Tragedy at Jedwabne

The tragic murder of 340 Poles in Jedwabne Poland, in July 1941 remains a dark stain in Poland’s centuries of history. In 2001, Princeton historian Jan Gross published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. The book earned multiple

awards, including the National Book Award, and provoked wide ranging debate for two years on the complicity of Poles during WWII. The book detailed a massacre of Jews in the small town of Jedwabne, about 160 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. Prior to Gross’ book the massacre was fully attributed to the Nazis. The reaction was akin to the reaction in both Germany and the United States to the 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen.

During the first part of WWII Jedwabne was under Soviet control. Germans took control of the town in the summer of 1941. On July 10, 1941, a group of 8-12 Gestapo organized a meeting of the town’s administration. Under the guidance of the Germans, a group of 40-50 Polish men rounded up 340 of the town’s Jews (most of the Jewish population) in the town square. A group of 40 of the Jewish men were forced to march to a barn emptied for that purpose. They were shot and buried there. Later in the day, the remaining group of about 300 people, many women and children, were then marched to the barn. They were locked inside and burned alive when the barn was set on fire with Soviet kerosene. Germans stood by, shooting the few who escaped. 
It’s a horrible, monstrous crime. It’s undisputed the town’s Jews were rounded up by fellow Poles in town, under the guidance of the Germans, and murdered. However, Gross’ book claims 1600 Jews were killed, roughly three times the town’s Jewish population, and other points have been debated. Germans took still photographs of the monstrous event, but no films or no eyewitness accounts remain. The incident paints a broad brush stroke of complicit murder across all Poles, and therein lies the rub. Thousands of Poles risked their lives to harbor and save Jews, more than any other country. Every country has good and bad. 
In 2003, Brandeis University Professor Antony Polonsky published a book entitled The Neighbor’s Respond that rebutted much of what Jan Gross said. This book has little attention on Amazon; Jan Gross’ book is far more well-known, and promoted on dozens of web sites and blogs. In 2012 the Polish film Aftermath* dramatized the story. According to, the film was first shown May 11, 2012 at a Polish film festival. In July 2013 the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival featured it. It has since toured other film festivals, bringing the massacre to the forefront of attention once again. It was most recently screened in May 2014 in the Netherlands.

*An English language film entitled Aftermath was also released in 2012 – they are completely different.