Jedwabne as memory and history

In July 1941 a terrible massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland. The town consisted of some 3,000 residents, about half of whom were Jewish. On July 10, 1941, weeks after the German army took control of the town from the Soviet Red Army (according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), a largescale action of mob violence against the Jews of Jedwabne took place, leading in the end to the murder of almost all of the Jewish population of the town. (Jan Gross estimates the death count to be about 1,600 men, women, and children.) Most horrifically, the largest number of these victims were herded into a barn which was set afire; everyone inside the barn was burned to death. Similar massacres occurred in nearby villages in the same week, in Wąsosz (July 5; link) and Radziłów (July 7; link).

Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2000) attempted to gather together the historical evidence available about the massacre and to provide a fact-based narrative of what happened on that awful day. His account, and the issues about Polish Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and murder that it raises, have created a great deal of debate in Poland.

Several major questions have dominated the historical debate over what happened at Jedwabne:

  • Was the massacre ordered or instigated by the Germans?
  • Was ambient hatred of Jews among inter-war Poles responsible for this willingness to murder fellow human beings?
  • Was resentment against Jews for “collaboration with the Soviets” during the short period of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland a primary factor in hostility to the Jews of Jedwabne by their neighbors?
  • Was Jedwabne typical of a common experience in rural Poland in 1941?

Journalist Anna Bikont undertook in 2000 to provide a fresh review of the events of Jedwabne, and the results are provided in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (2004). Her book is a remarkable work of investigative journalism, involving careful review of existing archives and interviews with a surprising number of persons who were present in Jedwabne on that terrible day. In almost every large detail Bikont confirms Gross’s key factual claims.

Bikont provides substantial documentation of the high level of anti-Semitism in eastern Poland (and the Łomża region in particular), promulgated by the extremist National Party and the Catholic Church. (The publication Catholic Cause was a frequent source of anti-Semitic exhortations.) These conclusions are based on her interviews, publications of the Church and the party, and investigative reports by the Interior Ministry. “In an Interior Ministry report of February 3, 1939, we read, ‘Anti-Semitism is spreading uncontrollably.’ In a climate where windows being smashed in Jewish homes, stalls being overturned, and Jews being beaten were daily occurrences, one case from Jedwabne that came to trial in 1939 concerned an accusation made against a Jewish woman” (51).

Bikont documents rampant anti-Semitism in the historical record. Here is a statement from her interview with Jan Skrodzki, who witnessed the brutality and murder in Jedwabne as a six-year-old child:

I often hear there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland now. I always say, ‘There are a lot of anti-Semites in my family, and of the people I know, every other one, or maybe every third, is anti-Semitic, and I could easily have been, too.’ And where did we get our anti-Semitism? The priest preached it from the pulpit, that fat Father Dołęgowski. And Poles in Radziłów lapped it up because they were uneducated or completely illiterate. Envious of Jews because they were better off. While Jews were working harder, organizing their work better, supporting each other. (235)

Bikont shares a few lines from her interview with Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew in the Bialystok Institute of National Remembrance:

AB: You say, “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—a group of at least forty men … They actively participated in committing the crime, armed with sticks, crow bars, and other tools.” Let us try to trace how you came to the description you gave of the atrocity in your final findings. You read Gross’s book … (589)

Here is Prosecutor Ignatiew’s summary conclusion:

I can state that the perpetrators of the atrocity were Polish residents of Jedwabne and its surroundings, at least forty men. There is no proof that the townspeople in general were the perpetrators. To claim that there was a company of Germans in Jedwabne is as implausible as maintaining the whole town went crazy. Most people behaved passively. I can’t judge where that passivity came from. Maybe some people felt compassion for the victims but were terrified by the brutality of the killers. Others, though they may have had anti-Semitic views, were not people quick to take an active part in actions of this kind. (600)

Prosecutor Ignatiew disagrees with Gross’s account on two details. First, he believes the total number of murdered individuals was significantly fewer than the 1,600 reported in Neighbors. And second, based on his investigation he believes that the killings were instigated and encouraged by the Germans, though not commanded or organized by them. The evidence available to him supports the conclusion that the number of uniformed Germans was very small on the day of the killings. 

Antony Polonsky notes that Gross’s book created great discord about Poland’s history on its publication. Polonsky reviewed the debate about Jedwabne as it has unfolded in Poland in his important 2004 article, “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” (link). Polonsky is a well-respected scholar of Jewish history, and especially of the history of the Jews in Poland, and his treatment of the facts and the historiography of Jedwabne is judicious and credible. The question of Polish culpability and collaboration is important; but in his view, the genocide was chiefly the work of Germany. “The primary responsibility for these crimes clearly lies with the Nazis” (128). But this conclusion is about the genocide of Poland’s Jews throughout the period — not specifically at Jedwabne.

Polonsky addresses the question of whether the murderous violence in Jedwabne occurred because Christian Poles believed that Jewish Poles had been disloyal under Soviet occupation. Polonsky takes a nuanced position on this question. He believes that this suspicion and resentment played a role in elevating anti-Semitism in 1940, and he notes that it was natural for the Jewish community to suspect that Soviet rule would be less harmful to them than Nazi rule. But he does not appear to believe that this was a primary cause of the murderous actions of ordinary Polish people in July 1940.

In addition, Jewish collaboration with the new Soviet authorities aroused widespread Polish resentment. It is undeniable that a fair number of Jews (like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, a considerable number of Ukrainians, and even some Poles) welcomed the establishment of Soviet rule. In the Jewish case, this welcome was natural: it is explained by a desire to see an end to the insecurity caused by the collapse of Polish rule in these areas and the belief that the Soviets were less hostile than the Nazis and the resentment of Polish anti-Jewish policies in the interwar period. There was, in addition, some support for the communist system, although this was very much a minority position within the Jewish community. While the Soviets did offer new opportunities to individual Jews, they acted to suppress organized Jewish life, both religious and political, dissolving kehillot, banning virtually all Jewish parties and arresting their leaders. Jews made up nearly a third of the over half a million people deported by the Soviets from these areas (which inadvertently saved many of them from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis). Under these conditions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population here very quickly lost whatever illusions they might have had about the Soviet system. (140)

Further, Polonsky and Michlic in their introduction to The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2009) suggest that the Łomża region was exceptional for the degree of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism it exhibited in the years before Germany’s invasion:

Such evidence as we have, both Polish and Jewish, suggests that the Łomża region in northeastern Poland where Jedwabne is located, an area that had long been a stronghold of the extreme right, was the only area in which collective massacres of Jews by civilian Poles took place in the summer of 1941—when the region, previously occupied by the Soviet Union, was reoccupied by Nazi Germany. (The Neighbors Respond, 45)

Polonsky and Michlic suggest that pogroms like these in the northeast were uncommon elsewhere in Poland, and that similar pogroms occurred in western Ukraine on a much broader scale. They quote research by Marco Carynnyk documenting largescale pogroms in 1941 in more than thirty places in western Ukraine, resulting in deaths estimated between 12,000 and 35,000. By that account, then, Łomża region atrocities (including Jedwabne, Wąsosz, and Radziłów) were not typical of the experience of Polish-Jewish communities in most of Poland, and were more similar to the localities of western Ukraine.

Another important resource on the active involvement of non-Jewish Poles in the murder of Poland’s Jews is Jan Grabowski’s “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” (link). Grabowski documents the substantial role that the “Blue Police” (Polish nationals in a reconstituted police force under Nazi command) played in implementation of Nazi Jewish regulations, including confinement in ghettos in Poland’s major cities. This role included carrying out mass executions of Jews. Here is an example of Blue Police involvement in an aktion in Węgrówa small Polish city:

On the day of the Aktion in Węgrów, the German-Ukrainian Liquidierungskommando, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters, and so-called “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokołów railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka. The Liquidierungskommando left Węgrów the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution. (11)

Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were sued under Poland’s recent libel and defamation laws, created by the Law and Justice Party government, for publication of their book Night without End on the basis of statements about Polish individuals who were responsible for crimes against Jews. Engelking and Grabowski were first found responsible for libel against a descendent of Edward Malinowski and ordered to publicly apologize. This verdict was profoundly chilling to historians conducting historical research on the Holocaust in Poland. An appellate court took note of the negative effect the lower court ruling had on academic freedom and reversed that finding in August 2021 (link).

Polonsky makes a key point in both “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” and the introduction to The Neighbors Respond, that parallels Tony Judt’s arguments in “The Past is Another Country” (link) — that confronting the ugly truths about the past is essential to moving forward to a democratic and peaceful future. Polish society has had difficulty in confronting the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the political realities of Communist rule in Poland, and the current government is emphatic in its efforts to “sanitize” the telling of this history. In Judt’s phrase, the current government prefers myth to truth. Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, Michlic, Polonsky, and a whole cohort of historians of Poland, both inside Poland and abroad, are working hard to discover the truth.

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