On July 10, 1941, residents of the Polish town of Jedwabne rounded up hundreds of their Jewish neighbors, corralled them into a barn and burned them to death.
The perpetrators first humiliated the Jewish residents, forcing them to pluck grass protruding from the pavement of the main square, ordering them to destroy a monument of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and later to parade to the barn carrying its remains. A small group of the victims was then killed in an unknown manner before being flung into the barn, while a larger group was led to the barn and burned alive. Initial accounts pointed to German Nazis – occupying Poland at the time - as the perpetrators of the massacre.
Fifty-nine years later, however, Polish-American historian Jan Gross detracted responsibility from the Nazis, publishing a controversial account of the pogrom entitled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross stated that while the Germans were in control and allowed the pogrom to occur, it was the Polish residents that actively killed 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors. Gross's conclusion sparked heated debate over who was responsible for the crimes and how many people were killed in the massacre, rehashing the debate over the historical event among historians and officials across Poland.
This in turn led to a three-year investigation into the pogrom, conducted by Poland's Institute of National Memory (IPN). On December 19, 2001, IPN officials announced "that no proof whatsoever was uncovered during the investigation of any armed German unit coming to Jedwabne on 10 July," a conclusion which backed Gross's findings.
Tackling the second question of how many people were killed in the pogrom, in June 2001 the IPN carried out an exhumation of the two mass graves in which victims were buried. A memorial monument built in the 1960s at the side of the barn where the victims were killed concurred with Gross's count of the dead: "Place of the extermination of the Jewish population. The Gestapo and Nazi police burned alive 1,600 people on July 10, 1941."
The investigation revealed that some 40 Polish residents of Jedwabne took an active part in the pogrom, which was inspired by the Nazi authorities. Reconstructing the events of July 10, 1941 the IPN stated: "From the morning hours the routing of the Jewish populace from their homes and assembly in the town square went on. They were ordered to pull out the grass protruding from between the stones with which the square was paved."
The report continued: "Acts of violence and force were committed against those assembled. They were committed by residents of Jedwabne and the vicinity, and of Polish nationality. When questioned, numerous witnesses indicated the arrival in Jedwabne on that day of uniformed Germans. Those Germans, probably in a small group, assisted in the operation of leading the victims to the square, and there their active role ended."
A group of some 50 Jewish men, including the local rabbi and kosher butcher, were forced to destroy the Lenin bust in the square and later carry a fragment of it to the barn on wooden stretchers, according to the report. "The victims of that group were annihilated in an unknown manner and their bodies were flung into a pit dug inside the barn. Fragments of the smashed Lenin bust were thrown on top of the corpses."
A larger group of some 300 Jews were led away from the square one-and-a-half hours later. They were led into a wooden, thatched-roof barn belonging to Bronislaw Sleszynski. After it was closed, the building was likely drenched with kerosene from the supply dump left by the Soviets, the IPN asserted.
Courts of the Polish People's Republic in 1949 tried 21 Poles on suspicion of participating in the pogrom. One was sentenced to death, ten were sentenced to 8-15 years in prison and ten others were pronounced not guilty. No additional living suspects were found.
On March 2001, authorities replaced the monument with a Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish inscription that reads: "In memory of Jews from Jedwabne and environs, men, women and children, co-masters of this land, murdered and burned alive at this spot on July 10th, 1941." The wording of the new inscription triggered further debate as it failed to implicate the Poles or to specify the number of victims. Yad Vashem boycotted the unveiling of the monument at a Polish memorial ceremony marking 60 years since the pogrom.
Following the publication of The Neighbors Respond, a book written in reaction to Neighbors, Gross defended his account of how many Jews were killed in the massacre, saying that the exhumation was "the only aspect of the Jedwabne investigation handled carelessly." He said that out of "a well-meaning desire to appease the sensibilities of religious Jews" concerning the proper handling of the remains of the dead, the exhumation was conducted hastily. Gross quoted experts as saying that an exhumation of graves of this size should have taken months rather than the five days the IPM took.
According to Gross, the number given by the IPN was announced rashly based upon a casual remark; an archeologist expressed the belief that the grave contained the remains of 250 people maximum, and this message was relayed to the Polish Justice Minister Lech Kaczynski, who quickly announced the estimation. Leader of the Jedwabne team Andrzej Kola was agitated by the hastiness with which the estimation had become "fact," and later amended the count to 300-400 bodies, Gross says. Expert international observer at the site William Haglund said an accurate estimation could not be made from the work done there, meaning that the precise number of victims will likely never be known. But as IPN Chairman Professor Leon Kieres said to BBC during the course of the investigation: "The crime is the same whether 200 or 250, or 1,600 people were murdered. I am talking in both moral and legal terms."
Another 10 years on, on July 11, 2011 Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski asked for forgiveness at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Jedwabne: "Today, Poland can still hear the never-fading cry of its citizens," Komorowski said. "Once again, I beg forgiveness." Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, welcomed the apology as an "important step in the confrontation with the truth by the Polish nation," which emphasized that "the Holocaust was not solely a German affair."
Two months after the ceremony on September 1, 2011, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head once again, as vandals defaced the Jedwabne memorial site, covering it with racist inscriptions and swastikas in green paint. Vandals also smeared a wall surrounding the memorial with signs saying "They were highly flammable" and "I'm not sorry for Jedwabne."
JTA contributed to this report.