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Jedwabne, 10th July, 1941
An interview with Paweł Machcewicz, Director
Office of Public Education, Institute of National Memory

by Włodzimierz Knap

[The following is an unofficial translation by Wanda Slawinska of the interview as reported on July 11, 2001 by the Kraków based dailies Dziennik Polski -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

Q.: What do we know for certain today, about what happened on July 10, 1941 in Jedwabne?

A.: In historical research one can seldom say: It was thus and so, it could not have been otherwise. However, regarding the tragedy at Jedwabne we know quite a lot, which also indicates there are many facts which we still don't know.

Q.: What documents are at the disposal of historians concerned with the murder of the Jedwabne Jews?

A.: First and foremost, we have legal proceedings, and may I remind you that that there were two trials in this matter. The first in 1949 and the second - four years later. We are also familiar with the German document, which the Institute of National Memory historian, doc. Edmund Dmitrow, brought from the archives in Ludwigsburg and Freiburg (1). We also have the depositions of Jews.

Q.: In so far as this is possible, please try to recreate the events that took place on July 10, 1941 in Jedwabne.

A.: On that day the Gestapo came to Jedwabne, which is corroborated by nearly all the witnesses. Szmul Wasersztajn states that several Gestapo officers arrived, and Poles who testified in the 1949 trial speak of one taxi, that is one passenger vehicle with the Gestapo, or of several cars.

Q.: How many Gestapo officers, in your opinion, could there have been?

A.: For now, all we can say, is that their number fluctuates between a few and around a dozen. According to Wasersztajn's testimony, as well as that of other witnesses, the Gestapo spoke with a group of people, who are commonly assumed to have been the so-called administration of the town.

Q.: Who were the people from the so-called administration of the town?

A.: They were the people, who, in a period of the terrible chaos which must have existed in the transitory period between the Soviet and the German occupations, that is, between about the end of June, and the second half of July 1941, took over power, and were recognized by the Germans as leaders of the local community collaborating with them.

Q.: The Gestapo appeared in the morning in Jedwabne, and what happened next?

A.: It began with the herding of Poles to the town square, which was done, according to witnesses, jointly by the German gendarmes, i.e. policeman [2] and the people from the collaborating administration. In the testimonials there is mention of the fact that German policeman hit some of the Jedwabne Poles in the face with rifle butts or their hands, which is evidence that some of them did not want to go to the town square.

Q.: Why did the Jedwabne inhabitants of Polish descent balk at going to the town square?

A.: Because there were rumors that the Germans were going to deport them. Please remember that this population remembered the Soviet deportations of the 1940-1941 period.

Q.: When the Poles were assembled before the town hall, then the Germans --

A.: -- told them to conduct the Jews to the town square. In order that the whole operation should go more smoothly, the German policemen handed out wooden bats to the male Poles. The Poles did as they were told. When the Jews were already assembled, first they were told to do some clean-up work, specifically, they had to pull up the grass growing between pavement stones. They were also forced to destroy the monument to Lenin, which was erected in the Jedwabne Town Square during the period of Soviet occupation. The Jews were beaten, humiliated, ridiculed. In the testimony we find descriptions that they were forced to do derisive exercises and to chant or repeat rhythmically, "war because of us, war because of us."

Q.: Who forced them to do this?

A.: Poles, as much as Germans, who, in addition, photographed the Jews, but also a group of individuals from outlying villages, that happened to be in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941.

Q.: Who gave the orders in the town square?

A.: In several of the depositions there is mention that this was done by the Germans; they, too, were in charge of the events that took place in front of the town hall, which appears to be as something obvious, except that, we do not have even a single source which would indicate that any Poles refused, ostentatiously, to participate in the humiliation of the Jews.

Q.: Some historians assert that before the holocaust of the Jews in the barn, first several score of men, in the prime of life, were killed outside of the town, in the cemetery.

A.: The testimony of witnesses speaks to this. If it were so, then the murdered in the cemetery were none the less buried in a common grave in the barn in which a decisive majority of Jedwabne Jews died.

Q.: What was the ratio between the population of Polish and Jewish descent in Jedwabne?

A.: According to the general census of 1931 in Jedwabne there were 2167 inhabitants, including 60% Poles. After the outbreak of war the people of the town began to migrate. Jan Jerzy Milewski, historian of the Białystok Division of the Institute of National Memory, brought a 1940 NKVD [3] document from the archive in Grodno showing that at that time in Jedwabne there were about 560 Jews. I don't think that today we can state exactly how many Jews there were in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941.

Q.: John Thomas Gross states in Neighbors that 60 years ago 1600 Jews died in Jedwabne.

A.: This number came about when the town administration in 1945 answered a questionnaire sent by the Main Commission Examining German Crimes giving this as the number of murdered Jews. In the 1949 trial, 1200 is given as the number of murdered. In the Jedwabne Memorial Book, compiled by Jews and published in the United States in 1980, the number 1400 is given; then again, in the documents of the investigation which were conducted in the 1960's and 1970's by the prosecutor, Waldemar Monkiewicz, mention is made of 800 to 1200 murdered Jews. One should probably have no illusions that we will ever know the exact number of those killed, but I believe that 1600 murdered is decidedly an overstated estimate.

Q.: Since in 1941 at least 500-600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, then how could it be possible that several hundred Poles conducted them without a problem, first to the town square, and then to the place of execution. The presence of a few or of a dozen armed Gestapo, also, in my opinion, does not clarify everything, because, you will remember, that when in 1941 the Germans in other localities murdered Jews, for example in Jozefów or in Białystok, then the ratio between the executioners and the victims was one to three or four. And even though a year later in the Lublin district, these ratios were different, because as 1 to 10, then on the assumption, that in Jedwabne there were 10 Gestapo and 600 Jews, the relationship is 1 to 60. On the other hand, the uncomplicated burning of 1600 Jews, as Prof. Gross states, by Poles alone, without the presence of the Gestapo seem to me as totally incomprehensible.

A.: I considered this matter many times. I believe that several hundred Jews must have perished, but not 1600, the number given by Prof. Gross. We know that after July 1941 there was a ghetto in Jedwabne for several months. It is said that 50 to 100 Jews lived in the ghetto before they were transported to the ghetto in Łomża, and then murdered. Some of the Jews, as related by witnesses, mainly young men, broke away when they were led, first to the market square, and then to the place of execution. A small group was saved by the Poles.

In my opinion, and I base it on documents, there were 8 to 11 policemen [2] , several Gestapo, or, in total, there could have been from a dozen to twenty or so Germans, armed with firearms. They were helped by Poles, who tormented the Jews and murdered them. There were several score Poles who acted with such cruelty. The prosecutors identified over forty such individuals. There was also a crowd composed of Poles who behaved variously. Some of them poked and verbally abused the Jews, some of them looked on with interest, some were helpless. An important factor was the chaos and a lack of knowledge. First, the Poles did not know for what purpose the Germans rounded them up to the market place, then the Jews, I believe, were not sure, why they were led out of their homes.

Q.: Why do you think so? After all, three days earlier the Germans murdered the Jews in Radzilow only a few kilometers from Jedwabne, and the Jedwabne Jews surely must have known about it.

A.: Because in the course of exhumation, keys to their houses were found which would testify to the fact that at least some of them believed that they would return to their homes.

I imagine that several hundred Jews were driven by several score of Poles, and about twenty armed Germans. Even though there were not many Germans in Jedwabne, their presence was of fundamental importance. I think that it was clear to everyone that everything happened according to the German dictate, and moreover there were also Germans in the vicinity around Jedwabne who were masters of the situation.

Q.: Could the Poles have been armed with firearms?

A.: From the testimony of the 1949 trial it appears that Karol Bardon who was one of the most active murderers in July 1941 had already became a policeman, although he was not yet in uniform. He, however, had signed the Volks list because he came from the Teschen Silesia [4]. It was for this reason, after all, that he was sentenced in 1947 in a separate trial.

Q.: In 1964 the Center for Prosecuting Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg found that it was "highly probable that SS-Obersturmfuehrer [5] Hermann Schaper directed the action of the mass murder of Jews in Radzilow on July 7, 1941." According to this judicial center, Schaper, most likely, is responsible also for the crimes in Jedwabne, Łomża, Rutki, Wiznia and Zambrów. What, in your opinion, was the role of Schaper in the crime committed in Jedwabne? First, please explain what the Einsatzgruppen and Eisatzkommando were, because Schaper was a member of such an organization.

A.: The Einsatzgruppen were composed of functionaries of the SS and Gestapo. They were to follow the advancing German front, and their basic mission was the murder of Jews and communists. However, the Soviets, after the outbreak of war, began to retreat so rapidly under the pressure of Hitler's armies, that on July 10 the Einsatzgruppen (there were 5 such formations and each was composed from 500 to 1000 functionaries) were far to the east of Jedwabne. The Germans had to very quickly create small commandos (Einsatzkommando) numbering from several to several score people who occupied themselves with killing Jews and communists in the captured territories.

Schaper was a functionary of the Gestapo from Płock, a center under the Gestapo chief from Ciechanów. At the beginning of the 1960's the Center for Prosecuting Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg conducted an investigation charging him with directing the Einsatzkommando which murdered and incited the local population - in other words, Poles in the vicinity of Łomża - to kill Jews. At the beginning of the 1960's two witnesses from Israel - Chaja Finkelstein from Radziłów and Izchak Feler from Tykocin - recognized Schaper from the photograph as the person who directed the murders in Radziłów and Tykocin.

Q.: What happened in Radziłów? In my opinion, it's not possible to understand Jedwabne if one omits the pogrom 3-days-earlier in Radziłów.

A.: I agree. I think it is necessary to view the two events together. We know that on July 7, 1941 the Gestapo came to Radziłów. We can say that the procedures employed in the Radziłów crime bore a striking resemblance to those which were used in Jedwabne, beginning with the assembling in the market square first, the Polish population, then the Jewish, with the Jews in Radziłów also having to weed the grass between the pavement stones, chant in rhythm, "war because of us," do exercises, etc. This type of behavior took place, after all, in many places around Łomża. The basic difference between the crime in Radziłów and in Jedwabne was that the Germans in Radziłów gave Poles firearms (several rifles) and three days to get rid of the Jews, otherwise they would - they threatened - make short work of the Poles. In all likelihood, Schaper led the Germans, and, since this locality is only a few kilometers distant from Jedwabne, and one crime was committed within three days of the other, the center at Ludwigsburg acknowledged that it was highly probable, that Schaper's kommando was responsible for both murders. The Germans, however, did not admit that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Schaper.

Q.: Was the massacre in Jedwabne planned by the Germans?

A.: Certainly, at least some elements of organization on the German side were in effect, this, if nothing else, is evident from the fact, that the German policemen handed the Poles wooden bats that had been readied earlier.

Q.: Did the Germans film the murder, as is sometimes said?

A.: From conclusions to date, they had no film crew there. They limited themselves to taking still pictures.

Q.: Could the Poles, in the so-called town government that collaborated with the Germans, have known before July 10th that a mass murder of Jews was being prepared?

A.: I do not deny the possibility that a small group knew about it, since in a few depositions there is information that on the night of 9/10 of July, one of the Poles heard from Karolak, the so-called Mayor of Jedwabne, that tomorrow the Germans would come and shoot or burn the Jews. Q.: What gave the Poles of Jedwabne or Radziłów the impetus to murder Jews who were their neighbors, fellow townsmen?

A.: From my research it appears that the catalyst for violence against the Jews after the Soviets departed, was the motive of revenge for the collaboration of the Jews - real or imagined - with the Soviets in the period between the 17th of September 1939 [6] and the 22nd of June 1941. However, the victims of this revenge were not the collaborators themselves, rather the whole Jewish community, including women and children. The anger and pain accumulated in the almost 2-year long period of frightful soviet occupation was disgorged by the Poles on all the Jews, who were regarded as an alien ethnic group, and as collaborating with the Soviet administration and the Soviet apparatus of repression.

Q.: Was the conviction spread among the Polish population that Jews collaborated with the Soviets a stereotype, or did it reflect reality?

A.: - This is a complex issue, about which, summarizing greatly, we can say the following: In September 1939, the defeat of Poland, was for Poles the end of the world. For Jews, on the other hand, it was the end of a country in which they did not feel good, and the beginning of an order on which, in the beginning, they set great hopes, and that is why the Jews, in many localities, put up welcoming arches for the Red Army, and they joined the communist police. After September 17, 1939, the Poles lost many administrative positions and jobs government, in schools, hospitals, etc. in favor of the Jews Polish witnesses from many localities state that some Jews aided the NKVD in their deportation of Poles to the USSR, pointing out specific Polish families.

Q.: Did the Nazi propaganda try to feed the anti-Jewish feeling to the Polish people living in the region which, between 1939 and 1941, was under Soviet occupation?

A.: At the beginning of the occupation there was no propaganda, but, it is certain, that Germans, Wehrmacht soldiers in some localities, the Gestapo or the SS in other places, encouraged those Poles to retaliate against the Jews.

Q.: Towards the end of June 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD and the SS, issued an order relative to provoking the Poles, Ukrainians and other nationals living on the Eastern Border, to actions of removal, or pogroms of Jews. How, in practice, was it carried out?

A.: Jedwabne and Radziłów show that they were done effectively. On the other hand, Heydrich's order says that no traces should be left of exterminating actions inspired by the Einsatzkommando.

Q.: Who initiated the idea of wiping out the Jews in Jedwabne and Radziłów?

A.: I am inclined to say it was an idea that was advanced by the Germans.

Q.: Why?

A.: Because in the places where Poles organized anti-Jewish pogroms after June 22, 1941, the scale of violence, the number of killed victims was incomparably lower than that which took place in Jedwabne or Radziłów. The method of killing was different. Poles murdered Jews by hitting them with rods, or they used knives for this end, drowned them, sometimes they shot them. Burning them was something unusual, and according to what we have determined to date, only in Jedwabne and Radziłów did slaying by Poles occurr in this manner. The Germans, on the other hand, had burned Jews before, as early as 1939, and also, for example, on June 27, 1941 in Białystok, where they burned circa 1000 Jews in a synagogue. That which occurred in Jedwabne and Radziłów was an act of annihilation, and the Poles, in contrast to the Germans, had no such plans or intentions.

Translator's notes

[1] - Ludwigsburg is the location in German where all the materials pertaining to war crimes committed by German citizens during the Nazi period are archived.
[2] - In response to request for clarification by this Center regarding what type of unit did the gendarmes in question belong to, Pawel Mackiewicz, the Director of the Office of Public Information of Poland's institute of National Memory has provided the following explanation (English translation by Peter K. Gessner):

The 8-11 German gendarmes (there are different reports regarding their number), who were present in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, were members of the Field Police (Feldgendarmerie) who were charged with maintaining order at the rear of the front (in addition, references are clearly also made to Gestapo officers who appeared in Jedwabne on July 10). At the time, the area was under military command, only later did the civilian police units (Schutzpolizei) show up.
[3] - NKVD - the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, i.e. the Soviet secret police.
[4] - Being on the Volksdeutsche list indicated that one was a German national. Poles in Cieszyn (Teschen) were often forced to sign this list.
[5] - First lieutenant.
[6] - June 17, 1939, was the day on which the Soviet Armies invaded Poland, then already under German attack.

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