Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

Copyright Date: 2001
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town's Jews.Neighborstells their story.

    This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

    Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne's Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne's surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

    Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne's Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered,Neighborstells us why.

    In many ways, this is a simple book. It is easy to read in a single sitting, and hard not to. But its simplicity is deceptive. Gross's new and persuasive answers to vexed questions rewrite the history of twentieth-century Poland. This book proves, finally, that the fates of Poles and Jews during World War II can be comprehended only together.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4325-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-13)

    Twentieth-century Europe has been shaped decisively by the actions of two men. It is to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that we owe totalitarianism—if not its invention, then certainly its most determined implementation. The loss of life for which they are jointly responsible is truly staggering. Yet it is not what happened but what has been prevented from ever taking place that gives a truer measure of totalitarianism’s destructiveness: “the sum of unwritten books,” as one author put it. In fact, the sum of thoughts unthought, of unfelt feelings, of works never accomplished, of lives unlived to their natural...

    (pp. 14-22)

    On January 8, 1949, in the small town of Jedwabne, some nineteen kilometers from Łomża in Poland’s historical province of Mazowsze, security police detained fifteen men. We find their names in a memorandum ominously calledRaport likwidacyjny(A liquidation report) among the so-called control-investigative files (akta kontrolno-śledcze) kept by the security police to monitor their own progress in each investigation.¹ Among the arrested, mostly small farmers and seasonal workers, there were two shoemakers, a mason, a carpenter, two locksmiths, a letter carrier, and a former town-hall receptionist. Some were family men (one a father of six children, another of four),...

    (pp. 23-32)

    The best sources for a historian are those that provide a contemporaneous account of the events under scrutiny. My first step, therefore, was to seek German documentation of the destruction of Jews in this territory. Such documentation may exist somewhere, but I was not able to find it. Various scholars of the period whom I queried were unfamiliar with the place-name Jedwabne. In the daily summary reports of theEinsatzgruppen’s activities from the Eastern Front, where such information would have been included, Jedwabne is not mentioned. This is not surprising, sinceEinsatzgruppeB, which would earlier have been active in...

    (pp. 33-40)

    Jedwabne is situated at the intersection of two river valleys. The Narew and Biebrza Rivers overflow each spring, and the area is famous for picturesque swamps with untold varieties of waterfowl and lush vegetation. In 1979 the largest national park in Poland was established in the area.¹ But the town itself, irrespective of its beautiful surroundings, is ugly.

    From time immemorial wood and straw have been the cheapest and most readily available construction materials in this part of the country, and fires have therefore plagued local inhabitants. The most devastating in people’s memory consumed almost three-quarters of the town in...

  8. SOVIET OCCUPATION, 1939–1941
    (pp. 41-53)

    On August 23, 1939, the German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression was signed in Moscow by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov—respectively foreign ministers of the Third Reich and the USSR. It has passed into history books under the name “Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact,” even though in essence it was an agreement between Hitler and Stalin. The pact opened the way for Hitler to begin the Second World War. He could now launch a military invasion of Poland without the risk of having a “second front” opened against him in the east, by the Soviet Union.

    In the secret protocol attached to the...

    (pp. 54-71)

    What was going on in Jedwabne during the roughly two weeks between the outbreak of the Russo-German war on June 22, 1941, and the massacre of Jews on July 10, we cannot tell exactly. The main source of information on this period remains Wasersztajn’s deposition, along with a few remarks dropped by other witnesses. Some people were killed, but the principal threats Jews faced at the time were beatings, confiscation of material property, and humiliations—men caught in the street could be ordered to clean outhouses with their bare hands, for example.¹

    Twenty months of Soviet occupation of this area,...

    (pp. 72-78)

    In the meantime Jedwabne’s municipal authorities were constituting themselves. Marian Karolak became the mayor, and among his closest collaborators we can identify a certain Wasilewski and Józef Sobuta.¹ What municipal authorities were doing during those days, again, we cannot tell precisely, beyond recognizing that they consulted with the Germans and eventually carried out the mass murder of Jedwabne Jews.

    Local people knew what was coming ahead of time (just as they had known in Radziłów). Both Dvojra Pecynowicz, Nieławicki’s cousin, and Mietek Olszewicz (one of the seven Jews mentioned in Wasersztajn’s testimony, who were later hidden by the Wyrzykowski family)...

    (pp. 79-89)

    Edward Śleszyński: “In the barn of my father, Bronisław Śleszyński, a lot of Jews were burned. I didn’t see it with my own eyes since I was in the bakery on that day, but I know from people who lived in Jedwabne at the time that Poles carried out this deed. Germans participated only in photographing.”¹ Bolesław Ramotowski: “I want to stress that Germans did not participate in the murder of Jews; they just stood and took pictures of how Poles mistreated the Jews.”² Mieczysław Gerwad: “Jews were being murdered by the Polish population.”³

    Julia Sokołowska worked at the time...

    (pp. 90-104)

    It all began, as we remember, with the convocation on the morning of July 10th of all adult Polish males to Jedwabne’s town hall. But rumors about the planned assault on the Jews must have been circulating earlier. Otherwise, carts full of people from nearby hamlets would not have been converging on the town on this day since early dawn. I suspect that some of these people were veterans of murderous pogroms that had recently been carried out in the vicinity. It was typical, when a “wave of pogroms” swept over some area, that in addition to local participants unique...

    (pp. 105-110)

    One big subject is omitted from the sources and testimonies at our disposal. What happened to the property of the Jedwabne Jews? Those Jews who survived the war knew that they had lost everything. As to who took over the property, or how it was disposed of, this is not a subject they address in their memorial book. During interrogations in the 1949 and 1953 trials, neither the witnesses nor the accused were asked questions about this either. So we are left with but a few bits and pieces of information.

    According to Eliasz Grądowski the following people grabbed Jewish...

    (pp. 111-121)

    In addition to protocols of interrogation of the witnesses and the accused we find, in the court files of Ramotowski and his associates, many other documents that were presented to the judicial authorities at different stages of the proceedings. I quoted earlier from the clemency petition filed by Karol Bardoń, for example. My initial assessment leading to the conclusion that these were a “bunch of ordinary men” was based largely on information culled from the first page of each protocol. But we can tell more about the accused than simply their ages, how many children they sired, and what they...

    (pp. 122-125)

    The massacre of Jedwabne Jews leaves a historian of modern Poland perplexed and groping for explanation. Nothing of the sort has been recorded or written about in scholarly literature. In a desperate effort to somehow domesticate these events, images from the distant past flood memory, giving the semblance (by virtue of familiarity) of making sense of what we have learned. Perhaps the mass murders in Radziłów and Jedwabne were an anachronism belonging to an entirely different epoch? One cannot shake the impression that by some evil magic peasant mobs stepped off the pages of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s national saga of seventeenth-century...

    (pp. 126-131)

    One of the premier authors of modern Hebrew literature, Aharon Appelfeld, returned in 1996 to his native village near Czernovitz, where he had spent the first eight and a half years of his life, untill June 1941. “What does a child of eight and a half remember? Almost nothing. But, miraculously, that ‘almost nothing’ has nourished me for years. Not a day passes when I’m not at home. In my adopted country of Israel, I have written thirty books that draw directly or indirectly upon the village of my childhood, whose name is found only on ordinance maps. That ‘almost...

    (pp. 132-137)

    Even though the Nazi-conceived project of the eradication of world Jewry will remain, at its core, a mystery, we know a lot about various mechanisms of the “final solution.” And one of the things we do know is that theEinsatzgruppen, German police detachments, and various functionaries who implemented the “final solution” did not compel the local population to participate directly in the murder of Jews. Bloody pogroms were tolerated, sometimes even invited, especially after the opening of the Russo-German war—a special directive was issued to this effect by the head of the Main Reich Security Office, Reinhardt Heydrich.¹...

    (pp. 138-142)

    The mass murder of Jedwabne Jews in the summer of 1941 opens up historiography of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War. Sedatives that were administered in connection with this subject by historians and journalists for over fifty years have to be put aside. It is simply not true that Jews were murdered in Poland during the war solely by the Germans, occasionally assisted in the execution of their gruesome task by some auxiliary police formations composed primarily of Latvians, Ukrainians, or some other “Kalmuks,” not to mention the proverbial “fall guys” whom everybody castigated because it was so easy...

    (pp. 143-151)

    War is a myth-creating experience in the life of every society. But in Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe it is continuously a source of vivid, only too often lethal, legitimization narratives. The memory, indeed the symbolism, of collective, national martyrology during the Second World War is paramount for the self-understanding of Polish society in the twentieth century.¹ Every town has its sacred sites commemorating victims of terror; every family its horror stories of executions, imprisonment, and deportation. How can we fit the unvarnished history of Polish-Jewish relations during the war into this picture? After all, Jedwabne—though perhaps one of...

    (pp. 152-163)

    And what about a classic wartime theme that, as we know, has no place in Polish historiography of the period—collaboration?¹ After all, when Hitler launched hisBlitzkriegagainst the USSR in June 1941, German soldiers were received by the local population of former Polish territories (which were incorporated in 1939 into the Soviet Union) as an army of liberators! The commander of the underground Polish Home Army (AK), General Grot-Rowecki, sent a dispatch to London on July 8, 1941, informing the Polish government in exile about the friendly reception of the German army throughout the so-calledKresy Wschodnie(i.e.,...

    (pp. 164-167)

    But time did not come to a halt in 1941. And if we recognize that the mechanism I have just described is psychologically and sociologically plausible, then we are led to an interesting hypothesis about the coming to power and establishment of Communist rule in Poland in the years 1945–1948. In light of what has been said here so far, I would venture a proposition that in the process of Communist takeover in Poland after the war, the natural allies of the Communist Party, on the local level, were people who had been compromised during the German occupation.


    (pp. 168-170)

    This so-called question of Polish-Jewish relations during the war is like a loose thread in the historiography of this period. If we grasp and pull it, the entire intricately woven tapestry comes undone. It seems to me that antisemitism polluted whole patches of twentieth-century Polish history and turned them into forbidden subjects, calling forth stylized interpretations whose role was to cover, like a fig leaf, what had really happened.

    But the history of a society can be conceived as a collective biography. And just as in a biography—which is also composed of discrete episodes—everything in the history of...

    (pp. 171-174)

    The Jedwabne issue broke into the mass media in Poland with the broadcasting of Agnieszka Arnold’s documentaryWhere Is My Older Brother Cain?, including a brief segment of conversation with Śleszyński’s daughter in April 2000, and brilliant investigative reporting by Andrzej Kaczyński for the daily newspaperRzeczpospolitain May. His first article, “Całopalenie,” devoted exclusively to the Jedwabne massacre of Jews, was published on the front page of this respected daily with nationwide circulation of several hundred thousand copies on May 5, 2000. The follow-up article appeared two weeks later, on May 19. On the same day the Polish-language edition...

  24. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 175-204)
  25. NOTES
    (pp. 205-248)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 249-261)