Cover image for Neighbors : the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland
Neighbors : the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland
Gross, Jan Tomasz.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Sąsiedzi. English
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
x, 261 pages : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 20 cm
General Note:
Originally published: Sąsiedzi: historia zlałady żydowskiego miasteczka.
Format :


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Material Type
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DS135.P62 J444 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
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One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town's Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne's Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne's surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne's Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.

In many ways, this is a simple book. It is easy to read in a single sitting, and hard not to. But its simplicity is deceptive. Gross's new and persuasive answers to vexed questions rewrite the history of twentieth-century Poland. This book proves, finally, that the fates of Poles and Jews during World War II can be comprehended only together.

Author Notes

Jan T. Gross is Professor of Politics and European Studies at New York University

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

On July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne, Poland, the town's 1,600 Jews were murdered by its 1,600 Christians. The non-Jews armed themselves with axes, clubs studded with nails, and other instruments of torture and chased the Jews into the street. Some Jews were butchered and thrown into a hole they had been forced to dig. Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers' breasts, and some people were beaten and forced to sing and dance. The Jews that were still alive were herded into a barn that was doused with kerosene and set on fire. After the fire, the townspeople used axes to knock gold teeth from still not entirely decomposed bodies, and in other ways violated the corpses. The sources the author used to chronicle this horrible episode include evidence recorded during trials in 1949 and 1953 and a memorial book of the Jedwabne Jews published in 1980, in which several eyewitnesses described the tragedy of their hometown. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Claude Lanzman's myth-shattering documentary film Shoah demonstrated that some Polish peasants were keenly aware of the Nazis' mass murder of Jews on Polish soil. This volume takes the real-life horror story a step further, documenting how nearly all of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, were murdered on one day most of them burned alive by their non-Jewish neighbors. Drawing on testimony that prompted and emanated from a 1949 Polish trial, Gross carefully describes how apparently normal citizens terrorized and killed approximately 1,600 Jewish villagers. Gross, a professor of politics and European studies at New York University, also attempts to place this heinous crime in historical and political context, concluding that he can explain but not fully understand. How to understand the Polish villagers, led by their mayor, exceeding the July 10, 1941, command of conquering German soldiers to annihilate the Jews but spare some tradesmen? Immediately,according to Gross, local townsmen-turned-hooligans grabbed clubs studded with nails and other weapons and chased the Jews into the street. Many tried to escape through the surrounding fields, but only seven succeeded. The thugs fatally shot many Jews after forcing them to dig mass graves. They shoved the remaining hundreds of Jews into a barn, doused it with kerosene and set it ablaze. Some on the outside played musical instruments to drown out the victims' cries. Yet Neighbors isn't as terrifying as one might expect, since Gross, a Polish ?migr? himself, guides the reader along an analytical path. By de-emphasizing the drama, he helps readers cope with the awful incident, but his narrative occasionally bogs down in his own thoughts. Still, he asserts hopefully that young Poles are "ready to confront the unvarnished history of Polish-Jewish relations during the war." (May) Forecast: The always heated question of the role of Poles in the Holocaust comes to a head here. The book is bound to generate controversy (it has already garnered mention in the New York Times), though its sales will probably be limited. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This very important small book by Gross (political science, New York Univ.), an expert on Poland, further refutes the myth that the Holocaust may be entirely attributed to the Nazis and their henchmen. Following recent research that implicates the regular German army and military police, this study conclusively proves that in the town Jedwabne the local Polish population--when given permission, but not orders--massacred 1,600 local Jews, virtually all of their Jewish "neighbors." (Seven Jews were hidden by a Polish family.) At least half of the adult men participated in decapitating some, piercing others with sharp spikes, and cremating the majority alive in a barn that was doused with kerosene. The Nazis simply stood by and took pictures. This thoroughly documented volume also gives powerful evidence that primitive methods and ancient antisemitic motifs based on religion (such as the ritual murder libel) played a role alongside mechanized destruction and Nazi racial doctrine. Gross further puts to rest the myth that Jews, in particular, were connected with the Soviet regimes before the Nazi invasion of the USSR and after the war. The evidence suggests that it was the antisemites who opportunistically collaborated with the Soviet regimes. All collections. M. A. Meyer Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion



On January 8, 1949, in the small town of Jedwabne, some nineteen kilometers from Lomz in Poland's historical province of Mazowsze, security police detained fifteen men. We find their names in a memorandum ominously called Raport likwidacyjny (A liquidation report) among the so-called control-investigative files ( akta kontrolno-sledcze ) kept by the security police to monitor their own progress in each investigation.1 Among the arrested, mostly small farmers and seasonal workers, there were two shoemakers, a mason, a carpenter, two locksmiths, a letter carrier, and a former town-hall receptionist. Some were family men (one a father of six children, another of four), some still unattached. The youngest was twenty-seven years old, the oldest sixty-four. They were, to put it simply, a bunch of ordinary men.2 Jedwabne's inhabitants, at the time totaling about two thousand, must have been shocked by the simultaneous arrests of so many local residents.3 The wider public got a glimpse of the whole affair four months later, when, on May 16 and 17 in the District Court of Lomz, Boleslaw Ramotowski and twenty-one codefendants were put on trial. The opening sentence of the indictment reads, "Jewish Historical Institute in Poland sent materials to the Ministry of Justice describing criminal activities of the inhabitants of Jedwabne who engaged in the murder of Jewish people, as stated in the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn who witnessed the pogrom of the Jews."4 There are no records at the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) telling us how or when Wasersztajn's deposition was communicated to the prosecutor's office. On the basis of the court files, likewise, it is impossible to know, for example, when the prosecution was informed about what had happened in Jedwabne, and why the indictment was so long delayed. The control-investigative files from the Lomz Security Office shed some light on the matter, but they are also inconclusive.5 In any case, Wasersztajn gave his testimony before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok on April 5, 1945. And this is what he said: Before the war broke out, 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, and only seven survived, saved by a Polish woman, Wyrzykowska, who lived in the vicinity. On Monday evening, June 23, 1941, Germans entered the town. And as early as the 25th local bandits, from the Polish population, started an anti-Jewish pogrom. Two of those bandits, Borowski (Borowiuk?) Wacek with his brother Mietek, walked from one Jewish dwelling to another together with other bandits playing accordion and flute to drown the screams of Jewish women and children. I saw with my own eyes how those murderers killed Chajcia Wasersztajn, Jakub Kac, seventy-three years old, and Eliasz Krawiecki. Jakub Kac they stoned to death with bricks. Krawiecki they knifed and then plucked his eyes and cut off his tongue. He suffered terribly for twelve hours before he gave up his soul. On the same day I observed a horrible scene. Chaja Kubrzanska, twenty-eight years old, and Basia Binsztajn, 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 Baska Binsztajn jumped in and immediately went to the bottom, while Chaja Kubrzanska suffered for a couple of hours. Assembled hooligans made a spectacle of this. They advised her to lie face down in the water, so that she would drown faster. Finally, seeing that the children were already dead, she threw herself more energetically into the water and found her death too. The next day a local priest intervened, explaining that they should stop the pogrom, and that German authorities would take care of things by themselves. This worked, and the pogrom was stopped. From this day on the local population no longer sold foodstuffs to Jews, which made their circumstances all the more difficult. In the meantime rumors spread that the Germans would issue an order that all the Jews be destroyed. Such an order was issued by the Germans on July 10, 1941. Even though the Germans gave the order, it was Polish hooligans who took it up and carried it out, using the most horrible methods. After various tortures and humiliations, they burned all the Jews in a barn. During the first pogrom and the later bloodbath the following outcasts distinguished themselves by their brutality: Szlezinski, Karolak, Borowiuk (Borowski?) Mietek, Borowiuk (Borowski?) Waclaw, Jermalowski, Ramutowski Bolek, Rogalski Bolek, Szelawa Stanislaw, Szelawa Franciszek, Kozlowski Geniek, Trzaska, Tarnoczek Jerzyk, Ludanski Jurek, Laciecz Czeslaw. On the morning of July 10, 1941, eight gestapo men came to town and had a meeting with representatives of the town authorities. When the gestapo asked what their plans were with respect to the Jews, they said, unanimously, that all Jews must be killed. When the Germans proposed to leave one Jewish family from each profession, local carpenter Bronislaw Szlezinski, who was present, answered: We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive. Mayor Karolak and everybody else agreed with his words. For this purpose Szlezinski gave his own barn, which stood nearby. After this meeting the bloodbath began. 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. As the first victims of their devilish instincts they selected seventy-five of the youngest and healthiest Jews, whom they ordered to pick up a huge monument of Lenin that the Russians had erected in the center of town. It was impossibly heavy, but under a rain of horrible blows the Jews had to do it. While carrying the monument, they also had to sing until they brought it to the designated place. There, they were ordered to dig a hole and throw the monument in. Then these Jews were butchered to death and thrown into the same hole. The other brutality was when the murderers ordered every Jew to dig a hole and bury all previously murdered Jews, and then those were killed and in turn buried by others. It is impossible to represent all the brutalities of the hooligans, and it is difficult to find in our history of suffering something similar. Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers' breasts, people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance. In the end they proceeded to the main action--the burning. The entire town was surrounded by guards so that nobody could escape; then Jews were ordered to line up in a column, four in a row, and the ninety-year-old rabbi and the shochet [ Kosher butcher ] were put in front, they were given a red banner, and all were ordered to sing and were chased into the barn. Hooligans bestially beat them up on the way. Near the gate a few hooligans were standing, playing various instruments in order to drown the screams of horrified victims. Some tried to defend themselves, but they were defenseless. Bloodied and wounded, they were pushed into the barn. Then the barn was doused with kerosene and lit, and the bandits went around to search Jewish homes, to look for the remaining sick and children. The sick people they found they carried to the barn themselves, and as for the little children, they roped a few together by their legs and carried them on their backs, then put them on pitchforks and threw them onto smoldering coals. After the fire they used axes to knock golden teeth from still not entirely decomposed bodies and in other ways violated the corpses of holy martyrs.6 While it is clear to a reader of Wasersztajn's deposition that Jews were annihilated in Jedwabne with particular cruelty, it is difficult at first to fully absorb the meaning of his testimony. And, in a way, I am not at all surprised that four years had elapsed between the time when he made his statement and the beginning of the Lomz trial. This is, more or less, the amount of time that elapsed between my discovery of Wasersztajn's testimony in JHI's archives and my grasp of its factuality. When in the autumn of 1998 I was asked to contribute an article to a Festschrift prepared for Professor Tomasz Strzembosz--a well-known historian who specialized in wartime history of the Bialystok region--I decided to use the example of Jedwabne to describe how Polish neighbors mistreated their Jewish cocitizens. But I did not fully register then that after the series of killings and cruelties described by Wasersztajn, at the end of the day all the remaining Jews were actually burned alive in a barn (I must have read this as a hyperbolic trope, concluding that only some had been killed that way). A few months after I submitted my essay, I watched raw footage for the documentary film Where Is My Older Brother Cain? made by Agnieszka Arnold, who, among other interlocutors, spoke with the daughter of Bronislaw Sleszynski, and I realized that Wasersztajn has to be taken literally. As the book had not yet been published, I wondered whether I should withdraw my chapter. However, I decided to leave the chapter unchanged, because one important aspect of the Jedwabne story concerns the slow dawning of Polish awareness of this horrendous crime. How did this event figure (or, rather, fail to figure) in the consciousness of historians of the war period--myself included? How did the population of Jedwabne live for three generations with the knowledge of these murders? How will the Polish citizenry process the revelation when it becomes public knowledge?7 In any case, once we realize that what seems inconceivable is precisely what happened, a historian soon discovers that the whole story is very well documented, that witnesses are still alive, and that the memory of this crime has been preserved in Jedwabne through the generations. -- Reprinted from Neighbors by Jan T. Gross by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c)  2002, Jan T. Gross. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission Excerpted from Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 3
Outline of the Storyp. 14
Sourcesp. 23
Before the Warp. 33
Soviet Occupation, 1939-1941p. 41
The Outbreak of the Russo-German War and the Pogrom in Radzilowp. 54
Preparationsp. 72
Who Murdered the Jews of Jedwabne?p. 79
The Murderp. 90
Plunderp. 105
Intimate Biographiesp. 111
Anachronismp. 122
What Do People Remember?p. 126
Collective Responsibilityp. 132
New Approach to Sourcesp. 138
Is It Possible to Be Simultaneously a Victim and a Victimizer?p. 143
Collaborationp. 152
Social Support for Stalinismp. 164
For a New Historiographyp. 168
Postscriptp. 171
Notesp. 205
Indexp. 249