75. Anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom, 10 July 1941

Pomnik ku czci pamięci Żydów pomordowanych w Jedwabnem
Pomnik ofiar pogromu w Jedwabnem, fot. D. Król

On 10 July 1941, an anti-Jewish pogrom took place in Jedwabne. It occurred a dozen or so days after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the town, which had then been seized by Germans. Around 10am, Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and nearby localities started to herd Jews from the town to the market square. There, they were beaten and humiliated, several people were killed. Out of the Jews amassed in the market square, Poles selected several dozen people, among them Rabbi Awigdor Białostocki, and forced them to destroy the statue of Lenin located at Dworna Street. The group was then led out of the town, murdered, and buried, together with the bust of Lenin, in a previously dug out hole inside Śleszynski’s barn. Later on, all Jews still kept in the market square were rushed to the very same barn, which was soaked in paraffin and set on fire.

The crime was perpetrated by several dozen inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings, and many more witnessed the events. There were also armed Germans in the town. They observed the events and most probably inspired them in accordance with Reinhard Heydrich’s directive on inciting populations in newly acquired territories to organise anti-Jewish pogroms, but their participation was limited.

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews seeks to commemorate the victims of this crime. On our website, we have published pre-war photographs of Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne, most of whom probably died in the July pogrom. Taking into consideration the difficult and multifaceted nature of the murder in Jedwabne, we have prepared a description of the pogrom, detailed timeline of the events and fragments of several academic works regarding the crime.

It took entire decades to arrive at the historical truth that it were Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne who perpetrated the mass murder on the local Jews. Works published after the war indicate Germans as the culprits. The first mention of the participation of Poles in pogroms taking place in the summer of 1941 can be found in the article written by Szymon Datner in the 1960s, called Eksterminacja ludności żydowskiej w Okręgu Białostockim (“Biuletyn ŻIH” 1966, no. 60). A quarter of a century later, the issue of, among others, Jedwabne, was discussed by Andrzej Żbikowski in the article Lokalne pogromy Żydów w czerwcu i lipcu 1941 roku na wschodnich rubieżach II Rzeczypospolitej (“Biuletyn ŻIH” 1992, no. 2/3). Both texts were published in a specialist academic magazine and did draw attention of the society at large. In the Timeline of remembrance, we have listed, in chronological order, the events of the long process of discovering the truth about Jedwabne – starting from post-war trials, through commemorations of the victims, important academic publications, and films and stage plays tackling the subject, down to speeches made by Polish politicians.

The turning point of this process was the publication of the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (first edition [in Polish]: Sejny 2001), which was based on the records from post-war criminal trials and the accounts of eyewitnesses of the pogrom. On our website, we have published a fragment of the chapter called Who Murdered the Jews of Jedwabne? The book sparked a nation-wide debate in Poland which reached its peak in the spring of 2001. The key issue was the participation of Poles in the pogrom – not as witnesses against their will, powerless in the face of the suffering of their Jewish neighbours, but as perpetrators and passive participants. In 2000, the Institute of National Remembrance launched an investigation of the pogrom in Jedwabne. One of its outcomes was a two-volume publication written by a number of researchers and published in 2002 under the name of Wokół Jedwabnego. Inside, Paweł Machcewicz wrote: “The discussion surrounding the Jedwabne issue was one of the most important debates since 1989 – not only when it comes to Polish-Jewish relations, but also to the view of the Polish history in the 20th century. It touched upon matters that shape the image of ourselves in issues of utmost importance to the Polish identity, such as WWII, the German and Soviet occupation, the attitude of Poles towards Jews and Germans.”

Another matter, connected to the Polish participation in the pogrom, was the level of German responsibility for the crime. We have published a fragment of Andrzej Żbikowski’s monograph U genezy Jedwabnego. Żydzi na Kresach Północno-Wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej, wrzesień 1939 – lipiec 1941 (Warsaw, 2006), which summarises the body of research regarding this issue.

We are finding out more and more about Jedwabne thanks to numerous works shedding light on various, previously not researched, aspects of the events of the summer of 1941. In his book W cieniu gigantów. Pogromy Żydów w 1941 roku w byłej sowieckiej strefie okupacyjnej. Kontekst historyczny, społeczny i kulturowy (Warsaw, 2012), Witold Medykowski shows that the Jedwabne pogrom was just one in an entire wave of anti-Jewish events which, in the summer of 1941, swept through the former Soviet occupation zone – from the Baltic countries, through the region of Łomża and Białystok, Eastern Galicia, down to Romania. We have published a fragment of this book and the timeline of events in the region drawn up on its basis.

We believe that by presenting such diverse academic perspectives, we will be able to better understand the course of events of the Jedwabne pogrom, its causes and the place it holds in the historical memory of Poles.