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"Burning Alive"

by Andrzej Kaczynski, published May 5, 2000 in the Polish newspaper "Rzeczpospolita"


By Morlan Ty Rogers, June 27, 2000

On July 10, 1941, more than 1,600 people -- practically the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne, near Lomza in northeastern Poland -- were forced into a barn on the outskirts of town and burned alive by their Polish neighbors. Inside this barn were several dozen relatives of mine. Although most of Jedwabne's population was Jewish before World War II, today there is no trace left of the Jewish community which lived there for more than 300 years. For almost 60 years, the cruel truth of the events of that day were distorted and concealed by the Polish authorities and by the residents of Jedwabne, who in public denied any role in the mass murder. This denial was cast in stone during the 1960s, when a small monument was erected at the site of the barn which placed the entire blame for this atrocity on the German Nazis.

It is only because a few lucky survivors managed to escape and live through the rest of the Holocaust that we know what really happened. Thanks to them and others who fortuitously left Jedwabne before World War II, we know the names of some, but not all, of the more than 1,600 people killed that day whose only crime was that they were Jewish. Their testimony and a partial list of the martyrs are preserved in the Jedwabne yizkor book, which appears on this website at

During a visit to Jedwabne in 1985, I came face to face with the monument falsely attributing full responsibility to the Germans and denying the principal role that Polish residents of Jedwabne had in the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors. As long as Poland remained Communist, there was little hope that the truth would come to light there. Even seven years after the fall of Communism, Polish society still was unprepared to confront its past. After the New York Times published a letter I wrote about the false monument in Jedwabne in 1996, a number of Polish newspapers published articles disparaging the Jewish survivors' accounts.

Last year, I learned that Professor Jan Gross of New York University had discovered documents hidden in an archive in Poland which confirmed that the mass-murder of the Jedwabne Jews was committed primarily by Poles and that Germans played only a minor role. Professor Gross has written a book about the events in Jedwabne in July 1941 called "Sasiedzi" ("Neighbors") which was just published in Poland. In April of this year, he presented his findings on Jedwabne at a conference at Yeshiva University in New York about Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. His lecture generated great interest about Jedwabne inside Poland and resulted in a number of articles in Polish newspapers, including a lengthy article that appeared on May 5, in Poland's leading newspaper, "Rzeczpospolita".

This article is the first time that a major Polish newspaper has acknowledged that the brutal killing and burning alive of the Jews in Jedwabne and several nearby villages in July 1941 were committed by Poles.

A few days after the article ran, representatives of the growing Jewish community in Warsaw traveled to Jedwabne with officials from the Polish prime minister's office, and met with the mayor of Jedwabne, Krzysztof Godlewski. During this meeting, the mayor acknowledged that the existing monument attributing the murder of the Jedwabne Jews solely to the Germans was a falsification of history, and he agreed in principle to replace the inscription on the monument with a historically accurate one: i.e acknowledging that the actual murderers were Poles. The hope is that the new monument will be erected in time for the 60th yahrzeit for Jedwabne's martyrs in July 2001.

The "Rzeczpospolita" article can be found in the original Polish at cystyka_a_1.html


In Jedwabne, the German extermination of the Jews
was carried out by Polish hands.

"Burning Alive", by Andrzej Kaczynski, published May 5, 2000 in the Polish newspaper "Rzeczpospolita". All rights to the original article are reserved by the author and Rzeczpospolita. Any requests for usage of the original article shall be referred to Andrzej Kaczynski. We wish to thank "Wiez", publishers of "Thou Shalt Not Kill - Poles on Jedwabne" (, and the translator, William Brand, for permission to publish their translation of this article on the JewishGen website.
On July 10, 1941 in Jedwabne, in the Lomza region, the Germans ordered that the entire Jewish community of the small town be exterminated. Local Poles carried out the death sentence. Recently revealed eyewitness accounts by Jews who survived the Holocaust confirm this. Nor do Polish residents of Jedwabne who witnessed the tragedy deny it. From these same sources, it is also known that the Germans used Polish hands to commit similar massacres of Jews in Wasosz, Wizna and Radzilów. Many of these documented testimonies were previously known to Polish scholars. These scholars did not, however, contribute to exposing the shocking truth about Polish involvement in the Nazi extermination of the Jews. This knowledge has reached us from abroad.

One tragedy, two histories

A boulder with a memorial tablet is the only trace of more than two hundred years of Jewish presence in Jedwabne, near Lomza. But the inscription on it accusing the Nazis alone of carrying out the destruction of the Jewish residents of the town does not tell the entire truth. Nor did historians living in Poland reveal that truth. Only recently, Professor Jan Tomasz Gross of New York published Szmul Wasersztajn's account describing the general participation of local Poles in the murder of the Jedwabne Jews. This document, written in 1945 and preserved in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, had been known to, or at least referred to by Polish historians who nevertheless concealed its true significance. A collection of later Jewish testimonies, which also accuses a certain number of Poles from Jedwabne and the nearby villages of involvement in the crime (it accuses them by name, and there are at least thirty names), has recently been placed on the Internet in the United States.

A discussion on the subject of the murder of the Jedwabne Jews has developed over the Internet, based on this documentation as well as on a lecture by Professor Jan Tomasz Gross at an American university. One posting, from a month or so ago, reads in part: "The Germans entered Jedwabne. The Poles asked them to leave town for eight hours. Eight hours later, there were 1,100 fewer Jews." The author got her distorted information second hand, or she heard about it, but not accurately. Another author confuses the dates and informs the world that [in Jedwabne - trans.] the Poles murdered Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust. The June 3, 1946 pogrom in "Kielce, in comparison was small beer" he states. Both authors display considerable curiosity about, and a degree of familiarity with Polish affairs. These are the results of covering up the truth. The reaction of Internet readers who know little or nothing about Poland is something that it is better not even to think about.

I checked to see what Polish Shoah researchers had written on the subject. It turns out that there are two different, and even contradictory versions of the destruction of the Jedwabne Jews. Polish sources attribute responsibility for the massacre exclusively, or almost exclusively, to the Germans, the Nazi gendarmerie and police. The Polish role in them is downplayed, silenced, or denied outright.

Are they going to take away formerly Jewish property?

Many Jedwabne citizens refused to talk, and yet without great difficulty I obtained general confirmation of the Jewish accounts of the perpetrators of the extermination. Not only older people who lived in town throughout the war knew and stated that Poles committed the murderous acts, but so did young people who knew the truth only through family stories. "None of the murderers is still alive," they assured me. Yet almost all of them demanded anonymity. When our photographer approached some youngsters gathered in the town square and asked them to point out any mementoes of the Jedwabne Jews, or the monument to them, they first asked with a hint of sarcasm whether he had come to take back the property that formerly belonged to the Jews.

Only one Jewish apartment house remains in Jedwabne. The author of one of the accounts placed on the Internet visited the town some 20 years ago and lamented that he saw hardly any Jewish buildings left.

During World War I about 75% of the town was destroyed. A few years before World War II, the church and synagogue were rebuilt. The Germans burned down the splendid new synagogue, the pride of the Jedwabne Jews, in September 1939.

On September 28, 1939, the two invaders, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, agreed on their division of Poland. For 20 months, Jedwabne was under Soviet occupation. The Germans again entered the town on June 23, 1941, the second day of their attack on the USSR. Eighteen days later, almost all the Jedwabne Jews were burned alive.

The Jewish version

The few Jews who survived the burning or who heard about it from eyewitnesses, accuse the Poles, their neighbors and fellow townspeople in Jedwabne, as well as others from the nearby villages, of the crime. According to their accounts, Poles were the sole perpetrators of this crime. Germans may have issued the orders or incited the pogrom, but it is not certain whether they were in town at the time, and they may have even tried to moderate or limit the extermination.

The first source is two depositions that Szmul Wasersztajn, an eyewitness to the tragic events in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, presented to the Jewish Historical Committee in Bialystok in 1945. These statements are preserved in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. The JHI archives also contain depositions on the events in Jedwabne and the vicinity by, among others, Menachem Finkelsztejn, Abraham Smialowicz, and A. Belawicki. All of them accuse the Poles. These documents have been known to scholars for a dozen or more years-at least they are cited by all Polish scholars in their lists of sources. Jan Tomasz Gross was the first to publish one of Szmul Wasersztajn's two depositions (the longer one) in its entirety (in a festschrift for Professor Tomasz Strzembosz, Europa nieprowincjonalna [Non-Provincial Europe], Warsaw, 2000). While indicating that while he found several discrepancies between Wasersztajn's two depositions, Gross did not engage in any basic criticism of them as sources (obviously regarding them as credible). He also outlined plans for further research on Polish attitudes to the extermination of the Jews in the period following the [1941] German attack on the Soviet Union.

Among the testimonies on the Internet ( are those of three eyewitnesses: Herszel Piekarz-Baker, Rywka Fogel and Icchak (Janek) Neumark.

Wasersztajn claims that on the third day of the German occupation of Jedwabne, June 25, 1941, "local Polish bandits" started robbing Jewish property, brutally beating and even killing Jews. "With his own eyes" he saw three people murdered. "Jakub Kac was stoned with bricks; Eliasz Krawiecki was stabbed repeatedly with knives, then his eyes were gouged out and his tongue was cut off. He suffered inhumanly for twelve hours before drawing his last breath." Rywka Fogel names four other victims of the massacre.

Wasersztajn continues: "That same day I observed a horrible scene. Chaja Kubrzanska, twenty-eight years old, and Basia Binsztejn, twenty-six years old, both holding newborn babies, when they saw what was going on, they ran to a pond, in order to drown themselves with the children rather than fall into the hands of bandits. They put their children in the water and drowned them with their own hands: then Banska Binsztejn jumped in and immediately went to the bottom, while Chaja Kubrzanska suffered for a couple of hours" [Gross's translation]. Rywka Fogel offered different details. The two women exchanged babies. They slashed their own veins before throwing themselves into the pond. According to Wasersztajn, the hooligans treated the tragedy as a spectacle. Fogel claimed some Poles rescued the women the first time they attempted suicide. Their husbands, communist activists, escaped with the Russians.

The pogrom lasted one day. Wasersztajn stated that it was stopped by the priest, explaining "that the German authorities would take care of things by themselves" [Gross's translation].

On July 7th and 8th, Jewish refugees from pogroms in Wizna and Radzilów tried took shelter in Jedwabne. About 1,000 Jews lived in Jedwabne and it is not known how many fled with the Russians. Some place the number of fugitives as high as 700. Some hid outside of town, expecting a catastrophe since the Nazis were organizing a pogrom in a different locality each day.

Early in the morning of July 10th, the people in hiding watched as many peasants from the outlying hamlets arrived in town by cart-like on a market day. Germans also arrived. Eight Gestapo functionaries held a meeting with representatives of the town's Polish authorities. According to Wasersztajn, the Germans wanted to kill most of the Jews while sparing skilled craftsmen who would be useful to them, while the Poles demanded that none of the Jews be left alive, because there were enough skilled Christian craftsmen to do any work. Other Jewish accounts give a similar account of the meeting. Some Polish witnesses also overheard the local side taking just such a stance in the negotiations with the Gestapo.

The Jews were ordered to gather in the town square. "Local hooligans armed themselves with axes, special clubs studded with nails, and other instruments of torture and destruction and chased all the Jews into the street" [Gross's translation], testified Wasersztajn. They forced the Jews to weed and clean the square. A statue of Lenin was toppled from its pedestal and young Jews were ordered to carry it around the square while singing Soviet songs and chanting: "This war is our work". According to some accounts, the Poles selected dozens of strong young men and ordered them to carry Lenin's statue to the Jewish cemetery outside of town. There, they forced them to dig a large pit and bury the statue in it. After that, they murdered all these men and threw their bodies into the same pit. The rest of the Jews were kept in the town square all day under the scorching sun, without a drop of water. They were insulted and beaten. Polish hoodlums tormented the gray-haired rabbi, Awigdor Bialostocki, and did not spare the women and the children. In the evening they marched all the Jews, in rows of four, towards the Jewish cemetery. According to some accounts, the rabbi was ordered to march in the front rank carrying a red banner. Everyone was forced into a barn. The barn was doused with a flammable liquid and set alight. Icchak Neumark, a former citizen of Jedwabne, testified that a Pole whom he recognized stood guarding the barn door, axe in hand. "He was ready to kill anyone who tried to get out. My family and I were standing near the door because, fortunately, we were among the last to be pushed into the barn. Suddenly, the barn door fell apart in the flames. The one guarding the door raised his axe to strike me, but fortunately I managed to knock it away. My sister, her five year-old daughter, and I managed to escape to the cemetery. I saw how my father collapsed in flames on the earthen floor [of the barn]."

Those who were not burned alive in the barn were beaten to death wherever the Polish perpetrators found them. Rywka Fogel heard the terrible screams of Jozef Lewin, a boy whom the bandits clubbed to death. "The goys grabbed little Judka Nadolna, cut off her head, and played with it like a soccer ball," testified Fogel. Icchak Neumark said that one woman, nine months pregnant, had her abdomen ripped open by her father-in-law's farm hand. "I saw with my own eyes how Aron lay dead in the street with a cross carved into his chest. Three-year-old Chana hid in a chicken coop. The goys found her and threw her into the fire like a piece of wood", said Neumark.

"Not even one German participated in the killing that day. On the contrary, two officers came to the barn of destruction to save at least the craftsmen, tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths, and carpenters, whose labor the Germans required. But the goys told them: 'Not one Jew can remain alive. There are enough skilled craftsmen among the Christians,'" Neumark reported. "Even though the Germans gave the order, it was Polish hooligans who took it up and carried it out, using the most horrible methods," said Szmul Wasersztajn. "The Poles decided to kill all the Jews and they did so. The Germans looked with disdain upon the overt bestiality of the Poles," testified Herszel Piekarz-Baker, the author of one of the accounts published on the Internet.

The Polish version

In 1966 article in the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute, Szymon Datner charged the special operational groups [Einsatzgruppen - trans.] of the German police with the crimes committed on a mass scale against the Jewish population of Bialystok region after the attack on the USSR by the Third Reich. "Those units were supported by "native" police formations consisting of traitors, fascists, degenerates and criminals. Often playing on the lowest instincts of these people, the [German - Kaczynski's note] units organized outbursts" of popular fury, "supplying arms and giving instructions without themselves taking part in the slaughter themselves. As a rule, they photographed the scenes that were played out as evidence that the Jews were hated not only by the Germans." Datner goes on to write about the Lomza region: "the Germans dragged the dregs of the local community, as well as the so-called 'Blue Police' into these crimes. This was a phenomenon that was relatively rare in occupied Poland, as well as in the rest of the Bialystok area, where the local population-Polish and Belorussian alike-refused to be hoodwinked by German provocation. . . . In a few cases, the local scum and criminal elements allowed themselves to be used as henchmen pawns by the Germans. However, the majority" of the work "was done by German hands." Szymon Datner did not write anything unequivocal about who perpetrated the crime in Jedwabne.

The most detailed Polish account of the events in Jedwabne was presented in 1989 by Waldemar Monkiewicz, a public prosecutor and member of the Bialystok Regional Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, in Studia Podlaskie [Podlasie Studies] published by the University of Bialystok. "In early July 1941, 200 men from the 309th and 316th [German - Kaczynski] police battalions were detached to form a special unit, called Kommando Bialystok, under the command of Wolfgang Birkner, who was seconded from the Warsaw Gestapo. On July 10, this unit arrived in Jedwabne by truck. Both the gendarmerie and the auxiliary police were engaged in the operation carried out against the Jews. The auxiliary police were involved only in leading the victims to the square and escorting them out of town. There, the Nazis committed unspeakable cruelty, driving some 900 people into a barn that they next closed, and the walls of which they splashed with gasoline and set alight, causing the martyr's deaths of the men, women, and children inside. Two days later, these same perpetrators murdered almost all the Jews in Radzilów [according to most sources, the massacre in Radzilów occurred on July 7, and thus earlier than the one in Jedwabne]. There, they burned approximately 650 people in a barn. In both Jedwabne and Radzilów, the Nazis attempted to drag some auxiliary policemen of Polish nationality [i.e., ethnic background - trans.] into the pogrom. Those among them against whom any sort of involvement was proven-and this was most frequently in acts of subsidiary importance-bore severe punishment."

Three years earlier, during a ceremonial oration at ceremonies marking the 250th anniversary of Jedwabne's municipal charter, prosecutor Monkiewicz stated that 150 German police came to Jedwabne by motor vehicle on the day of destruction in Jedwabne, estimated the number of dead Jewish victims at "about 900, and in any case not fewer than 600," and admitted that he had managed to establish the names of only a few families who perished then. He added that he "would omit for understandable reasons" mentioning the names of the Polish auxiliary police who had anything to do with the crime.

Twenty-two Poles were tried in Lomza in 1949 for cooperating with the Germans in the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne. A death sentence was pronounced against a Volksdeutsch from Cieszyn. The others were sentenced to eight to fifteen years' imprisonment. None of them admitted his guilt. Unfortunately, the records of the trial are at present unavailable since the archives of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against the Polish Nation, where they are preserved, are being moved to new premises.

Prosecutor Waldemar Monkiewicz also states that Nazi state functionaries have been tried in Germany for the Jedwabne crime.

To clarify, not to justify

Discussing "anti-Jewish outbreaks and pogroms in occupied Europe" in an article in the book Holocaust z perspektywy pólwiecza [The Holocaust from the Perspective of Half a Century], published by the Jewish Historical Institute , Professor Tomasz Szarota writes that "each time it was probably a provocation prepared by the Sipo and SD , and in the east by the Einsatzgruppen. The primary purpose was one of propaganda. The world was thus shown that the Germans were not the only ones who felt the need to eliminate the Jews, and that the strength of hatred of the Jews was even stronger in other countries than in Germany. As a by-product, there was a demonstration of the alleged approval of the occupied countries for the way in which Nazi ideology brandished anti-Semitic slogans. By intervening at a certain moment as a factor for law and order, the German achieved yet another aim-they suddenly appeared as the defenders of the Jews against an assault by the Poles ...." This scenario fits the events in Jedwabne perfectly.

Andrzej Zbikowski of the Jewish Historical Institute stated in 1992 (in the JHI Bulletin) that, in the western regions of the Soviet Union, the former Polish eastern marches, "after June 22, 1941, the Jewish population became the protagonists of two simultaneous tragedies. One of these, incomprehensible to the majority of the Jews, was the German desire to physically exterminate the Jewish people. The second was the explosion of long-suppressed hatred, founded on an economic and emotional-ideological basis, among the native local population". He added: "the aggression by the local community was not exclusively a result of German manipulation."

During the period of the Soviet occupation (less than two years) the relationship between Poles and Jews in the eastern marches, worsened significantly.

"The Jews have supported us and only they were always visible. It has become fashionable for the director of every institution to boast that he no longer has even a single Pole working for him," said the head of the Lomza NKVD at a meeting with activists in 1941. He said that, from the point of view of the Soviet state, this was a highly unfavorable situation.

Someone heard a farmer from the vicinity of Lomza complaining during the war: "Now we have a Jewish empire. They are chosen everywhere, and the Pole is like a horse: he only hauls, and they strike him with a whip. Bad times have come for the Poles." Historians, and not only Polish ones, cite these and similar statements in order to show the reasons for the exacerbation of Jewish-Polish relations between 1939 and 1941.

In a collection of accounts by Poles who joined the army of General Wladyslaw Anders (published as W czterdziestym nas matko na Sybir zeslali [In 1940, Mother, They Sent Us to Siberia] by Irena and Jan Tomasz Gross), there is a report by a member of a clandestine Polish military group from the neighborhood of Jedwabne blaming his imprisonment and deportation on a denunciation by a Jew who collaborated with the NKVD.

In Jedwabne in 1940, the NKVD smashed two underground resistance groups: "The Partisans," numbering about 35 members, and Armed Combat Union whose 80 soldiers came from the Bialystok region and the Jedwabne area. After their organization was penetrated by NKVD agents, about 100 members of the Polish underground gave themselves up in December 1940. Documents unearthed in Soviet archives and published recently in Studia Lomzynskie [Lomza Studies] indicate that the NKVD recruited eighteen of these former non-Jewish partisans as agents, a fact that was not known at a time when public opinion placed most of the blame for denunciations on the Jews. In June 1941, the NKVD began arrests in Jedwabne of the partisans who had turned themselves in, along with their relatives and those who helped them, including one priest. Some were deported eastward just before the German-Soviet war broke out. Others avoided that fate only because of the panicky flight of the Soviet authorities.

"After what happened here during the Soviet occupation, you shouldn't be surprised at the Polish rage that was directed against the Jews" - one Jedwabne resident told me.

There are two war memorials in this small town. One commemorates the 180 people murdered between 1939 and 1956 by the Soviet, German and Polish communist authorities. The other commemorates the 1,600 Jews who were burned alive on July 10, 1941.

The Wyrzykowski family of Janczewko saved the lives of 7 Jews from Jedwabne by hiding them on their farm. Antonina Wyrzykowski received a Yad Vashem medal as one of the Righteous among the Nations. However, she moved out of her native village. She feared that she could pay with her own life for saving Jews. "They beat her black and blue," recalls her son.


The memorial to commemorate the murdered Jews of Jedwabne was erected in 1962 or 1963 by the Lomza branch of ZBoWiD, remembers Eugeniusz Adamczyk, who looked after the memorial. The inscription bears signs of attempts to vandalize it. Adamczyk was the first commander of the Citizen´s Militia post in Jedwabne. He lucked out twice when he happened to be away from his post during an attack by the underground-and also had the bad luck to lose his job for that reason. "The UB suspected me, although it was a pure coincidence," he explains. He also remembers arresting three men for the massacre of the Jews, and delivering the suspects to Lomza. "The other accused were arrested by 'security,' he adds. Adamczyk hails from the Cracow region, but his wife, Henryka, remembers the massacre even though she was only twelve at the time. "My parents ordered me to hide but I can still hear the screaming of the Jews being led to their death, and I can smell the stench of the burning."

No one has ever verified the figures on the memorial plaque. All that is known is that more or less that many Jedwabne Jews were never seen again. The remains of those who were burned were never exhumed after the war. None of the residents of Jedwabne can point out to me the place where they were buried.

The institute in Jerusalem for research and commemoration of the Holocaust is named Yad Vashem. These two Hebrew words mean "a name and a place" - the minimum that the living owe to the victims of the Holocaust or, to put it differently, of those who were burned alive. The Jedwabne Jews, who died just such a cruel death by being burned alive, have not been granted even that minimum of memory.

Yet something has started to change: In Wasosz, a Jewish-Polish committee erected a monument in memory of the town's Holocaust victims. In Jedwabne, the Bishop of Lomza recently held an expiation service at the place where the Jews were killed. When Pope John Paul II spoke in Rome and Jerusalem about the guilt of Christians towards the Jewish people, they began considering in the Lomza diocese about how parishes in which Poles were involved in any way in the persecution and extermination of the Jews ought to examine their consciences and perform an act of repentance.

Andrzej Kaczynski

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