"U genezy Jedwabnego" Andrzej Żbikowski

Kwiaty leżą pod pomnikiem ofiar pogromu w Jedwabnem. Wokół muru zgromadzeni są ludzie.
Uroczystości rocznicowe przy pomniku w Jedwabnem, fot. K. Bielawski

When it comes to the question of whether German documentation enables us to explain the reasons for the outburst of aggression of the non-Jewish community towards Jews in the summer of 1941, that is throughout the first weeks of the German-Soviet war, the answer is negative, since after analysing these sources, I am convinced that the German inspiration played only a secondary role.

Anti-Jewish pogroms were not the result of a German intrigue, although the presence of German soldiers and policemen greatly contributed to the escalation of the conflict. Decision-makers from the RSHA and the SS were right in their predictions that the wave of hostility towards Jews would spread widely across the former Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian territories, and they knew how to exploit this situation. They found such state of affairs convenient as it pushed social attitudes into a proper direction and made it easier to reach the main goal, that is to pacify the occupied territory using relatively little force. This way, the previous assumptions and prognostics were confirmed. If the local population expressed such hostility towards Jews, it had to mean that Jews really had been – as the Führer claimed – the footing of the Soviet rule.

This way, local pogroms became an important element of the rapidly developing spiral of extermination aimed at completely annihilating the Jewish population. When it comes to the first weeks of German occupation, I would describe them as chaotic terrorism. German squads of the Security Police (Einsatztruppen) were roaming from town to town and murdering dozens of Jewish men, who usually had been denounced by their Christian neighbours. A few non-Jewish supporters of Soviet authorities were also killed. The executions intensified around 8 July, when policemen from the three Auxiliary Police battalions operating in this area joined the firing squads. But the turning point came at the end of July, when Waffen-SS brigades were deployed to carry out pacification actions, and once the police forces started to be supervised by higher regional commanders of SS and of the police. From that moment, Germans started to commit murders on a large scale; women and children were also killed. From late autumn of 1941, they started to exterminate entire Jewish communities.

German documents do not give an answer as to why the local Christian population almost always seized the opportunity provided by the Germans to plunder and kill their Jewish neighbours. They only mention that the entering of German troops was accompanied by a “joyful atmosphere,” and that the approach towards the new occupant ranged from conspicuous joy in Lithuania and in the lands inhabited by Ukrainians, to a “friendly-neutral” attitude displayed by Poles. Nonetheless, at that time, all local communities were undergoing reorganisation, and the main role in this process was played by activists who were members of the local Order Police. Actually, up until the end of July, they were the ones who were in charge, since temporary military authorities who were supposed to be responsible for the safety of the occupied territories proved to be inept; in fact, they operated only in larger towns. The Order Police started to be supervised only after 25 July, when Himmler issued an order regarding the creation of Auxiliary Police.

I am reconstructing the course of events during the pogroms in the north-eastern Kresy region in the summer of 1941 on the basis of Jewish accounts and statements made after the war, during investigations and trials of Polish inhabitants of the Mazowsze and Podlasie regions who were accused of taking part in anti-Jewish pogroms. Unfortunately, similar documents regarding the participants of pogroms in more distant areas of Kresy which, after WWII, remained within the borders of either Lithuanian or Byelorussian SSR, are not available to us. I consciously embrace the bold postulate formulated by Jan Tomasz Gross, according to which the accounts of Jewish survivors should be trusted upfront and their vision of the events should be confronted with other sources in good faith. Practically all of those accounts were written for internal purposes of communities which had survived the Holocaust – until the very recent years, they had not been used by any investigative bodies – and their incorrect assessment of the events, inaccuracies, or even contradictions resulted from the imperfections of the human memory and not from the attempts of tampering with the past.

Jewish accounts convey what is probably the most essential information about the events I am describing. The transformation of the concealed reluctance towards Jews – which had deep historical roots and which had exacerbated during the Soviet occupation – into a wave of pogroms would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the atmosphere incited by the presence of the victorious German military, or police units, in towns in the Podlasie and Kresy regions, even if they stayed there only for a short time. The brutal and ruthless Germans were the ones who suggested an easy target, allowing them to release the aggression that they have been suppressing for two years. In the first month, local communities were reorganising themselves: they were busy appointing new authorities, forming civilian police units and settling a score with the supporters of the Soviet regime. But first and foremost, they were erecting barriers dividing Christian societies from the Jewish population. Depending on local conditions and on whether the Germans gave their consent, during the first stage of this process, an anti-Jewish pogrom would take place. Its participants were always motivated by the expected financial benefits and by the chance to plunder Jewish property. Sometimes, ideological motifs also played a role: people murdered and looted as an act of revenge on Soviet collaborators, but that happened only if the pogrom mob was headed by members of families who were actually mistreated by the Soviets: former prisoners, underground activists or those who managed to escape from the last deportation transports prepared by the Soviets. German soldiers and policemen would observe the riots with approval, eager to take photographs. Indeed, on more than one occasion, they probably even encouraged them, for example by arranging a tear down of Soviet monuments or by participating in the destruction of synagogues and in the profanation of Jewish liturgical books. Only in a few places, perhaps because matters got out of hand, they put an end to the attacks and shot the most active participants to death.

This German presence, which indeed had an impact on the extent of the pogroms, was visible in two moments. The first was the passing of the front, usually followed by a very short stay of German soldiers (or, less often, of policemen) in a given town. At that time, the aggression towards local Jews was still quite restrained; in most cases, there were only single attacks, carried out in secret. Moreover, the victims of those attacks were usually actual collaborators.

The real wave of pogroms started between 3 and 5 July 3 and lasted for about two weeks. The first actual police pacification of the Mazowsze and Podlasie provinces was the spark which ignited subsequent events. A few small units of the Security Police sent out from Warsaw, Ciechanów and Suwałki were moving from town to town – permanent posts of military police were established only in a small number of towns. Their main objective was to search for hiding officials or active supporters of the Soviet authorities. In addition, they vetted or appointed temporary local authorities. Very often, a hunt for Soviet collaborators would turn into a massive anti-Jewish pogrom. It did not always take place while the Germans were still in town. Sometimes — just like in Wąsosz — a certain amount of time had passed before “volunteers” could organise themselves. Riots were usually chaotic; only in Radziłów, Jedwabne and to a certain extent in Grajewo, the Christian community was capable of organising itself with the aim of murdering Jews. The result of such an organisation was murder on an unimaginable scale. In two former localities, almost all local Jews were burned in barns and in Grajewo, practically all Jewish people were held in custody, tortured and then taken over by German policemen, who murdered them outside of the town. In Tykocin, Poles themselves established a closed ghetto for Jews, where they were held and then handed over to the German police and murdered.

Unfortunately, these accounts have their weaknesses and I did not manage to find answers to all questions. Their authors often confuse the chronology of the events in question and are unable to precisely describe German formations entering their localities. This is why I am not sure whether the wave of pogroms spread in such relatively large territory because of the pattern of pogroms permeating the area or because of the similarity of the predicament of Jews in localities of various sizes. I do not even know for certain whether the murderers from Jedwabne were not simply following in the footsteps of their neighbours from Radziłów. When it comes to the way pogroms were organised, the one in Radziłów constituted a turning point. The locals did not accept the “proposition” of the experienced murderers from Wąsosz, who two days earlier had killed their Jews with hatchets and pitchforks. They were not let into the town. I could not determine with certainty whether they came up with the idea of how to get rid of their neighbours by themselves or whether it was hinted to them by German soldiers who stayed in the town for several hours. Neither do I know the extent to which the organised genocide in Radziłów and Jedwabne quenched the murderous thirst of the inhabitants of Podlasie, northern Mazowsze, and distant Kresy. There were pogroms taking place over the subsequent week – for example in Szczuczyn on 13 July, Różana on 14 July, or Mira on 19 July – but they were not as bloody as before. I am not able to determine whether the inhabitants of those localities had been reached by the news of the former massacres.

Andrzej Żbikowski, U genezy JedwabnegoŻydzi na Kresach Północno-Wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej, wrzesień 1939 – lipiec 1941, Warszawa 2006, pp. 238-241.