The anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom
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 villages started to herd Jews from the town to the market square.
There, the Jews were beaten and humiliated, several of them were killed. Out of the people gathered in the market square, Poles selected several dozen, among them Rabbi Awigdor Białostocki, and forced them to destroy the statue of Lenin on Dworna Street and to stage its mock funeral. The group was then led out of the town, murdered, and buried—along with the smashed bust of Lenin—in a previously dug out hole inside Śleszynski’s barn. Later on, all the remaining Jews were rushed from the market square to the same barn, which was then set on fire.
The crime was committed by several dozen inhabitants of Jedwabne and its vicinity; many more witnessed the pogrom. One of the key aspects of the events was the German instigation and countenance to violence against Jews. There was a German gendarmerie precinct in Jedwabne; one day before the pogrom a German Security Police commando arrived in town and held talks with the spontaneously elected municipal authorities. Indeed, it was mayor Marian Kolak and his associates who played a major role in organizing the pogrom.
At that time, shortly after the German invasion on the USSR, Germans were perceived as saviors from the cruel Soviet occupation by the local population. Thus, their inspiration—based on antisemitic prejudices and the “Judeo-communism” [żydokomuna] stereotype—was met with much enthusiasm. The pogrom in Jedwabne was a symbolic revenge on Jews for the Soviet repressions of Poles. The victims were condemned for the alleged affiliation of the entire Jewish community with the communists.
The crime in Jedwabne was by no means an isolated case, but rather an element of a widespread local phenomenon. A similar slaughter took place three days earlier in nearby Radziłów. In the summer of 1941 anti-Jewish violence occurred in over twenty localities in the Łomża and Białystok regions. These events were part of the wave of pogroms that swept through the Eastern front line in the territories—stretching from Latvia to Bessarabia—previously occupied by the Soviets and now in German hands.
After the war had ended, several dozen trials of the pogroms’ participants took place. In the years 1949-1950 ten people were sentenced to prison for taking part in the Jedwabne pogrom. In the years 2000-2003 a new investigation on the crime was carried out by the Institute of National Remembrance; it ended up with an unequivocal conclusion that the pogrom was committed by Poles encouraged by the Germans. The site of crime and burial was located, and a monument was erected and unveiled on the 60th anniversary of the event. During the unveiling ceremony, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President of Poland, apologized “on his own behalf, and on behalf of those Poles whose conscience was stirred by what had happened here 60 years ago.”
Revealing the truth on the crime in Jedwabne in the year 2000 came as a shock to the public opinion as it challenged the image of Poles as solely the victims of WW2. Discussion on the subject of Jedwabne pogrom turned out to be one of the key debates on the modern history of Poland.