At least one witness testimony says that during round-ups, armed Jewish militiamen were seen to be guarding those being prepared for deportation to Siberia. A total of 22,353 Poles (entire families) were deported from the vicinity. Red Army troops requisitioned food and other goods, undercutting nearly everyone's material needs. The Soviet secret police accompanying the Red Army routinely arrested and deported Polish citizens, both gentile and Jewish, and spread terror throughout the region. Waves of arrests, expulsions and prison executions continued until June 20–21, 1941.

The Jedwabne pogrom, a massacre of Polish Jews in the town of Jedwabne

Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, German forces quickly overran the parts of Poland that had been occupied by the Soviets since 1939. The small town of Wizna near Jedwabne saw several dozen Jewish men shot by the invading Germans under Hauptsturmführer Hermann Schaper, as did other neighboring towns. The Nazis distributed propaganda in the area, revealing crimes committed by the Soviets in Eastern Poland and saying that Jews might 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, who ordered his officers to induce anti-Jewish incidents in the territories newly occupied by the German forces. Local communities were encouraged to commit anti-Jewish pogroms and robberies with total impunity.


On the morning of July 10, 1941, by the order of mayor Marian Karolak and the German paramilitaries billeted to the town, a group of Polish men from around Jedwabne and neighboring settlements was assembled. They then rounded up the local Jews as well as those seeking refuge from nearby towns and villages such as Wizna and Kolno. The Jews were taken to the square in the centre of Jedwabne, where they were ordered to pluck grass, attacked and beaten. A group of Jewish men were forced by the Germans to demolish a statue of Lenin that had been put up earlier by the Soviets (as in Kolno), and then carry it out of town while singing Soviet songs. The local rabbi was forced to lead this procession of about 40 people. The group was taken to a barn, killed and buried, along with fragments of the monument. Later that day, most of the remaining Jews, estimated at around 250 to 300 (IPN final findings), were led to the same barn, locked inside and burned alive using kerosene from the former Soviet supplies (or German gasoline, by different accounts) in the presence of eight German paramilitaries, who shot those who tried to escape. The remains of both groups were buried in two mass graves in the barn. Exhumations led to the discovery not only of the charred bodies of the victims in two mass graves, but also of the bust of Lenin (previously assumed to have been buried at a Jewish cemetery) as well as bullets that, according to a statement by Leon Kieres, the chief of the IPN, in 2000, could have been fired in 1941 Walther P38 type pistols.

German photographers, seen by many witnesses, photographed the pogrom. Some sources claim that a movie made by the Germans during the massacre was shown in cinemas in Warsaw to document the alleged spontaneous hatred of local people towards the Jews. No trace of such a movie has been found.

1949–1950 trials

After the war, in 1949 and 1950, the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland arrested and interrogated a number of suspects from or around the town of Jedwabne, accused them of collaboration with the German Nazis occupants in committing the pogrom, and put them on trial. Of 22 defendants, 12 were convicted of treason against Poland and one person was condemned to death.

Records show that the use of extreme physical torture during pre-trial interrogations conducted by the Security Office (UB) resulted in some individuals admitting to made-up crimes, which they later renounced before the courts. Among those who retracted their earlier statements given during prolonged beatings by the security service were Józef Chrzanowski, Marian Żyluk, Czesław Laudański, Wincenty Gościcki, Roman and Jan Zawadzki, Aleksander and Franciszek Łojewski, Eugeniusz Śliwecki, Stanisław Sielawa and several other local men pronounced innocent and released by the courts without recompense. Out of 22 indicted for the crime at the time, almost half were wrongfully accused.

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

German investigation of 1960–1965

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, inspired by the warm welcome received from the Poles when they chased out the Soviet forces along with their NKVD collaborators. Nebe oriented his commanders including Birkner on their new duty on July 2 and 3, but cautioned that the SS should leave "no trace" of its involvement in the pogroms.

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 Gestapo 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 their specific involvement in that pogrom also.

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. — Alexander B. Rossino

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. According to German federal prosecutors, the documentation of his investigation is no longer available and has most likely been destroyed.

Official IPN investigation, 2000–2003

The Polish Parliament ordered a brand new investigation into the Jedwabne atrocity in July 2000, and entrusted the Institute of National Remembrance with transmitting its findings for possible legal action. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN), was then a recently created 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 banned for over 40 years, during the period of Communist rule (1945–1989), including anti-Semitic pogroms in Soviet-occupied Poland. As its first project, the IPN commenced an investigation of the Jedwabne pogrom in response to a heated debate among leading historians, which followed the publication of Sąsiedzi (Neighbors) by the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross first in the Polish language. His book gave impetus to the investigation, even though the first scholarly analysis reaching similar conclusions has already been published as far back as December 1966 by Szymon Datner in the Białystok bulletin of the ŻIH (No 60), followed by a brief inquiry, aided by German authorities, in 1976.


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. 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.

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. 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.

Leon Kieres, the President of IPN, also met in New York with Rabbi Jacob Baker, 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 made public that IPN had accumulated enough evidence to confirm that a group of Poles were indeed 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. While the IPN's investigation continued for two more years, as of early 2001 the finding of Polish involvement in the Jedwabne massacre was public knowledge in Poland.

IPN's Final Findings, 2002–2003

On July 9, 2002, IPN released the final findings of its two-year-long investigation. In a carefully worded summary (quoted by Polonsky), IPN stated its principal conclusions as follows:

  • The perpetrators of the crime sensu stricto were Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its environs; responsibility for the crime sensu largo could be ascribed to the Germans. IPN found that Poles played a "decisive role" in the massacre, but the massacre was "inspired 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 refused to 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 people, and the second contained about 300. The exact number of victims could not be determined. The figure of 1,600 or so victims cited in Neighbors was “highly unlikely, and was not confirmed in the course of the investigation.”
  • “At least forty (Polish) men” were perpetrators of the crime. As for the remainder of Jedwabne’s population, IPN deplored “the passive behavior of the majority of the town’s population in the face of the crime.” However, IPN’s finding of "utter passivity" shown by the majority of Jedwabne’s population is very different from the statement on page 7 of ‘Neighbors’ that “half of the population of the town murdered the other half.” The majority of Jedwabne residents were “utterly passive,” IPN found, and they did not participate in the pogrom.
  • 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 certain group of Jewish people survived” the massacre. Several dozen Jews, or according to several sources approximately one hundred Jews, lived in a ghetto in Jedwabne until November 1942, when the Jews were transferred by the Germans to a ghetto in Lomza, and eventually died in Treblinka. The seven Jews hidden by the Wyrzykowski family were not the only survivors.
  • A greatly expanded version of the findings, in 203 pages of Polish text, was issued by the IPN on June 30, 2003. The original version from July 9, 2002, appears as the concluding five pages of this document. Pages 60 through 160 contain summaries of the testimonies of numerous witnesses interviewed by IPN. The full 203-page Polish text detailing government-led investigation was published on the IPN website. It was supplemented with the publication of two volumes of studies and documents concerning the Jedwabne pogrom entitled Wokół Jedwabnego, Vol.1 'Studies' (525 pages) and Vol.2 'Documents' (1,034 pages) available in Polish.

    On June 30, 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 hence the IPN investigation was now closed. Jan T. Gross himself praised the conduct of the IPN investigation.

    Monographs about the Jedwabne massacre

    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.

    Neighbors by Jan T. Gross, 2000–2001

    Neighbors (Sąsiedzi) by Jan T. Gross was enormously successful in provoking an intensive two-year debate in Poland on Polish-Jewish relations in World War II. 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 recognized that German forces were in Jedwabne during the massacre.

    Gross also recognized 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." Nevertheless, Gross concluded that the massacre was carried out entirely by Poles from Jedwabne and the surrounding area. Gross asserted that Polish perpetrators were not coerced by the Germans (p. 133).

    Gross’ principal sources were first, the already-known account written by Szmul Wasersztajn, a Jewish survivor; deposited in 1945 at the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH) in Białystok, Poland; and secondly, the Stalinist investigation affidavits and trial records of the 1949-1950 trials. Wasersztajn was not an eyewitness to the events he described, since he had spent the day of the pogrom in a hiding-place near Jedwabne. Furthermore, in the Stalinist trials a number of witnesses signed testimonies under torture administered during interrogation; which they recanted at the trial, leaving conflicting accounts.

    Neighbors sparked a broad controversy in Poland. Some readers refused to accept it as an account of the Jedwabne pogrom. While some Polish historians praised Gross for drawing attention to a topic which had received insufficient attention for a half-century, several historians criticized Neighbors on the grounds that it included accounts which were uncorroborated, and that wherever conflicting testimonies existed, Gross had chosen only accounts which presented the Poles in the worst possible light.

    The Neighbors Respond, 2003

    An extensive collection of articles from the Polish debate in English translation, was compiled by Joanna Michlic and Professor Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University in 2003. It was published under the title The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. The book consists of seven chapters, with many of the individual essays drawn 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 Neighbors by Gross, although his publication is a connecting tissue between most writings. Among other contributors were: 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 period of 1939–1941.

    Wokół Jedwabnego, 2002

    Wokół Jedwabnego, 2 Vols (525 pp. and 1034 pp.) in Polish, is the official IPN publication presenting documents produced by the 2000-2003 IPN investigation. Volume 1, 'Studies' (525 pages) contains historical and legal studies written by historians working for IPN. Vol.2 'Documents' (1,034 pages) contains original documents collected by the IPN investigation. Included are testimonies by Jews on various anti-Semitic acts by Poles, as well as testimonies by Polish schoolteachers deported to Siberia who reported that Jewish Communists moved into positions of authority in the Soviet occupation apparatus. Volume 2 includes a Polish translation (from Hebrew) of a remarkable memoir written by Chaya Finkelsztajn of Radziłów describing conditions under the 1939-1941 Soviet Russian occupation and the 1941 German invasion. Chaya Finkelsztajn survived the 1941-1945 German occupation, under extremely perilous and difficult conditions, after a Polish Catholic priest agreed to baptise her as a Christian. She later emigrated to Israel, where she wrote her memoir.

    The massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941 (2005)

    The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, and After by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz was based on a study of available postwar evidence. The book challenged the interpretation of the events offered by Gross. It suggested that the number of Germans participating in actions leading to the massacre was far greater than previously assumed; consisting of four or five trucks of armed SS-men who arrived from Łomża, swarmed out, and terrorized all locals before leading both Jews and Poles to the crime scene. This interpretation was also supported by the studies of German documents by Alexander B. Rossino. Chodakiewicz’s book was reviewed by Professor Peter D. Stachura who wrote: "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." Stachura's review was strongly criticized by Polonsky and Michlic, to which Stachura wrote a critical reply.


    From May 2000 onwards, the Jedwabne pogrom became a frequent topic of discussion in Polish media. A list compiled by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita listed over 130 articles in the Polish language on the Jedwabne pogrom. The Catholic periodical Więź published a collection of 34 articles on Jedwabne pogrom entitled ‘Thou shalt not kill: Poles on Jedwabne’ available in English.

    Kwaśniewski's speech 2001, and Polish public opinion

    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." The ceremony was attended by Catholic and Jewish religious leaders and survivors of the pogrom. Most of the locals of Jedwabne boycotted the ceremony.

    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.

    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.” 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...... July 10, 2001."

    Events after 2004

    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").

    In 2009, Polish politician Michał Kamiński was attacked by the Labour Party (UK), and some British journalists, for having opposed a national apology for the Jedwabne massacre in 2001. The criticism came shortly after Kaminski was made chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, which includes Labour's opponent, the Conservative Party (UK). Kaminski denied his opposition to the apology was derived from anti-Semitism, and has been defended by the Conservatives and some journalists including the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard.

    A 2009 play Our Class by Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, performed in Britain. 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."

    On July 11, 2011 the President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski asked for forgiveness at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre. At the time of the event, Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants stated 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 "The ceremonies today at Jedwabne is a welcome and important step in the confrontation with the truth by the Polish nation."

    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." Poland launched an anti-hate crime investigation involving the country's domestic intelligence agency, the ABW. 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." 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."


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