On This Day: Poles kill 340 Jews in Jedwabne pogrom 81 years ago

The massacre is a controversial topic in Poland; as the main perpetrators of the massacre were Poles, it goes against the commonly accepted Polish narrative of the Holocaust.

Memorial in Jedwabne, dedicated to murdered Jews: "In remembrance of the Jews from Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, children, co-habitants of this earth, murdered, burned alive here on July 10th, 1941" (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Memorial in Jedwabne, dedicated to murdered Jews: "In remembrance of the Jews from Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, children, co-habitants of this earth, murdered, burned alive here on July 10th, 1941"
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

July 10 marks 81 years since the Jedwabne pogrom, a horrific event in the Holocaust when Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne, in cooperation with German police, massacred at least 340 Jews living there.

The pogrom was not widely known until the turn of the millennium when it was publicized by historians, filmmakers and journalists and later confirmed by a Polish forensic investigation.

The massacre is a controversial topic in Poland; as the main perpetrators of the massacre were Poles, it goes against the commonly accepted Polish narrative of the Holocaust.

Background

The town had a Jewish history dating back several hundred years, until arguably the 1600s. By 1937, some estimates said that as many as 40% of the town's population consisted of Jews. By most accounts, relations between the Jews and Poles in the town were positive prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Jedwabne was one of the territories occupied by the Soviet Union following the respective Nazi German and Soviet invasions of Poland at the start of the war, and the Russians even put up a statue of USSR founder Vladimir Lenin in the town center. This, according to some historians, raised some tensions as at the start, the Jews welcomed the Soviets over the prospect of Nazi Germany. 

 German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR) German soldiers are seen marching in Warsaw following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. (credit: FLICKR)

This did not last long, and by and large, it seems that most Jews were not involved with Soviet troops or the Communist ideology. However, there were some Jews, a minority, who joined the local Soviet-aligned militia. As noted by historian Anna M. Cienciala, it was the "image of Jews welcoming the Soviets" that became burned in the minds of the Polish locals. Further, as noted by writer Anna Bikont, accounts by Poles insisted that the militia consisted of Jews, though Jewish accounts note the few Jews who joined the militia against the norm. 

This in term was reflective of a common widespread belief and conspiracy theory, that of the dangerous spread of Jewish Communism into Europe. 

This all came to a boiling point in late June of 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation: Barbarossa, which saw them quickly take over the Soviet-occupied parts of Poland. 

The German occupation

On June 23, the Germans entered Jedwabne. Just two days later, local Poles started antisemitic riots, entering Jewish homes and murdering Jews.

These riots were brutal, and the local Poles perpetrating them had taken to playing music to "drown the screams of the Jewish women and their children," according to the testimony of Szmul Wasersztein, one of the few Jews that would survive Jedwabne, as archived by Yad Vashem.

Wasersztein described the brutal murder of local Jews. It was to an extent that two women with their babies saw the murders and decided to drown themselves and their children in the pond, all while the Poles committing the above-mentioned murders gathered around to watch.

These riots were stopped the following day at the behest of the local priest, who explained that "the German authorities would do the necessary themselves."

Regardless, the situation continued to worsen.

On June 29 and July 2, Reich Main Security Office chief Reinhard Heydrich ordered German forces in the area to lend support to "self-cleansing" that could eliminate communists and Jews. 

"No obstacles should be made for the efforts aimed at self-cleaning among anti-communist and anti-Jewish circles in the newly occupied territories. To the contrary, they should be instigated without leaving a trace, and if need be - intensified and directed on the right track, but in such a manner so that the local 'self-defense circles' could not refer to the orders or political promises made to them."

Reinhard Heydrich

"No obstacles should be made for the efforts aimed at self-cleaning among anti-communist and anti-Jewish circles in the newly occupied territories," Heydrich ordered, according to Polish writer Krzysztof Persak. 

"To the contrary, they should be instigated without leaving a trace, and if need be - intensified and directed on the right track, but in such a manner so that the local 'self-defense circles' could not refer to the orders or political promises made to them."

This, in turn, led to several pogroms in Poland against the local Jews. How involved Germans were in these pogroms and how much was at the behest of the Polish locals is the subject of considerable debate from place to place.

These pogroms saw the death of hundreds of hundreds of Jews.

Then, on July 10, this fate befell Jedwabne.

The pogrom

German officials were seen on July 10, if not earlier, in the town and held a meeting with local Polish authorities to discuss the Jews. 

According to Wasersztein, the Germans suggested letting one Jewish family of each profession live. However, the Poles agreed that "they had enough craftsmen of their own," and said that all Jews must be killed. 

Historian Jan T. Gross noted that four Poles took the leading role in the pogrom. Among them were Jerzy Laudański and Karol Bardoń, both of whom had previously collaborated with the Soviets.

After this meeting ended, local Poles began forcing Jews out of their homes. First, at least 40 young Jews were forced to carry the sculpture of Lenin, all the while being repeatedly assaulted and forced to sing against their will. After bringing the statue to where the Poles demanded, according to Wasersztein, the Jews were forced to dig a hole in the ground and throw the statue in it.

After that, they were beaten to death and thrown in that very same hole. 

Next, several Jews were forced to dig a hole to bury every Jew who was just killed. After they did so, they were also killed and buried along with them.

What happened next was especially horrific. Most of the remaining Jews (around 300 in number) were forced into a barn, supposedly volunteered by one of the Poles at the earlier meeting, where they were all burned alive.

"The entire town was surrounded with guards so that no one could escape. Then they stood the Jews up in four lines. The town's rabbi, over 90 years old, and the kosher butcher were put at the head, with a flag in their hands," Waserztein recounted. 

"Then they were all chased into the barn. The thugs beat them brutally. At the entrance were several bandits who were playing music and tried to drown the poor people's screams. They were bleeding as they were pushed into the barn, and then they were doused with kerosene and fire was set to the barn."

"Then the robbers went to the Jewish homes looking for sick people and children. The sick were brought to the barn, they tied the children's feet, put them on pitch forks and threw them into the smoldering coals."

"After the fire, they removed the gold teeth from the corpses and defiled them in different forms."

Much of this account was later confirmed in a Polish exhumation in 2001, which discovered mass graves, multiple corpses, the head of a concrete Lenin statue and the knife of a kosher butcher.

"It is difficult to describe all the cruelties these thugs perpetrated and it is difficult to find parallels in our history of suffering. They burned beards of the old men, murdered babies nursed by their mothers, tortured, beat, forced to dance, to sing," Wasersztein said.

There were a few survivors who escaped to other towns or who lived in an open ghetto before being transferred in 1942 to other ghettos and later to concentration camps. However, seven survivors, including Wasersztein, were able to escape to a nearby village where Antonia and Aleksander Wyrzykowska hid them until the Soviets liberated the area.

"It is difficult to describe all the cruelties these thugs perpetrated and it is difficult to find parallels in our history of suffering. They burned beards of the old men, murdered babies nursed by their mothers, tortured, beat, forced to dance, to sing."

Szmuel Wasersztein

Legacy

For a long time, the only legacy to this event was a monument placed in the town in 1963. 

In total, it simply was one of the many horrific massacres and tragedies that befell Polish Jewry during World War II.

However, everything changed when Jan T. Gross published a groundbreaking book on the Jedwabne pogrom in 2000.

Gross's writings concluded that the Poles were the primary perpetrators of the pogrom, contrasting the official Polish record that Germans were the perpetrators

Gross did note that the Germans did play a role. He argued that there couldn't have been such an organized push without their consent, but the Poles of Jedwabne were the ones who carried it out without any coercion.

There were several sources Gross used for his work, such as Wasersztain's testimony, trial records from the Soviet-aligned Polish trials in 1949-1950, the book written by Jedwabne, locals who fled to the US, Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book and several interviews. 

This sparked widespread uproar in Poland and eventually ordered the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) to investigate. 

This investigation had several limitations, due in part to Orthodox Jews objecting to violating Jewish resting places and other religious factors, but it was eventually concluded that indeed, at least 340 Jews were killed in the pogrom, though this total also goes against initial estimates that put the death toll at 1,600. 

The IPN also concluded that, undoubtedly, at the very least, the Polish locals had played a crucial and essential role in carrying out the pogrom.

This prompted then-Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski to issue an official apology for the massacre, crediting Polish citizens for killing the Jews of Jedwabne, and a new monument was placed in the town.

Later, in 2011, then-Polish president Bronisław Komorowski asked for forgiveness.

However, even in 2001, the issue was highly contentious in Polish society. The locals of Jedwabne boycotted Kwaśniewski's ceremony to protest the apology. 

This only got worse over the years, especially beginning in 2015 when Andrezj Duda slammed Komorowski for apologizing for Jedwabne and not defending the reputation of Poland. This continued to worsen, especially as Duda and his Law and Justice Party (PiS) continued to rise in power, with Duda now being the incumbent Polish president.

PiS has been widely criticized for its approach to the Holocaust, which has been accused of denying history. Indeed, Polish historians have faced legal action and repercussions for writing about the Holocaust. Even Gross was probed by Polish prosecutors for his work.

Duda and PiS have also implemented a widely-criticized law against the restitution of Jewish property seized by the Nazis, something that has strained ties with Israel.

Currently, efforts have been made to mend these ties, but whether Polish policy regarding Jedwabne or the Holocaust, in general, will ever change remains to be seen.