Pogrom in Jedwabne. Course of Events

Uroczystości na cmentarzu żydowskim w Jedwabnem, fot. K. Bielawski

What happened in Jedwabne on 10 July unfolded in a series of subsequent events. The first was taking Jews out of their houses and the last – setting fire to a barn soaked with paraffin. According to statements of witnesses, there was “a load of people” on Jedwabne’s market square on 10 July. Some of the gathered made sure Jews would not leave the square. It is uncertain whether they created a cordon by holding each other’s arms, like it had happened in other localities. Those who committed the crime, its perpetrators in the strict sense of the word, were Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings – ca. 40 men.

Having herded them into the market square, the tormentors forced Jews to destroy the statue of Lenin and shout: “the war is our fault.” Several dozen Jewish men were then forced to carry the remains of the destroyed statue in a march headed by the rabbi carrying a red flag. It was undoubtedly a way of stigmatising the entire Jewish community, of giving them the label of those responsible for communism. Germans were present during all of the events, both members of the SS and military policemen. According to some witnesses, they were issuing orders to the Poles.

Several hours later, Jews were killed in a mass murder. Jewish people were herded into Bronisław Śleszyński’s barn. First, the perpetrators killed a group of 40-50 men, the very same people who had been forced to carry around the remains of the statue of Lenin. Afterwards, ca. 300 more people were herded into the same barn – Jews who had been brought there from the market, including women and children. The walls of the building were soaked in paraffin and then set on fire. It is estimated that several hundred people fell victim to the Jedwabne pogrom.

The mass murder in Jedwabne was not an isolated event in the period. In the summer of 1941, after the Soviets had fled and Germans had entered the territory, the region of Łomża and Białystok saw numerous acts of violence perpetrated by Poles on their Jewish neighbours, with varied participation of the new occupant. The investigation carried out by the Institute of National Remembrance showed that such events had unfolded in 23 localities. Those were: Bielsk Podlaski (the village of Pilki), Choroszcz, Czyżew, Goniądz, Grajewo, Jasionówka, Jedwabne, Kleszczele, Knyszyn, Kolno, Kuźnica, Narewka, Piątnica, Radziłów, Rajgród, Sokoły, Stawiski, Suchowola, Szczuczyn, Trzcianne, Tykocin, Wasilków, Wąsosz, and Wizna.

All these acts had four common features: anti-Semitism existent in a significant part of the Polish population; looting Jewish property as one of the main motives for aggression; seeking retribution for real or imaginary cooperation of Jews with the Soviet occupant; German incitement – varying in different places, from direct organisation of pogroms to giving encouragement or condoning the behaviour.

Some of those pogroms resulted in several or around a dozen people being killed, while others – most importantly those in Jedwabne and Radziłów – caused the death of hundreds of Jews.

The Jedwabne pogrom became a subject of several legal proceedings after the war. Following the investigation carried out in the years 1948-1949, the Regional Court in Łomża indicted 22 inhabitants of Jedwabne. 11 people were given prison sentences of between 8 and 15 years and one accused was given capital punishment, which was later changed into a 15-year prison sentence.

In the years 2000-2002, the Institute of National Remembrance conducted an investigation of the Jedwabne crime. On 10 July 2001, a monument commemorating the victims of the Jedwabne pogrom was unveiled.

The text was written on the basis of the article Wokół Jedwabnego by Prof. Maweł Machcewicz, which appeared in the book Wokół Jedwabnego, vol. 1: Research, ed. P. Machcewicz, K. Persak, Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Warsaw 2002. Full text of the article by Prof. Machcewicz can be found on the Virtual Shtetl website.