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Tygodnik Powszechny - Article About the Murders Committed
By Poles in This Region, Including Radzilow and Jedwabne

Written by: Krzysztof Persak, IPN
Copyright Permission Granted By Tygodnik Powszechny and Krzysztof Persak

IPN presents the results of the inquiry into the crimes in Bialystok region

Not Only Jedwabne
By: Krzysztof Persak

Map of Region


In the summer of 1941, after Nazi Germany had attacked the USSR, a wave of pogroms against Jews passed through, from Lithuania to Bessarabia, along the frontlines. Inhabitants of the territories which were occupied by the Soviets after 1939 (Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Romanians) took part in these pogroms. In the Lomza District and in the Bialystok Region, Polish people were also among the perpetrators of the crimes against the Jews. The best known [Polish] crimes against Jews, those in Jedwabne and in nearby Radzilow, were not the only ones, though the number of their victims was the greatest.

On the borderline of Mazovia and Podlasie, the anti-Jewish acts of violence occurred in more than 20 localities. The intensity of these events attests that they had not been isolated incidents, but rather fragments of a more common phenomenon.

The historians who began to investigate the murder in Jedwabne after the publishing of "Neighbors" by Jan T. Gross had been surprised by finding out that in the first years after the end of the 2nd World War, in Bialystok, Lomza and Elk, more than 60 trials had been conducted against Poles accused of the participation in the crimes against Jews, committed during the first weeks of the German occupation of those territories. The research conducted by Dr. Andrzej Zbikowski revealed that more than one hundred persons had been brought to the courts, indicted for various violent acts of aggression against Jews. The defendants were accused not only of robbery and denunciation, of beatings and single homicides, but also of the participation in mass murders. For many decades the court files, unknown to the researchers, remained in the Archives of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland. It is likely that other documents, unknown to the historians, are still waiting to be discovered in the local States Archives.

"A Fragment of an Uninvestigated Problem"

In the largest and the best known case, that of the Jedwabne mass murder, in the trial of May 1949, 22 men were accused and 10 of them had been legally sentenced. The perpetrators of the crimes in other localities were judged, in the most of the cases, individually. For example, in the case of [a mass murder of Jews by Poles] in Radzilow there had been eight separate trials. In Suchowola, 15 persons were accused of the participation in the pogrom against Jews, in Goniadz, 9 men were judged for that crime. But in most of the cases, only individual perpetrators had been tried for these crimes.

The evidence collected in the legal proceedings indicates that only a small and haphazardly selected part of the perpetrators of the anti-Jewish actions had been brought to the court. During the investigation into the crime in Jedwabne, the witnesses and the suspects alike had mentioned several dozen of the alleged participants of the pogrom. But not a single one of them has been even questioned. The same had happened during other trials. It also occurred that some of the culprits testified as the witnesses of the defense, on behalf of the accused.

The solidarity of the local communities, protecting their members, was very symptomatic. In the files of the trials, one may find collective petitions and "Affidavits of the Loyalty," signed by several dozens of local people. Although in court many people defended the accused in question as "non guilty," nobody denied that the anti-Jewish actions involving Poles effectively took place, and that other culprits (often mentioned by their names) had taken part in them.

Very seldom the victimized Jews themselves were witnesses in these trials. The great majority of them had been killed in the Holocaust, organized by the Nazi murder machine. Those few who had survived and testified in the first phase of the legal proceedings, left Poland before the beginning of the trial and their testimonies were not considered by the court.

The documents found until then show that 27 Poles had been legally sentenced for their participation in the crimes against Jews, committed in the summer of 1941 in the Lomza District and in the Bialystok Region. The courts sentenced them to prison terms from 2-and-a-half years to life-imprisonment. An exceptional commutation of punishment was often practiced by the courts. A death sentence had been ruled upon in four cases. But only one death sentence had ever been implemented: in the case of Wladyslaw Grodzki, the commander of the so-called Citizens' Guard, and the chief organizer of the pogrom in Jasionowka.

All these trials were but a fragment of a much larger, and until then, unexplored problem of the post-war accounting for those who collaborated with the Nazi's. Not many people know that tens of thousands of culprits had been brought to court by virtue of the Decree of 31st August 1944: "About the Punishment of the Fascist-Nazi Criminals Responsible for Murders and Persecution of the Civil Population and P.O.W.'s, and of the Traitors of the Polish Nation." According to the statistics of the Ministry of Justice, about 18,000 of these culprits were sentenced to punishment during the years from 1944 until 1960.

One quarter of them constituted German war criminals, but the majority were Polish citizens. In spite of the fact that during the "Stalinist" period [from 1944 until 1956] the "August Decree" had been very often misused as a legal tool to fight the anti-communist Underground Forces, at least several thousands of the convicts were authentic [Nazi] collaborators. [By the power of this Decree, a Communist court in Poland sentenced to death, among others, General Emil Fieldorf, nom de guerre "Nil," one of the best known Polish guerilla soldiers, the war-time commander of the Diversion HQ of the Polish underground Home Army, AK].

The Hate, the Revenge, the Plunder

Today, after 60 years, it's difficult to judge the participation of particular persons in the anti-Jewish actions. But the court files are helpful to learn about the mechanism of these events. For a historian of today, one of the most important sources is the testimony of the Jewish survivors, presented to the Jewish Historical Commissions just after the end of the war. Among the most valuable testimonies, there is an outstanding account made by the members of a 6-person Finkielsztejn family from Radzilow, the family who, in full force, had survived the war and the Holocaust. It seems that they owe their survival to the fact that two weeks after the pogrom they had accepted the Baptism in a local [Catholic] church and, as Christians, they were less endangered by denunciation. For the next few years they were hiding in the households of some local farmers, in a village near to their native town of Radzilow.

The outbreak of the anti-Jewish violence caused by local Poles happened at an exceptional time and place. Due to a lack of the administrative power after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, in many [Polish] towns and villages, people had organized temporary Polish authorities and so called Citizens' Guards, sometimes armed. In the first weeks of a new, German occupation, these local authorities were tolerated by the German Military Administration. Members of the [Polish] Citizens' Guards often initiated or performed the anti-Jewish pogroms. A good pretext to start them usually took the form of revenge against the real or presumed Soviet collaborators. And all Jews were treated as such. In many cases, the perpetrators of the pogroms were people that had been just released from Soviet prisons. For example, in Goniadz, members of the local Citizens' Guard arrested 40 "Communists," all of them Jews. After three days of tortures, they murdered all the captives in a local Jewish graveyard and, after that, they plundered their property. The perpetrators intended to burn alive the Jews in a Jewish school at the town's center, but they resigned after some protests of the neighbors, who were afraid of fire. It's interesting that Germans executed some of the [Polish] plunderers, a few days later. The plunder of the Jewish property had been, seemingly, the main reason for the aggression against local Jews, apart from a purported "revenge for the Soviet occupation." In many testimonies about the mass murders of Jews, including those from Jedwabne, Jasionowka, Kolno or Suchowola, there is to be found information about peasants, who had been coming to these towns from the nearby villages, in order to plunder the property of the [Jewish] victims. Such participation of the villagers [in the pogroms of Jews] was observed as typical also before the war, in that part of Poland. During a pogrom in Radzilow, in the year 1933, four perpetrators, who had been killed by the rifle shots of the State Police, came from outside of town.

Not Always the Same Scenario

It was the District of Lomza, which occupied a special place on a "map" of the anti-Jewish excesses in Poland, in the second half of the 1930's. This fact should be linked to a high popularity of the National Party ["Stronnictwo Narodowe"]. and its ideology, exposing strong anti-Semitism. In the year 1930, in the communities of Wasosz and Jedwabne, over 70 percent of the voters cast their votes for the National Party. It is interesting to recall that the national leader and the chief ideologist of that party, Roman Dmowski, spent the last years of his life in Drozdowo, just about 10 miles from Jedwabne. The attitude of the local population toward the Jews had been formed by the widespread anti-Semitism [of the National Party]. But the anti-Jewish actions, organized in the summer of 1941, probably could fall short of genocidal murder if not for the permission, instigation or example shown by the Germans. Since the first day of their occupation, the Germans were indicating that the Jews were not protected by any law. The [Polish-organized] pogroms of the Jews were parallel to the executions of Jews, performed by the Germans. In a series of the orders, issued between the 29th of June and the 2nd of July in 1941, the Head of the Chief Security Office of the German "Reich," Reinhard Heydrich, ordered to the commanders of the Special Operations Units of the Security Police: "Make no obstacle to any self-purge activity by anti-communist or anti-Jewish circles on the new occupied territories. On the contrary: instigate this activity, without leaving any traces, and if necessary intensify them and push them into a proper direction." But the events in the Lomza District and in the Bialystok Region could not be reduced to a single scenario. In some localities, Polish inhabitants took part in the anti-Jewish actions that had been started by Germans. In Suchowola, [Poles] drowned Jews in a pond, and burned alive a group of the [Jewish] victims in one of the Jewish houses. In Rajgrod, Gestapo men [members of the Nazi Secret Police] instigated the Polish escorts to execute the Jews by allowing one of them to shoot at the Jews. Then, the mass murders [of Jews] in both Radzilow and Jedwabne was probably initiated by the same Special Unit of the Security Police, commanded by Hermann Schaper. In Wasosz, the Germans acted with even more discretion. It is known that before the pogrom, some members of Gestapo had come to the village, together with a Polish interpreter, but the murder of the Jews was committed by local [Polish] "activists" on the night of 5/6 July 1941 [without the German participation]. There were also some cases of spontaneous pogroms, such as in Grajewo, Wasilkow or Rutki, where the arrival of a German military unit resulted in stopping of the violence. One of probably the bloodiest pogroms, that in Szczuczyn, was carried out [by Poles themselves] on the night of 27th June [1941], before Heydrich issued the above quoted orders. That pogrom, taking 300 victims [according to similar German and Jewish records], was organized in the absence of the Germans. Some of the mass murders had a purely criminal origin. One of the cruelest ones occurred in a village of Bzury, where some [Polish] men who had arrived from Szczuczyn murdered 20 Jewish women in a local forest. The Jewish women worked in a nearby farm. The bandits had raped some women, before killing them, and after that, robbed their garments.

The Truth and the Remembrance

The truth about the participation of Poles in the anti-Jewish actions in the Lomza District and in the Bialystok Region had been for a long time forgotten, and only the recent discussion about "the case of Jedwabne" brought it back to the Polish national conscience, in a very painful way. But nobody can run away from the truth. The remembrance of these [tragic] events is going to face the present inhabitants of Jedwabne, but not only in that town, also in other localities, where Jews were murdered [by Poles] in the summer of 1941. For instance, in Radzilow. There, a mass murder of Jews on the 7th of July 1941 had been performed, on German initiative, by members of the local Citizens' Guard, with an active participation of a group of the inhabitants of the town and the nearby villages. This mass murder [of Jews] has been very well documented. But a commemorating plate on the obelisk erected to the victims of the mass murder [of Jews in Radzilow] still gives a falsified testimony. The inscription on the plate does not properly identify the perpetrators or even the time of the crime. The text reads like this: "In August 1941, the fascists murdered here 800 people of the Jewish nationality, and 500 of them were burned alive in a barn. Peace to their memory."

A note about the author:
Krzysztof Persak (born in 1968) - Historian and research fellow at the Office for Public Education of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and of the Institute of the Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science (PAN) in Warsaw, Poland. He is co-editor (together with Pawel Machcewicz) of a two-volume study book, entitled "Wokol Jedwabnego" [All Around Jedwabne].

IPN: About Jedwabne

The study book "Wokol Jedwabnego" [All Around Jedwabne], edited and published by the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), first sold in Poland in November 2002, is composed of two volumes (about 1,600 pages in all). The first volume ("Studies") contains articles by 9 historians from the IPN and other academic centers, presenting the problem of the crimes committed in Jedwabne and in other localities as a part of the history of this region of Poland: from the description of the Polish-Jewish relations there before the 2nd World War, to the description of the German policy of the extermination of the Jews and the anti-Jewish acts of the local Polish population during wartime, until a legal analysis of the post-war legal investigations and trials. The second volume ("Documents") contains 440 documents from the state archives of Poland, Germany, Belarus and Israel. Among these documents, there are reports of the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) about the situation in Jedwabne and its vicinity, testimonies of Poles deported to the Soviet Union during the war, intelligence reports of the Polish underground Home Army (AK) and the Delegation of the Polish Government in Exile, as well as reports of German military and police units, testimonies of Jews who had survived the mass murders (mainly translated from Yiddish) and the files of the investigations and trials, concerning the crimes committed in Jedwabne and Radzilow.

Copyright 2002 Tygodnik Powszechny

Translated from Polish by: David M. Dastych. Edited by: David M. Dastych, Krzysztof Persak and Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.
Permission granted by both Tygodnik Powszechny and Krzysztof Persak.

IPN = National Remembrance Institute in Poland. It is the agency, with the support of the Polish government, that is in charge of investigating the crimes in Radzilow and Jedwabne.

Tygodnik Powszechny is a Catholic weekly magazine, edited and printed in Krakow, Poland. It used to be the only legal opposition paper during the Communist period and its editors played an important part in the peaceful transformation of Poland in the 1980's: from the founding of Solidarity Trade Union in 1980 to the democratic change of the regime in 1989. This paper and its publishers and editors are also well-known for their positive relationship toward the Jews and Israel.

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