Jedwabne pogrom

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The Jedwabne pogrom was an atrocity committed on July 10, 1941 during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. Described as massacre or a pogrom by postwar historians, it resulted in the death of at least 340 Polish Jews of all ages, locked in a barn set on fire by a group of Polish males who were summoned in Jedwabne by the German gendarmerie. These are the official findings of the Institute of National Remembrance, "confirmed by the number of victims in the two graves, according to the estimate of the archeological and anthropological team participating in the exhumation," wrote prosecutor Radosław J. Ignatiew, who headed an investigation in 2000–2003 ordered by the Polish government.

In 1949 the Communist People's Republic of Poland launched a treason and murder trial which was later condemned as a miscarriage of justice because suspects had been tortured during interrogation. After a fresh investigation, concluded in 2003, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance stated that the pogrom was committed by Polish inhabitants of the town, with the complicity of the German Ordnungspolizei. The involvement of German paramilitary forces of the SS and Gestapo remains the subject of debate, especially the role of the Einsatzgruppe Zichenau-Schroettersburg. According to some later commentators, many people were shocked by the findings, which contrast with the rescue of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust.


The Jewish community in Jedwabne was established in the 18th century. According to the Polish census of 1921, the town had a Jewish community consisting of 757 people, or 61.9 percent of its total population, following Poland's return to independence. It was a typical shtetl, a small town with a very significant Jewish community, one of many such towns in prewar Poland.

The start of World War II in Europe began with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. Likewise, on September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The area of Jedwabne was originally occupied by the Germans, who crushed the resistance offered by local Polish cadets. Jedwabne was then transferred to the Soviets in accordance with the German–Soviet Boundary Treaty of September 28, 1939. As soon as the Soviets entered Jedwabne, the local Polish government was dismantled. At first, many Polish Jews were relieved to learn that the Soviets, rather than the Nazis, were to occupy their town, and unlike gentile Poles, publicly welcomed the Red Army as their protectors. Some people from other ethnic groups in Kresy, particularly Belarusians, also openly welcomed the Soviets. Administrative jobs were offered to Jews who declared Soviet allegiance. Some Jews joined a Soviet militia overseeing deportations of ethnic Poles organized by the NKVD. At least one witness testimony says that during round-ups, armed Jewish militiamen were seen to be guarding those being prepared for deportation to Siberia. A total of 22,353 Poles (entire families) were deported from the vicinity. Red Army troops requisitioned food and other goods, undercutting nearly everyone's material needs. The Soviet secret police accompanying the Red Army routinely arrested and deported Polish citizens, both gentile and Jewish, and spread terror throughout the region. Waves of arrests, expulsions and prison executions continued until June 20–21, 1941.

Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, German forces quickly overran the parts of Poland that had been occupied by the Soviets since 1939. The small town of Wizna near Jedwabne saw several dozen Jewish men shot by the invading Germans under Hauptsturmführer Hermann Schaper, as did other neighboring towns. The Nazis distributed propaganda in the area, revealing crimes committed by the Soviets in Eastern Poland and saying that Jews might have supported them. In parallel, the SS organized special Einsatzgruppen ("task forces") to murder Jews in these areas, and a few massacres were carried out. The guidelines for such massacres were formulated by Reinhard Heydrich, who ordered his officers to induce anti-Jewish incidents in the territories newly occupied by the German forces. Local communities were encouraged to commit anti-Jewish pogroms and robberies with total impunity.


On the morning of July 10, 1941, by the order of mayor Marian Karolak and the town's German gendarmerie, a group of Polish men from around Jedwabne and neighboring settlements was assembled. They then rounded up the local Jews as well as those seeking refuge from nearby towns and villages such as Wizna and Kolno. The Jews were taken to the square in the centre of Jedwabne, where they were ordered to pluck grass, attacked and beaten. A group of Jewish men were forced by the Nazis to demolish a statue of Lenin that had been put up earlier by the Soviets (as in Kolno), and then carry it out of town while singing Soviet songs. The local rabbi was forced to lead this procession of about 40 people. The group was taken to a barn, killed and buried, along with fragments of the monument. Later that day, most of the remaining Jews, estimated at around 250 to 300 (IPN final findings), including many women and children, were led to the same barn, locked inside and burned alive using kerosene from the former Soviet supplies (or German gasoline, by different accounts) in the presence of eight German gendarmes, who shot those who tried to escape. The remains of both groups were buried in two mass graves in the barn. Exhumations led to the discovery not only of the charred bodies of the victims in two mass graves, but also of the bust of Lenin (previously assumed to have been buried at a Jewish cemetery) as well as bullets that, according to a statement by Leon Kieres, the chief of the IPN, in 2000, could have been fired in 1941 Walther P38 type pistols.

German photographers, seen by many witnesses, photographed the pogrom. Some sources claim that a movie made by the Germans during the massacre was shown in cinemas in Warsaw to document the alleged spontaneous hatred of local people towards the Jews. No trace of such a movie has been found.

1949–1950 trials

After the war, in 1949 and 1950, the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland arrested and interrogated a number of suspects from or around the town of Jedwabne, accused them of collaboration with the Nazis in committing the pogrom, and put them on trial. Of 22 defendants, 12 were convicted of treason against Poland and one person was condemned to death.

Records show that the use of extreme physical torture during pre-trial interrogations conducted by the Security Office (UB) resulted in some individuals admitting to made-up crimes, which they later renounced before the courts. Among those who retracted their earlier statements given during prolonged beatings by the security service were Józef Chrzanowski, Marian Żyluk, Czesław Laudański, Wincenty Gościcki, Roman and Jan Zawadzki, Aleksander and Franciszek Łojewski, Eugeniusz Śliwecki, Stanisław Sielawa and several other local men pronounced innocent and released by the courts without recompense. Out of 22 indicted for the crime at the time, almost half were wrongfully accused.

The unlawful interrogation methods were confirmed by the Minister of Public Security Stanisław Radkiewicz, who admitted in an internal memo that the "fixing" of the investigation included beatings, the complete omission of circumstances and evidence, and the rephrasing of testimonies to aid prosecution in a way that did not reflect reality. None of the Polish people who rescued Jews in Jedwabne were contacted, and no attempts were made to establish the names of the victims. There was no police search for the mayor, Marian Karolak, who had vanished, and no effort to name the German units present at the time. However, the courts confirmed that the defendants' participation had been prompted by threats and acts of physical violence by the German police.

German investigation of 1960–1965

Upon the outbreak of war between Germany and the USSR, Reinhard Heydrich ordered his security forces to "cleanse" the border areas of Jews, which led to formation of additional Einsatzkommandos. He instructed Nebe to organize pogroms (i.e. "self-cleansing") in the Bezirk Bialystok district, inspired by the warm welcome received from the Poles when they chased out the Soviet forces along with their NKVD collaborators. Nebe oriented his commanders including Birkner on their new duty on July 2 and 3, but cautioned that the SS should leave "no trace" of its involvement in the pogroms.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Wolfgang Birkner was investigated by prosecutors in West Germany in 1960 on suspicion of involvement in the massacres of Jews in Jedwabne, Radziłów, and Wąsosz in 1941. The charges were based on research by Szymon Datner, head of the Białystok branch of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CŻKH). The German prosecutors found no hard evidence implicating Birkner, but in the course of their investigation they discovered a new German witness, the former SS Kreiskommissar of Łomża, who named the Gestapo paramilitary Einsatzgruppe Bunder SS-Obersturmführer Hermann Schaper as having been deployed in the area at the time of the pogroms. The methods used by Schaper's death squad in the Radziłów massacre were identical to those employed in Jedwabne only three days later, suggesting their specific involvement in that pogrom also.

"The evidence collected by the West Germans, including the positive identification of Schaper by witnesses from Łomża, Tykocin, and Radziłów, suggested that it was indeed Schaper's men who carried out the killings in those locations. Investigators also suspected, based on the similarity of the methods used to destroy the Jewish communities of Radziłów, Tykocin, Rutki, Zambrów, Jedwabne, Piątnica and Wizna between July and September 1941 that Schaper's men were the perpetrators." — Alexander B. Rossino

During the subsequent German investigation at Ludwigsburg in 1964, Hermann Schaper lied to interrogators, claiming that in 1941 he had been a truck driver. Legal proceedings against the accused were terminated on September 2, 1965, but Schaper's case was reopened in 1974. During the second investigation, Count van der Groeben testified that it was indeed Schaper who conducted mass executions of Jews in his district. In 1976 a German court in Giessen (Hessen), pronounced Schaper guilty of executions of Poles and Jews by the kommando SS Zichenau-Schröttersburg. Schaper was sentenced to six years imprisonment, but was soon released for medical reasons. According to German federal prosecutors, the documentation of his investigation is no longer available and has most likely been destroyed.

Official IPN investigation, 2000–2003

The Polish Parliament ordered a brand new investigation into the Jedwabne atrocity in July 2000, and entrusted the Institute of National Remembrance with transmitting its findings for possible legal action. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN), was then a recently created independent successor to the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, formed only after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Its major role was the promotion of historical research on topics banned for over 40 years, during the period of Communist rule (1945–1989), including anti-Semitic pogroms in Soviet-occupied Poland. As its first project, the IPN commenced an investigation of the Jedwabne pogrom in response to a heated debate among leading historians, which followed the publication of Sąsiedzi (Neighbors) by the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross first in the Polish language. His book gave impetus to the investigation, even though the first scholarly analysis reaching similar conclusions has already been published as far back as December 1966 by Szymon Datner in the Białystok bulletin of the ŻIH (No 60), followed by a brief inquiry, aided by German authorities, in 1976.


Over the course of two years, investigators from the IPN interviewed some 111 witnesses, mainly from Poland, but also from Israel and the United States. One-third of the IPN witnesses had been eyewitnesses of some part of the Jedwabne pogrom. Since the event had occurred 59 years earlier, when most of the survivors still living today were children, their recollections varied. IPN also searched for and examined documents in Polish archives in Warsaw, Białystok and Łomża, in German archives, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.

In May–June 2001 IPN conducted a partial exhumation at the site of the barn where the largest group of Jewish victims perished. The scope of the exhumation was strictly limited by religious objections against disturbing the remains of the dead, embodied in Jewish religious doctrine. Based on a similar exhumation at Katyn, where Stalin’s forces murdered 22,000 Polish prisoners of war in 1940, the IPN's forensic examiner estimated that the burial site in Jedwabne contained the remains of between 300 and 400 victims.

Leon Kieres, the President of IPN, also met in New York with Rabbi Jacob Baker, formerly Yaakov Eliezer Piekarz, who had emigrated in 1938 from Jedwabne to the United States. In January 2001, during his visit to New York, Kieres made public that IPN had accumulated enough evidence to confirm that a group of Poles were indeed perpetrators in the Jedwabne massacre. The IPN's evidence was subsequently presented in reports by IPN to the Polish Parliament and in various other public statements. While the IPN's investigation continued for two more years, as of early 2001 the finding of Polish involvement in the Jedwabne massacre was public knowledge in Poland.

IPN's Final Findings, 2002–2003

On July 9, 2002, IPN released the final findings of its two-year-long investigation. In a carefully worded summary (quoted by Polonsky), IPN stated its principal conclusions as follows:

  • The perpetrators of the crime sensu stricto were Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its environs; responsibility for the crime sensu largo could be ascribed to the Germans. IPN found that Poles played a "decisive role" in the massacre, but the massacre was "inspired by the Germans". The massacre was carried out in full view of the Germans, who were armed and had control of the town, and the Germans refused to intervene and halt the killings. IPN wrote: “The presence of German military policemen.....and other uniformed Germans.....was tantamount to consent to, and tolerance of, the crime.”
  • At least 340 Jewish victims were killed in the pogrom, in two groups of which the first contained 40 to 50 people, and the second contained about 300. The exact number of victims could not be determined. The figure of 1,600 or so victims cited in Neighbors was “highly unlikely, and was not confirmed in the course of the investigation.”
  • “At least forty (Polish) men” were perpetrators of the crime. As for the remainder of Jedwabne’s population, IPN deplored “the passive behavior of the majority of the town’s population in the face of the crime.” However, IPN’s finding of "utter passivity" shown by the majority of Jedwabne’s population is very different from the statement on page 7 of ‘Neighbors’ that “half of the population of the town murdered the other half.” The majority of Jedwabne residents were “utterly passive,” IPN found, and they did not participate in the pogrom.
  • A number of witnesses had testified that the Germans drove the group of Jewish victims from Jedwabne’s town square to the barn where they were killed (these testimonies are found in the expanded 203-page ‘Findings’ published in June 2003). IPN could neither conclusively prove nor disprove these accounts. “Witness testimonies vary considerably on this question.”
  • “A certain group of Jewish people survived” the massacre. Several dozen Jews, or according to several sources approximately one hundred Jews, lived in a ghetto in Jedwabne until November 1942, when the Jews were transferred by the Germans to a ghetto in Lomza, and eventually died in Treblinka. The seven Jews hidden by the Wyrzykowski family were not the only survivors.

A greatly expanded version of the findings, in 203 pages of Polish text, was issued by the IPN on June 30, 2003. The original version from July 9, 2002, appears as the concluding five pages of this document. Pages 60 through 160 contain summaries of the testimonies of numerous witnesses interviewed by IPN. The full 203-page Polish text detailing government-led investigation was published on the IPN website. It was supplemented with the publication of two volumes of studies and documents concerning the Jedwabne pogrom entitled Wokół Jedwabnego, Vol.1 'Studies' (525 pages) and Vol.2 'Documents' (1,034 pages) available in Polish.

On June 30, 2003, prosecutor Radosław J. Ignatiew announced that the investigation of "the mass murder of at least 340 Polish citizens of Jewish nationality in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941" had discovered no living suspected perpetrators in the Jedwabne atrocity who had not already been brought to justice, and hence the IPN investigation was now closed. Jan T. Gross himself praised the conduct of the IPN investigation.


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    Name Born / Since / At Died Languages
    1Reinhard HeydrichReinhard Heydrich07.03.190404.06.1942de, ee, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru, ua