This Day in Jewish History

1941: Polish Neighbors Slaughter the Jews of Jedwabne

Some locals felt the Jews had been too warm to Soviet invaders and once the Nazis came, helped kill them.

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejemski burning down a barn to commemorate the Jedwabne pogrom.
Reuters

July 10, 1941, is the date of the massacre carried out against the Jewish population of Jedwabne, Poland, by their Polish neighbors.

Although the fact of the killings was not a secret and was the subject of several official investigations over the years, it was only during the early years of this century that an objective and comprehensive Polish study of the pogrom was undertaken.

The belated awakening of the question of the division of responsibility – among Poles versus Nazi Germans – led to heated debate and controversy in Poland a decade ago.

Jedwabne is a small town in the country’s northeast, which received its first recognition from the Polish monarchy in 1736. Jews arrived in the town around the same time, and the town’s handsome wooden synagogue dates from 1770. It is estimated that at the start of World War II, Jews made up between 60 and 70 percent of an overall population of about 2,000.

In the war’s initial period, eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union, under the terms of the German-Soviet boundary treaty. Despite an initial welcoming of Russian forces in the town, the Soviets terrorized the population and deported large numbers of its citizens to Siberia.

Soviet occupation of Jedwabne was followed by that of the Germans, after the June 22, 1941, Nazi invasion of the USSR. A wave of anti-Jewish sentiment swept the region, due to the belief that Jews had cooperated with and benefited from the Soviet invaders.

Less than three weeks after the arrival of the Germans, on July 10, the mayor of Jedwabne, Marian Karolak, and the German gendarmerie gave the orders for the roundup of the town’s Jews. These included both Jewish residents of Jedwabne and those from surrounding towns who had sought refuge there.

One group of Jews was taken to a barn that had been emptied out for the purpose, and murdered there and immediately buried. Later in the day, a second group was brought to the same barn and burned to death.

AP

The investigation carried out in 2000-2002 by the Polish Institute of National Memory (IPN, in its Polish acronym) concluded that “at least 340” people were murdered, whereas the 1949 trial for treason of local perpetrators spoke of a figure of 1,500. (It later was revealed that the communist regime had tortured some of the defendants in that trial into confessing crimes they hadn’t committed.)

'Inspiring' the massacre

The 2001 publication of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by Jan T. Gross, stirred up renewed interest in – and controversy over –the pogrom.

Gross is a Polish-born professor of history at Princeton University, one of whose specialties has been the study of Polish anti-Semitism. His book spoke of up to 1,600 Jewish victims of the massacre, and concluded that it was local non-Jewish civilians who carried out the killings, with the approval and encouragement of the German gendarmes and a mobile SS or Gestapo unit.

Gross’ study, which was only published in Polish translation in 2008, helped to initiate the IPN investigation. That study could confirm only 340 Jewish deaths.

Although the inquiry agreed with Gross that the killings and related tortures were carried out by Poles, it ascribed a “decisive role” to the Germans for “inspiring” the massacre. Whereas Gross had asserted that “half of the population of the town murdered the other half,” the IPN concluded that a minimum of 40 Poles actively participated in the killings, while the remainder of the non-Jewish population displayed “utter passivity” in the face of the crimes.

The powerful debate that played out in Polish society over Jedwabne a decade ago is itself subject to different interpretations. Overall, though, the debate was mostly serious and revolved around factual investigations rather than outright Holocaust denial.

On the 60th anniversary of the massacre, in 2001, the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasnieski, spoke at a ceremony at Jedwabne – a ceremony that was boycotted by many residents of the town – in which he apologized for the crime “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.” A monument was also unveiled commemorating the Jews who were “murdered and burned alive on this spot,” although it did not specify who had carried out those murders.