Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Two-year Investigation Confirms Role Played by Poles in Wartime Massacre

July 11, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Local Poles, not Nazi occupiers, carried out a 1941 massacre Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne, according to the findings of a two-year probe.

The long-awaited announcement from Poland’s Institute of National Memory came on the eve of the 61st anniversary of the massacre, in which as many as 1,600 Jews were burned to death in a barn on July 10, 1941.

For decades, the slaughter had been attributed to the Nazis.

But in 2000, “Neighbors,” a book called by Polish-American scholar Jan Gross, revealed that the massacre was carried out by local Poles. A subsequent documentary film and on-site research reached a similar conclusion.

The revelations sparked a widespread and wrenching debate about Poland’s role — and the role of individual Poles – – in the Holocaust.

The revelations also prompted the institute’s investigation.

The institute said the nearly 100 people it questioned, one-third of whom claimed to have witnessed the massacre, gave contradictory testimony.

But Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor who conducted the investigation, said that while Germans were present at the massacre, witness testimony and forensic evidence including bullets and bones from mass graves showed that “Polish residents of Jedwabne and surroundings, men numbering at least 40,” committed the crime.

“The Germans helped bring Jews to the town market square, but that was the extent of their active role,” he said.

He added, however, that the figure of 1,600 Jews killed in the massacre seemed “highly improbable” and that the number of fatalities was probably lower.

He also said that the institute, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of Nazi- and communist-era crimes, would not file charges against anyone for the massacre.

In 1949, 12 Poles were convicted by a communist court of aiding Germans in carrying out the slaughter.

“Generally speaking, the results of the investigation add little to what was already known,” Stanislaw Krajewski, the Warsaw consultant of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA. “They confirm the overall picture presented by Jan Gross.

“I believe that we will never find out the number of victims at Jedwabne,” he added. “It is clear, however, that the overwhelming majority of Jews who were then in the village were murdered, either in the barn or somewhere else.

“It is also clear that the local Poles were the murderers, though it is difficult to say how many were actively involved,” he said. “It is also certain that the German presence was a key factor.”

One years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewksi apologized for the massacre and begged forgiveness from the victims and their families during a ceremony in Jedwabne.

Joined by Jewish leaders, relatives of Jedwabne victims and government officials, Kwasniewski walked from the town center to the site of the barn, where a monument to the victims was unveiled.

Recommended from JTA