Yiddish map of Jedwabne. From Sefer Yedvabneh, edited by Julius L. Baker and Jacob L. Baker (Jerusalem; New York: Yedwabner Societies in Israel and the United States, 1980). (YIVO)

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(Yedvabneh) is situated in the Mazowsze region of Poland, 20 kilometers northeast of Łomża and 45 kilometers west of Tykocin (Tiktin). Jews first came to Jedwabne from Tykocin and were initially subject to that town’s Jewish communal authority. In 1770, when the wooden synagogue of Jedwabne was built, 387 Jews out of a total population of 450 lived in the community, a place known for its shoemakers.

On the eve of World War I, Jedwabne’s total population reached its all-time peak of roughly 3,000. At the end of the war, the population fell to about 700 as a result of devastation and the Russian policy of resettling Jews. According to Jewish sources, there were approximately 1,500 Jews out of a total population of 2,167 residing in Jedwabne in the 1930s. The last rabbi, Avigdor Białostocki, was well respected in the area. Since the local clergy and regional population were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the National Democratic Party, Jewish businesses were occasionally boycotted and nationalistic propaganda distributed, but no pogroms were recorded during the interwar period.

During World War II, Jedwabne was initially under Soviet rule (1939–1941). The town was overrun by German troops immediately following the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union (June 1941), when initial assaults against local Communist sympathizers, including Jews, were recorded. Soon the entire area was engulfed in anti-Jewish violence, in which local Poles took part alongside Germans.

The mass murder of Jedwabne’s Jews on 10 July 1941 is notable for its scope and brutality. Except for 100–150 people who managed to escape, the town’s entire Jewish population was murdered. They were axed, drowned, stoned, knifed, and ultimately incinerated in a large barn by their Polish neighbors. Although a small detachment of German gendarmes and a mobile SS or Gestapo unit encouraged the killing, the actual murder was carried out by local inhabitants, with the town’s mayor and other Polish municipal authorities coordinating the slaughter.

The precise number of victims is difficult to establish. Witnesses at a 1949 trial of 22 perpetrators spoke of 1,500 murdered. An investigation carried out in 2000–2002 by the Polish Institute of National Memory concluded that “at least 340” people were killed. To honor the sixtieth anniversary of the murders, a commemorative monument was unveiled in Jedwabne. During a solemn, nationally televised ceremony, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski offered apologies for the murders.

Suggested Reading

Julius Baker and Jacob Baker, eds., Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book (Jerusalem, 1980); Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, 2001); Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak, eds., Wokół Jedwabnego, 2 vols. (Warsaw, 2002); Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic, eds., The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton, 2004).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 497, Pinchas Turberg, Papers, 1893-1940s.