Jedwabne, or Yedwabne, is situated in the Mazowsze region of Poland, twenty kilometers northeast of the city of Łoṁza. When it received its town charter in 1736, Jedwabne had already been settled for at least three hundred years. Jews had come to Jedwabne from Tykocin and were initially subject to the Tykocin Jewish communal authority. In 1770, when a beautiful wooden synagogue was built in Jedwabne, 387 Jews lived there, out of a total population of 450. In 1913 the synagogue burned down, and in 1916 most of the town was consumed by fire. At the end of World War I, as a result of devastation and the Russian Jewish resettlement policy, the town's population shrank to about 700. The 1931 census figures from Jedwabne (which had a total population of 2,167) do not make it possible to calculate accurately how many Jews lived there on the eve of the Second World War. Low estimates put the number at about 1,000, but according to Jewish sources close to 1,500 Jews resided in Jedwabne at the time. On the eve of World War II, the town's total population reached its all-time peak, approximating 3,000.
Jedwabne Jews made a modest living in the interwar period as craftsmen and merchants and the town was known for its shoemakers. The last rabbi of Jedwabne, Avigdor Bialostocki, was well respected by Jews and non-Jews alike. Even though the Łoṁza area and the local clergy were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the right-wing National Democratic Party and aggressively anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish episodes in Jedwabne were limited to the usual boycotts of Jewish businesses and the spreading of nationalistic propaganda. No pogroms were recorded in the interwar period.
During World War II Jedwabne was initially under Soviet rule and lay a dozen kilometers from the demarcation line separating the Soviet and the German occupation zones. As a result, the town was overrun by German troops immediately after the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
In June 1941, the first assaults occurred against local communist sympathizers, including Jews. Soon this entire area, known as Podlasie, was engulfed in anti-Jewish violence, in which the local Polish population, alongside German Einsatzgruppen (special detachments), took part. In some two dozen villages and small towns, Poles assaulted and killed scores of their local Jewish neighbors.
The mass murder of the Jedwabne Jews on 10 July 1941, however, stands out for its scope and brutality. The total number of victims is difficult to establish with exactitude. Witnesses and the accused at the trial of twenty-two perpetrators held in Łoṁza in 1949 spoke of 1,500 murdered on that day. An investigation by the Institute of National Memory carried out in Poland in 2000–2002 concluded that "at least 340" people were killed. All sources are in agreement that the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne (with the exception of 100–150 people who managed to escape), together with scores of Jews from surrounding towns who had sought refuge in Jedwabne over the preceding days, were murdered. They were axed, drowned, stoned, knifed, and finally burned to death in a large barn—by their Polish neighbors.
A small detachment of the German gendarmerie that was in town, and a mobile SS or Gestapo unit that may have passed through town earlier in the day, encouraged local Poles to proceed with the killing. But the actual murder was carried out by the inhabitants. The town's Polish self-styled mayor and other municipal authorities coordinated the action.
Even though the local population knew all the details of the mass murder and, as journalists were to find out, spoke about it freely, Polish historiography and a monument put up in the town in the 1980s to commemorate the event attributed the massacre to German occupiers. Only after the Polish publication in May 2000 of the book Neighbors, in which the 10 July 1941 killing in Jedwabne was reconstructed in detail, was the general public in Poland made aware of the truth about the murder. A few months after the publication of Neighbors, an all-encompassing discussion erupted in the Polish mass media. Countless press and magazine articles, as well as radio and television programs, discussed the issue and its implications for Poles' understanding of their collective wartime heritage. Many among the general public, as well as intellectuals, and politicians on the liberal end of the spectrum, recognized that a nonnegligible portion of Polish society (though as a whole severely victimized by the Nazis) was also complicitous in the persecution of Jews during the war. The Institute of National Memory in Warsaw conducted a thorough investigation of the matter and published a fifteen-hundred-page dossier fully documenting the circumstances of the crime.
On the sixtieth anniversary of the murder, on 10 July 2001, a new monument truthfully commemorating the deed was unveiled in Jedwabne. During a solemn nationally televised ceremony, the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, offered an apology before the assembled mourners, who included numerous descendants of the Jedwabne Jews invited by the Polish government for the occasion from all over the world.
Baker, Julius L., and Jacob L. Baker, eds. Yedwabne History and Memorial Book. Jerusalem, 1980.
Gross, Jan T. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, N.J., 2001.
Machcewicz, Pewal, and Krzysztof Persak, eds. Wokól Jedwabnego. 2 vols. Warsaw, 2002.
Polonsky, Antony, and Joanna B. Michlic, eds. The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. Princeton, N.J., 2004.
Jan T. Gross