Online Module: The Holocaust and Fundamental Rights

Part I / Doc. 1: Poland - the massacre of Jedwabne

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On July 10, 1941 about 90 Polish inhabitants murdered presumably 400 of their Jewish neighbours in Jedwabne in eastern Poland by burning them alive in a barn. A memorial to the victims was set up there 60 years after the massacre.



Poland was the first country to be attacked by Nazi-Germany on 1 September 1939, and by the Soviet Union on 17 September 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939. Approximately 20 % of its prewar population or roughly 6 Million people incl. 3 Million Jews were murdered during WW II.This experience deepened the national trauma of foreign domination. The country had been already divided by Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 18th century and only regained national sovereignty after more than 100 years following WW I. Several uprisings of Poles had been suppressed brutally throughout the 19th century. In 1920 Polish troops miraculously defeated the advancing Soviet forces near the Vistula river thus preventing Soviet westward expansion into central Europe. Following this victory Poland also gained parts of today’s Lithuania (Vilna territory) and Byelorussia. Until 1939 the country had a very heterogeneous population which consisted of Christian and Jewish Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Germans and other minorities. Following the Potsdam conference in 1945 Poland’s borders were pushed westward and Poland lost large parts of its prewar territory to the Soviet Union in order to be compensated in the West with former German territory. Due to these traumatic events Poland is considered as the „christ of nations“ who suffered for the other European states.

Jedwabne is a small town in the Northeast of Poland, approximately 60 kilometers away from Białystok. Jews settled here since the end of the 18th century. In the 1930s the Jewish community consisted of approximately 1,200 members out of a total population of 2,100. In September 1939 the Red Army occupied the East of Poland including Jedwabne. For Jedwabne's inhabitants the Soviet occupation meant persecution, expropriation and deportation to Siberia.

When Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Jedwabne very soon fell under German occupation. The non-Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne started accusing their Jewish neighbors of collaboration with the previous Soviet occupational authorities. On the morning of 10 July 1941 about 90 non-Jewish men from Jedwabne and its surroundings chased the town's Jewish inhabitants to the market square. Many non-locals hoped to loot Jewish property and had come to Jedwabne for this very reason. It is still not entirely clear which role German occupational forces played in this massacre as a commando of Gestapo/policemen seems to have arrived in Jedwabne that day. They might have instigated the non-Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne to start the pogrom as Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Security Police, had explicitly ordered his units to incite and condone „self cleansing activities“ by local non-Jewish populations i.e. pogroms. It seems to be certain however that the Polish population started the pogrom without coercion by the German occupying forces. Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne tortured and beat the Jews for hours in the market place. Many Jewish men were slain. The perpetrators drove the survivors into a barn. There they caged the approximately 300 to 400 Jewish men, women and children and set fire to the building, burning them alive. The surviving Jews later had to resettle in a ghetto.


The number of victims in Jedwabne is disputed. The number of the town's Jewish inhabitants is uncertain as well, because of the absence of records from immediate pre-war times and due to the fact that, from September 1939 onwards, refugees repeatedly entered Jedwabne or went further East. The estimated number of victims ranges from 300 to 1,000. During a non-complete exhumation in 2002 the remains of 300 to 400 victims could be recovered i.e. at least 300 people were murdered.


In post-war Poland there was a number of trials concerning the Jedwabne pogrom. Some of the perpetrators have been sentenced to imprisonment. More than 60 trials took place in the Białystok region, where similar pogroms took place in roughly thirty locations. However, the dealings with these pogroms were soon aborted. In the communist People's Republic of Poland collaboration with the German occupying forces and the murder of Jews by Polish perpetrators was considered a taboo. Only with the publication of the book “Neighbors” in 2000 by the Polish-American historian Tomasz Gross the Jedwabne pogrom gained some public awareness, followed by a heated discussion about the country's historical self-perception. In 2001 the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) was charged with the investigation of the history of the Jedwabne massacre. On the pogrom's sixtieth year-day, on 10 July 2001, a memorial was set up in Jedwabne. During the inauguration ceremony the Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologized to the victims. In 2002 a forensic investigation took place in Jedwabne where remains of the victims were recovered. The same year the IPN's final report concerning the Jedwabne massacre was published. It confirmed that in 1941 Poles murdered the Jews of Jedwabne in the barn. Moreover the IPN provided evidence for a large number of similar incidents in the area. The memorial in Jedwabne has repeatedly been vandalised and is rejected by many local inhabitants to date.


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