In September 1939, the Łomża region was occupied by the Soviets, and then it was incorporated into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. During 21 months of new rule, relations between Poles and Jews significantly deteriorated. The reasons for this transition were complex. At that time, many Poles came to believe that a significant proportion of Jews welcomed the incoming Red Army, then consequently collaborated with the new authorities in various fields and joined in the construction of a new order. This was viewed as a betrayal of the Polish state and a manifestation of cooperation with the occupier. However, the Jewish community's perception of this situation was different. Taking up jobs in administration, education and business institutions was often considered a legitimate professional advancement, previously impossible or obstructed by the authorities of the Second Republic of Poland, trying - especially in the second half of the 1930s - to limit the influence of national minorities in various spheres of public life. The Jewish population, especially in small towns, became a natural support for the new administration - due to their loyalty, lack of concern about pro-German attitude, relatively high level of education, and finally a high rate of unemployment, which was the reason why Jews willingly accepted job offers.
Social advancement of Jews was also part of the Soviet policy which in the first months of the occupation clearly promoted ethnic minorities, as well as groups previously excluded: supporters of communism, youth and the poor. Many representatives of these groups started cooperating with the new authorities in various fields, even by co-creating temporary administrative bodies (various "revolutionary committees" preceding the establishment of permanent Soviet structures), joining the ranks of the people's militia and workers' guard, taking up numerous positions in the new Soviet administration, education, and nationalized economy. However, this policy began to change as early as 1940. As the situation developed, it turned out that Jews were also subject to various occurrences typical of the Stalinist system, they could be sent to Siberia on various charges, and even the most zealous supporters of the new system were sometimes replaced by other officials.
However, the described phenomena caused a strong resentment among Poles, even more so because Jews often took over the functions of those repressed by the new authorities, thus becoming enemies of the armed underground, which was very strong in the region. This resentment superimposed on the previously difficult relations between the absolutely dominating majority and the minority, as well as on the very strong influence exerted by National Democracy in Western Podlachia, which already resulted in numerous anti-Jewish excesses in the 1930s (including a boycott of shops, a pogrom in Radziłów in March 1933; among the participants in the pogroms perpetrated in 1941 there were "veterans" of anti-Jewish outbreaks that took place in 1930s).
As early as 1938, Józef Chałasiński in the book “Młode pokolenie chłopów” (Young generation of peasants), primarily based on an analysis of diaries which were sent to him, considered "emotional anti-Semitism" as the specificity of the Białystok province of that time. Marek Wierzbicki concluded that, as a result of a combination of all these factors: "the pre-war antisemitism of Poles confined to certain circles, such as the followers of the National Democracy movement, gained much strength and expanded to practically all layers of Polish society in the Soviet-occupied area [...]. Jews became identified with the Soviet system, and hatred of the Soviets was identified with hatred of Jews. In this way, in the years 1939–1941, under the influence of the experience of the Soviet occupation, one of the elements of patriotism in the Eastern Borderlands became, in a sense, antisemitism, understood as a fight against the Soviet (that is "Jewish") authorities for the independence of Poland, which - in the opinion of most Poles - Jews betrayed”.
After the Soviets withdrew, with varying German involvement, Poles in Łomża and Białystok regions, with varying German involvement, committed many acts of violence against their Jewish neighbours. IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) studies have identified such occurrences in 23 localities. Apart for Jedwabne, they were: Bielsk Podlaski (Pilki village), Choroszcz, Czyżew, Goniądz, Grajewo, Jasionówka, Kleszczele, Knyszyn, Kolno, Kuźnica, Narewka, Piątnica, Radziłów, Rajgród, Sokoły, Stawiski, Suchowola, Szczuczyn, Trzcianne, Tykocin, Wasilków, Wąsosz and Wizna. All these outbreaks had four things in common: antisemitism of a significant part of the local Polish population; the robbery of Jewish property as one of the main motives of aggression against Jewish neighbours; thirst for revenge for real or imaginary cooperation of Jews with the Soviet occupiers; finally, German inspiration - varying in different places, from direct organization of the pogrom to giving only encouragement or consent. In some of the well-known anti-Jewish occurrences in Podlachia region several or more than a dozen people were killed, in others - mainly in Jedwabne and Radziłów – hundreds of people became the victims of mass murders.
The lead-ins to the Jedwabne murder were the events of June 25, 1941. Three Jews were murdered, and two women with young children were forced to commit suicide by drowning in a pond; the victims of the murder were local communists and the women who drowned in the pond were the wives of two other Jewish communists who managed to escape with the retreating Soviets. On that day, three Poles regarded as collaborators were also killed. However, while in the first days after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war both Poles and Jews were among those murdered and denounced as communists in Jedwabne, on July 10, 1941, a wave of violence hit only the latter, and affected the entire community.
What happened in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, consisted of many consecutive events. According to many accounts, a group of Gestapo officers came to the town in the morning and they turned out to be the inspirators and probably organizer of the murder. The first stage was to drive Jews out of their homes, which was undoubtedly done by Poles, and then "leaving them" at the Market Square. A lot of onlookers were waiting there, including many peasants from the nearby villages. Some of him undoubtedly wanted to see violence (they had already known about the burning of Jews during the pogrom in Radziłów three days earlier), some were rather confused and terrified, but remained obedient to the initiators of the pogrom fearing the consequences of evading orders. It is not known whether, as in other places, also in Jedwabne, there was a cordon of people holding each other’s hands to prevent the gathered Jews from escaping.
The leading role was played by a group of at least 40 brutal murderers, supported by a dozen armed Germans, giving the pogrom a consent of the occupation authorities. It is possible, but it is only a supposition that this group had roots in the ephemeral, self-proclaimed Polish auxiliary police, which "maintained order" in the area in the period between the withdraw of one occupier and stabilization of the administrative apparatus of the other.
Jews were forced to demolish the Lenin monument and to shout the slogan "we are the cause of the war". Then several dozens of them, in a peculiar procession headed by a rabbi waving a red flag, carried broken fragments of the monument around the Market Square. Stigmatizing Jews as responsible for communism turned into beating and humiliating lasting several hours. The first murders took place. The Germans - Gestapo offices and gendarmes were present at these events. According to some witnesses, they were the ones who gave orders.
In the last act, this "ritual", known from many other towns, led to mass murder. A bunch of perpetrators rushed Jews to Bronisław Śleszyński's barn. There, a group of about 40-50 men who were previously forced to carry the remains of the Lenin monument, got murdered. After them, probably about 300 other people were driven into the barn - the remaining Jews brought from the Market Square, including women and children. The walls of the building were doused with kerosene and then set on fire. The total number of victims of the Jedwabne pogrom was estimated at several hundred.
After the war, the pogrom in Jedwabne became the subject of several proceedings. The investigation conducted in 1948–1949 by the County Office of Public Security in Łomża led to a hearing before the Regional Court in Łomża in May 1949. It was the so-called Ramotowski and others trial. The indictment covered 22 residents of Jedwabne, accused under the so-called August decree, "about sentencing fascist-Nazi criminals." Eleven defendants were sentenced to imprisonment for 8 to 15 years, and one was sentenced to death. This verdict was subsequently changed into 15 years in prison. In 1953, the so-called Sobuty's trial took place in the same court; the defendant was acquitted due to lack of enough evidence. The next proceedings in the Jedwabne case were carried out by the District Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Bialystok in 1967–1974. In this case it was assumed a priori that Jedwabne Jews were murdered by German military gendarmes from the local post. The prosecutor did not consider the participation of Poles in the murder and did not mention it in the final decision.
Later, in the free Poland the case of the Jedwabne pogrom was the subject of an investigation conducted by the Institute of National Remembrance in 2000–2002. Although 98 witnesses were questioned, all the details of the crime could not be reconstructed. The investigating prosecutor Ignatiew concluded with the following statement: “Witnesses’ testimonies are so divergent that, as a rule, it is impossible to verify one testimony with another”. As for the Germans, it was assumed that "probably in a small group they assisted in bringing victims to the market, and their active role was limited to that. In the light of the gathered evidence it is not clear whether they participated in convoying victims to the place of execution and whether they were present at the barn. In this regard witnesses’ testimonies differ fundamentally”. However, "regarding the participation of the Polish population in the crime, it should be assumed that it played a decisive role in the implementation of the criminal plan”.
The discussion about the pogrom in Jedwabne that flared up at the beginning of the 21st century was one of the most important public debates that took place in Poland after 1989. It affected not only the estimation of Polish-Jewish relations, but also the image of the entire history of Poland in the 20th century, in its most dramatic aspects, relating to issues such as World War II, German and Soviet occupation, and the attitude of Poles towards Jews and Germans. Some participants in this debate even asked questions about the validity of traditional ideas about the history of Poland, focusing on the struggle for freedom, national uprisings, and especially on the suffering inflicted on Poles by strangers.
The most important element of the Jedwabne debate was the issue of Poles' participation - not as forced, helpless witnesses of the suffering of Jewish neighbours, but as perpetrators and executors of this brutal crime. In 1966, Szymon Datner, a historian associated with the Jewish Historical Institute and the Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, wrote about the participation of Poles in the pogroms in the summer of 1941. In his short text Eksterminacja ludności żydowskiej w Okręgu Białostockim (Extermination of the Jewish People in the Bialystok District) ["Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute" 1966, No. 60] he mentioned, among others Jedwabne and Radziłów, indicating however the coordinating role of the Germans:
"To the crimes in these areas, the Germans drew scum of the local population (...) Where the Germans did not find compliant executors, they did the bloody work themselves."
In 1992, Andrzej Żbikowski took up the subject of Jedwabne in the article Lokalne pogromy Żydów w czerwcu i lipcu 1941 roku na wschodnich rubieżach II Rzeczypospolitej (Local pogroms of Jews in the eastern borderlands of the Second Polish Republic in June and July 1941) ["Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute" 1992, No. 2/3). The name of the town was mentioned there among 31 places where anti-Jewish incidents "resulted in fatalities". He concluded, however, that "acts of hostility towards the Jewish population took mass forms mainly in areas inhabited by the Ukrainian population," he also distanced himself from the information about the burning of Radziłów and Jedwabne Jews, emphasizing the impossible number of victims. This text, like the previous one, published in the professional periodical, did not evoke a wider response. It is worth noting that in the non-specialist press the subject of the participation of Poles in the Jedwabne murder was covered a little earlier - also in the almost unnoticed reportage of Danuta and Aleksander Wroniszewski “...aby żyć” (…to stay alive), published in Łomża 'Kontakty' from July 10, 1988.
The general debate over the events in Jedwabne did not start until November 2000. It was ignited by the famous book Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka (Neighbours. The history of the extermination of a Jewish town) by Jan Tomasz Gross published six months earlier (Sejny 2000), followed by two articles by Andrzej Kaczyński: Całopalenie. W Jedwabnem zagłady Żydów Niemcy dokonali polskimi rękami (Burnt offering. In Jedwabne, the Germans exterminated Jews with Polish hands.) [„Rzeczpospolita”, May 5, 2000] and Oczyszczenie pamięci (Purification of memory) [“Rzeczpospolita”, May 19, 2000].
Gross's book was based on the files of criminal trials of Ramotowski and others (1949) and Sobuta (1953), as well as on the accounts of Szmul Wasersztejn and Menachem Finkelsztejn. Some historians, after reading the 1949 files, accused the author of a selective use of the sources. Tomasz Strzembosz's wrote a widely read article on the crime motifs Przemilczana kolaboracja (Concealed collaboration), published in “Rzeczpospolita” on January 27, 2001. In response, Jan Tomasz Gross published the volume Wokół „Sąsiadów: polemiki i wyjaśnienia (About the “Neighbours”: polemics and explanations) [Sejny 2003].
The discussion on Jedwabne reached its peak in the spring of 2001. Each month brought over 100 different press publications. It is worth mentioning the article by Dariusz Stola Pomnik ze słów (Monument from words) ["Rzeczpospolita", June 1-2, 2001] and the review by Antoni Sułek – zwykła recenzja (ordinary review) [“Więź” 2002, No. 12) which caused J. T. Gross' polemical response to Antoni Sułek (“Więź” 2002, No. 4). There was also a polemic between Tomasz Strzembosz and Izrael Gutman (see, for example: Strzembosz T., Panu Prof. Gutmanowi do sztambucha (To Mr. Prof. Gutman’s album), "Więź" 2001, No. 6, and Gutman I., Oni I my. W odpowiedzi Prof. Tomaszowi Strzemboszowi (Them and us. In reply to Prof. Tomasz Strzembosz). “Więź” 2001, No. 8).
Then the debate quite abruptly ceased - this took place with the unveiling of the monument in Jedwabne on July 10, 2001. Further mentions dealt mainly with the progress of the investigation conducted by the Institute of National Remembrance. Its efforts resulted in a two-volume publication prepared by several researchers over almost two years of work and entitled Wokół Jedwabnego (About Jedwabne). The volumes appeared in 2002. Among many important texts there was a broad study by Andrzej Żbikowski Pogromy i mordy ludności żydowskiej w Łomżyńskiem i na Białostocczyźnie latem 1941 roku w świetle relacji ocalałych Żydów i dokumentów sądowych (Pogroms and murders of the Jewish population in Łomża and Białystok regions in the summer of 1941- the accounts of surviving Jews and court documents.) On the other hand, the text by Tomasz Szarota Mord w Jedwabnem. Dokumenty, publikacje i interpretacje z lat 1941–2000. Kalendarium (Murder in Jedwabne. Documents, publications and interpretations from 1941–2000. Calendar) was focussed on Jedwabne itself.
After 2002, mainly books of varying value appeared, as well as individual articles and reviews. In total, the subject heading "Pogrom in Jedwabne" contains as many as 308 references to various items. In 2004, a well-known book reportage by Anna Bikont My z Jedwabnego (Jedwabne: Battlefield of Memory) was published, translated into many languages, and reissued in 2012. The titles of books on Jedwabne, as well as the places of their publication, show the scale and temperature, and sometimes the substantive level of many polemics and discussions. These include Jedwabne w oczach świadków (Jedwabne in the eyes of witnesses) [Włocławek, 2001]; O Jedwabne, Jedwabne... by Tadeusz Mocarski (Warsaw, 2001); Jedwabne geszefty (Jedwabne rackets) by Henryk Pająk (Lublin, 2001); Polska zdradzona: rzecz nie tylko o kłamstwach Grossa, lecz i antypolonizmie, rasizmie, ksenofobii (Poland betrayed: not only about Gross's lies, but also about anti-Polonism, racism, xenophobia) by Jan Marszałek (Warsaw, 2001); Sto kłamstw J. T. Grossa o Jedwabnem i żydowskich sąsiadach (One hundred lies of J. T. Gross about Jedwabne and Jewish neighbours) by Jerzy Robert Nowak (Warsaw, 2001); Thou shalt not kill: Poles on Jedwabne (Warsaw, 2001); Bez antysemityzmu: według relacji mieszkańca Jedwabnego niewinnie skazanego w sfingowanym procesie (Without antisemitism: according to the account of an innocent Jedwabne inhabitant convicted in a fake trial) by Wiesław Wielopolski (Pisz 2003); Kollektives Gedächtnis und tabuisierte Vergangenheit by Stephanie Kowitz (Berlin, 2004); The neighbors respond: the controversy over the Jedwabne massacre in Poland (Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2004); The Massacre in Jedwabne July 10, 1941: before, during, and after by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (New York, Columbia University Press 2005); Operacja „Jedwabne” (Operation "Jedwabne") by Lech Zdzisław Niekrasz (Wrocław, 2005). The fervour of the debate about Jedwabne led to the creation of a scientific work devoted to polemics themselves and their reception. It was entitled Spór o Jedwabne: analiza debaty publicznej (Jedwabne dispute: analysis of public debate) by Piotr Forecki (Poznań, 2008). In 2012, Witold Mędykowski in the book entitled W cieniu gigantów. Pogromy Żydów w 1941 roku w byłej sowieckiej strefie okupacyjnej. Kontekst historyczny, społeczny i kulturowy (In the shadow of the giants. Pogroms of Jews in the former Soviet occupation zone in 1941. Historical, social and cultural context) (Warsaw, 2012) showed that the pogrom in Jedwabne was part of a wave of anti-Jewish outbreaks that swept through the former Soviet occupation zone in the summer of 1941 - from the Baltic States through Łomża and Białystok regions, Eastern Galicia, all the way to Romania.