MYTH: The Polish residents of Jedwabne murdered the 1,600 Jews of the town.

MYTH: The Polish residents of Jedwabne murdered the 1,600 Jews of the town.

Photo with caption that falsely claims the picture depicts Poles outside a burning barn with Jews inside in Jedwabne, Poland. Photo is in fact of British soldiers burning structures at Bergen-Belsen camp upon liberation.

Jedwabne is a town in eastern Poland that became known worldwide due to a book titled “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” published in 2001.  In the book, the author, Jan Gross, claimed that 1,600 Jews were killed, with most burned inside a barn, in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 by Polish neighbors, three weeks after German invasion ended two years of  brutal Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland.  Naturally, all of Poland was stunned by the accusations.  Gross publicly claimed that he had reached his conclusions thanks to numerous eyewitness accounts he had found in the archives of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.   Incredulous Polish historians were not able to immediately check the information claimed by Gross, as they were not given access to the pertinent files.  

The Polish government, run by former Communists, in reaction to the accusations by Gross, hastily conducted a criminal investigation that was then prematurely closed.   This investigation was, for the most part, a review of a 1949 Communist court case, as well as a review of the investigation by the Communist secret police and prosecutor’s office that preceded this court case.  The findings of the incomplete investigation stated that an estimated 40 Poles had likely been inspired by the Germans to participate in the events in varying degree, and that all potentially guilty parties had either died or were sentenced by a court in Communist Poland after the war.  It was also made clear that the Germans bore responsibility for the crime.   The Polish President, a former Communist, then apologized for the involvement of Poles at the incident.

 Unlike the 1949 investigation, this new investigation included an exhumation of the bodies that was abruptly stopped due to religious concerns raised by an American Rabbi who was on scene to ensure the exhumation was conducted in accordance with religious sensitivities.  Other Rabbis have since claimed that the exhumation could have continued in accordance with Jewish religious law, which has lead to accusations that the Rabbi stopped the exhumation because he feared that it would undermine the narrative of the incident given by Gross.  Coincidentally, the exhumation was called off when German bullets were found amongst the bodies. Based on the initial forensic investigation, as well as demographic and documentary evidence, it was officially determined that the number of victims was no more than 400 victims, although on site investigators suggested a much lower number.  Either way, it was not 1,600 as Gross continues to claim in spite of the forensic evidence.    

After the release of the book by Gross, all of a sudden articles and reviews appeared around the world blaming the Poles for the murders of the Jews at Jedwabne and for the Holocaust, in general.  Plays and movies appeared that were based on the book by Gross.  A group of Polish researchers and journalists from former Communist circles began spreading the same narrative in symposiums and lectures on well organized tours all over Europe and the US, claiming they were coming to terms with, and exposing the alleged dark sides of World War II Polish history. Coincidentaly, a photo credited to the European Jewish Congress circulated in social media with the caption Poles watching barn burning in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 1941, into which they’d herded hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.  According to the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, however, the photo was from their collection, available for viewing online under BU 6675. It was taken by a Sergeant Hardy on May 21, 1945 and depicts the burning of structures at Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers.   

Polish and other historians immediately started to cast serious doubt on the research by Gross, with some eventually calling his work on Jedwabne fraudulent.   While the arguments these critics give are certainly compelling and deserving of consideration, they are thoroughly unknown in the United States or outside of Poland, leading to the misconception that the findings of Gross are indisputable. 

It was soon pointed out that the claims by Gross were based loosely on the abovementioned investigation that was conducted by the Communist Prosecutors office in 1949 during the height of Stalinism in Soviet occupied Poland, when independent minded non-Communist Polish citizens were being arrested en masse, and charged falsely in mock trials, sentenced to the gulag or prison, or even executed, simply because they were considered threats to the implementation of Soviet imposed Communism.   Communists were notorious at this time for forcing people to sign confessions, or statements implicating others, for crimes that never happened, or were not committed by those that confessed nor by those that were implicated by others.

The investigation by the prosecutor’s office in 1949 was prompted by a report after the war by an alleged eyewitness to the murders at Jedwabne who turned out to be an officer in the Communist Secret Police at the time, and a Soviet collaborator prior to the event at Jedwabne.   The Communist Secret Police then arrested and interviewed inhabitants of the town and obtained signatures to prepared statements describing different levels of involvement by Poles in the crime.   The statements, however, still clearly pointed to a strong and active German military presence in Jedwabne during the murders.   The statements also indicated that most of the Poles were forced at gunpoint to obey orders, such as gathering at, or accompanying others to, the town square, or to stand in certain locations, or walk in formation, mostly in the presence of German uniformed functionaries who also photographed or filmed the occurrences they were staging.  The statements also described abandonment by Poles of assigned tasks once the uniformed Germans, or the civilians helping them, had moved further away.  In interviews with the Prosecutors office, and then in court under oath, those interogated denied making incriminating statements to the Secret Police, claiming they were not allowed to read the statements they were forced to sign, with some claiming illiteracy.  In court, most cited torture against themselves and others by the Secret Police, which was believable considering the common practice at the time, and due to the visible wounds on those that testified in court.

Included in the court deliberations were accounts by several persons who alleged that they observed active or sole participation in the crime by Poles.  Three, however, never testified in court, two of them simply not appearing after having given false addresses. These eyewitnesses, interestingly, were found even by the Communist court not to be credible.   One was determined to have been in Soviet custody in the gulag when the murders occurred.   Another had already testified under oath in several civil court cases that the Germans had murdered the Jews of Jedwabne.   Still another claimed to have seen the events from a particular location from which it was proven impossible to see the events.  Another false witness was found to be in hiding away from the scene, as he had collaborated with the Soviets in the persecution of Poles in Jedwabne, and feared retribution.   Still another was found to have left Jedwabne substantially prior to the event, and returned to Jedwabne several years after the event, as a ranking Soviet Officer with the Red army, and also could not have been an eyewitness to the crime.  Nonetheless, the Communist court found twelve of the accused guilty of obeying German orders to briefly walk or stand by the victims, even though the court found that the defendants had been terrorized and forced to obey those orders by the large amount of heavily armed Germans who arrived in Jedwabne on the day of the murders.  The convictions were based solely on the Secret Police prepared statements contradicted under oath in court, and in spite of the allegations of torture in obtaining signatures to those prepared statements.

Historians found various issues with the findings of Gross.   First of all, Gross treats the statements signed under torture, and then contradicted under oath, as unquestionably true.  On the other hand, Gross simply dismissed, or ignored, all evidence of German culpability, present in the many testimonials, Polish and Jewish, not only from the trial, which described the intimidating uniformed German presence and the active German engagement in the crime.   Gross also supported his accusations of Polish culpability with the claim that German death squads, assigned to kill Jews, were not operating around Jedwabne at the time of the incident.  Gross himself relates that he believed this claim purely because he had asked a few German researchers if they were aware of any German death squads in the vicinity of  Jedwabne at the time of the Jedwabne crime, and they were not aware.   Meanwhile German records, discovered prior and after the publication of his book, show otherwise.  There was a German unit active in the area, commanded by a Herman Schaper, who had been identified and convicted for similar crimes against Jews as was committed in Jedwabne, but in other towns in the near vicinity of jedwabne, within days of the crime in Jedwabne.  Gross also glossed over the ethnicity of the most active civilians in the crime mentioned by practically all, namely the Mayor and his assistant, who were actually German, and were never selected by the Polish population to those positions.  Meanwhile Gross insinuates they represented the Polish population during an alleged signing of a contract between the town board and the Germans, in which it was agreed that all the Jews would be murdered.   Besides the fact that Gross presented no proof that there was such a contractual agreement, this suggestion is ludicrous to those who have the most basic grasp of the circumstances of Poles under the German occupation of Poland during World War II.

Another flaw in the book is that Gross did not tie in the brutal treatment accorded the Poles by the Germans, which included burning structures with Poles of all ages inside of them.   There were over 800 documented incidents in which the Polish residents of villages and small towns were burned alive by the German occupiers.  Gross then ignored texts that reveal the horror of the Polish population at what had happened to the Jews in Jedwabne, and the sense of doom the Poles experienced as they considered the very real possibility that they and their families could be next.  

Gross also ignored, or minimized, the wider contexts surrounding the crime of Jedwabne.   He failed to compare and acknowledge the similarity of the event at Jedwabne with other events that played out all over German occupied Europe in furtherance of the German, not Polish, policy of total annihilation of the Jews.  Gross failed to note that Polish retribution for collaboration with the Soviets was targeted at individuals, not at whole groups, and targeted also Poles.   It mostly consisted of beatings, although it did include executions, or handing persons over to the Germans, which did happen in the area of Jedwabne.   

In addition, Gross dismissed testimonials that contradicted his theme of Polish responsibility for the Jedwabne crime.  He never mentioned depictions of Poles accused in the Jedwabne crime as having actually saved Jews.  Gross also gave a much smaller number of Jews that had survived the event and failed to mention that those that survived did so due to Polish assistance.  Also absent in the book were documented instances of Polish families killed in the area by the Germans for sheltering Jews.   Gross relayed one incident, as described by one of the discredited accusers that was found not to be at the scene, where a despondent Jewish woman tried to drown herself, and characterized the behaviour of Poles as encouraging her to accomplish her goal.  Meanwhile, critics of Gross allege that a Jewish eye witness to that incident wrote that the Poles were trying to save the woman from drowning.  They further allege that Gross quotes this same witness in regards to another issue, but omits the depiction of the incident involving the drowning woman, which was in the same text as the other issue that he quoted. 

Critics of Gross also point to factual errors, besides overall neglect in confirming alleged facts.  For example, the book described a person as having confessed to participation in the crime, which critics determined to be wrong upon fact checking.  The statements given by this individual to the Secret Police, and confirmed in the signed statements of others, was that this individual had returned from Soviet custody prior to the crime, and due to the brutal treatment meted out to him during such custody, was unable to even walk on the date of the crime, much less take part in it, or even witness any part of it.   The barn in which Gross claims 1600 people had been forced to enter, was clearly too small to have fit such a large number of persons.  A Bishop accused by Gross for supposedly accepting gifts by Jews to secure safety from attack, but did nothing to help them, was still in hiding from the Soviets at the time and could not have been visited for this purpose.  In addition, Polish priests had no authority or influence with the German occupiers, with 2,000 Polish priests killed by Nazi Germany.  Gross also suggests that the appearance in town of numerous outsiders from the area indicates they knew of the pending murders, and came for the spoils.  Meanwhile, it was market day, which customarily attracted large crowds.

Added to the list of misrepresentations by Gross should be his downplaying of tensions between Poles and Jews due to the open collaboration of some Jews of Jedwabne with the Soviets during the 1939 to 1941 Soviet occupation of Jedwabne.  Most importantly, he omits the fact that two of the main accusers of the Jedwabne Poles, had joined the Soviets before the murder of the Jedwabne Jews, and assisted, just prior to the massacre, in Soviet crimes against Polish families.  One was Jewish, but the other was a Polish Communist, and his brother, who also collaborated with the Soviets, was killed in retaliation for this collaboration, which clearly suggests a motive of revenge this accuser may have had to falsely implicate non-Communist Poles in the massacre of the Jedwabne Jews.   Gross fails to note that Jedwabne was extremely defiant to Communist rule after World War II, which could suggest that the arrests and trial may have been a tool to subordinate the area, and diminish support for the local non-Communist leadership.  The reason this area was so defiant when the Soviet backed Communists took over Poland after 1945 was because they had experienced Soviet atrocities during the 1939 to 1941 Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, that Communists and others of various ethnic groups took part in.

Upon reviewing the criticisms of Gross, it becomes clear that the claims by Gross regarding Jedwabne are far from proven.  While the book by Gross is credited with causing an emotional public debate within Poland in regards to the alleged role of Poles at Jedwabne, this debate also contributed to his book being seriously challenged.   No similar debate has taken place in the US or other countries, whereby many prominent individuals, often representing prestigious institutions, seem to have blindly, or naively, accepted the version of events given by Gross.  What is extremely disturbing is that criticism of Gross and his work on Jedwabne are suppressed and attacked.  Scholars critical of Gross are not invited to speak at US institutions.   A Polish Minister of Education, in a television interview, voiced the skepticism held by many towards the book by Gross, and a media firestorm erupted around the world with demands she apologize, or be fired, under the false pretense that she is denying a well founded truth. 

For those who never experienced Soviet Communist propaganda in Poland up close, it was unequivocally filled with deceit.  First of all, as elections were falsified, it tried to portray Communist rule as supported by the majority of the population, as opposed to just the Soviet military.  It brazenly treated with disdain religious and patriotic sensitivities, while pretending to be tolerant of the beliefs of others.  It presented Communist rule as friendly to minorities and the downtrodden, as basic rights and freedoms of all were blatantly violated, and people were being murdered by the regime.   It also accused innocent people of crimes they never committed, and used all sorts of half -truths and falsities to discredit independent minded Poles.  Non-Communist Polish heroes, who fought German Nazism, including those that risked their lives to save Jews, were called Nazis and anti-Semites, and cynically placed in the same cells as German war criminals, with many executed.    

Many Poles, for good reason, treat information pushed by former Communists with the utmost skepticism, and the narrative pushed by Gross does overlap with the vicious anti-Polish propaganda pushed by the Soviet backed Communists that was part of a wider misinformation campaign spread around the world.  It is also a narrative pushed by current post Communist circles that retained positions of influence after the peaceful collapse of Communism in Poland.  For example, a follow up book to the one by Gross was written by a woman whose mother was a diehard, top level propagandist of the official Communist party newspaper during Stalinist times.  A major supporter of the book by Gross is a current newspaper owned by a former Communist whose brother was a Communist judge who sentenced innocent people to death, for which he was never brought to justice, and for which neither brother ever expressed remorse. 

While a horrible crime against the Jewish population occurred in the town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, skepticism is advisable when faced with the accusations against Poles in “Neighbors” by Gross, or in any text on the topic, such as the one by Princeton University Press, that claims “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.”  This narrative is not supported by available evidence.  For a better idea on what may have happened at Jedwabne, you should read the works by Tomasz Strzembosz, Piotr Gontarczyk, Marek Chodakiewicz, Bogdan Musial and others.

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