It is not known when the first Jews came to Jedwabne. Originally, it was a village which, in 1455, had a church and, from 1494, the site of a weekly market day. Jedwabne received its town rights with a Magdeburg Charter in 1736, and it is known that, at that time, many Jews moved there from nearby Tykocin. However, we know from other sources that as early as 1664, several Jewish families had settled in town, most likely due to the market days[1.1]. Initially, the Jewish population there was under the jurisdiction of the rabbinate in Tykocin.
During the 19th century, the number of Jews in Jedwabne grew considerably, from 324 in 1827 to 1,941 in 1897. By the end of the 19th century, a whole 77% of Jedwabne's population was Jewish. However, as a result of emigration in search of better work to America and as a result of the Jews' deportation by the Russians during World War I, the Jewish population dropped sharply. The 1921 census noted only 757 Jews living in Jedwabne[1.2].
Various artisans made up a large portion of the Jews in Jedwabne: cobblers, coopers, carpenters, saddlers, and wheelwrights. They sold their wares to the local peasants, and Jedwabne's crafts, such as traditionally made spinning wheels, were highly prized. The wood for their production came from the nearby forests. According to Tziporah Rothshild, the craftsmen would go to the synagogue to pray before work and would then often work until late into the night, stopping for evening prayer and the study of the Mishnah and Gemora[1.3].
In 1913, an accidental fire consumed the wooden synagogue and its precious book collection, along with numerous local homes, leaving many townspeople homeless. The rabbi of Jedwabne at the time, Eliahu Winer, was visiting his son in New York at the time, and he managed to raise a substantial sum to rebuild the synagogue. An appeal for help was also sent out to the neighbouring towns of Szczuczyna, Wizna, Radziłów, and Łomża[1.4].
The Jewish community of Jedwabne was fairly traditionally-minded, with little in the way of assimilation trends to speak of. Yiddish was in everyday use, children were sent to traditional cheders, and numerous melamdim worked in town, their schools located in a single room where the teacher's family also lived. Still, more "proper" schools, with better conditions, were not unheard of either[1.5]].
As Anna Bikont writes, "In Warsaw, Lwów or Białystok, assimilated Jews treated both religious tradition and the activity of Jewish organisations as folklore foreign to them. But in Radziłów or Jedwabne, every Jew, even those that used Polish more readily than Yiddish and were proud of ties to the Polish legions, would go to the synagogue and belong to some Jewish organisation"[[refr:]A. Bikont, My z Jedwabnego, 2004, 41.]]. During the inter-War period, in particular as a response to the increase in anti-semitism in the 1930s, zionist organisations grew in influence, while only a small group of the local Jews showed communist sympathies.
During the 1930s, the National Party (Polish: Stronnictwo Narodowe, SN) had considerable influence in the Białystok region, Jedwabne included. Youth groups from the Camp of Great Poland (Polish: Obóz Wielkiej Polski, OWP) were active in the area, often committing antisemitic acts: demolishing Jewish stores, knocking over market stalls, and agitating for the boycotting of Jewish trade. The Catholic press also had its part in spreading antisemitic propaganda[1.6].
In September 1939, the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne fled before the German forces arrived, while their homes were looted by their Polish neighbours. Between 29 September 1939 and June 1941, the town was under Soviet occupation. Some of the Jews, especially those poorer and younger, welcomed the Red Army with enthusiasm, seeing in them a reprieve from German occupation. They participated in the new local government in the police force[1.7]. However, the Jews had their workshops taken away, while the cheders and Hebrew school in town were closed.
Soon after the Germans entered the town, on 10 July 1941 Jedwabne was the site of a pogrom, during which several hundred Jews lost their lives (no less than 300-400). The victims were gathered in the town square, then driven to a barn and then set on fire. The crime was perpetrated by the Polish townsfolk with the assistance of German military police. The only survivors were 100 Jews who had been gathered in the ghetto consisting of two buildings by the Jedwabne town square. They stayed there until 2 November 1942, when they were moved to the camp in Zambrow, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they died in the gas chambers. A scant few escaped during the liquidation of the ghetto and were kept hidden by Poles in the surrounding towns[1.8].
In 1949, 22 perpetrators of the pogrom were tried, but only one received the death penalty, the punishment for deeds of this sort during German occupation. Eleven were imprisoned and ten were acquitted. The matter of the Jedwabne pogrom was more widely publicised after the release of the book Sąsiedzi by Jan T. Gross in 2000. Since 2001, an annual commemoration of the crime takes place on 10 July.
- Bikont A., My z Jedwabnego, Warszawa 2004.
- Crago L., Jedwabne, [w:] Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1939–1945, t. 2: Ghettos in German Occupied Eastern Europe, cz. A, red. P. Megargee, M. Dean, Bloomington 2012, s. 901.
- Jedwabne. Historia we-zikaron, Jeruszalajim – Nju Jork 1980.
- [1.1] J. Baker, M. Tinovitz, My Hometown Yedwabne, Province of Lomza, Poland, in: Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book, Translation of Sefer Jedwabne; Historiya ve-zikaron, 1980, [online] http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/jedwabne/yed001.html#5[Accessed 04 June 2014
- [1.2] Jedwabne, in: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, 1 (2001), 570.
- [1.3] T. Rotschild, Craftsmen, Religious Teachers and Teachers, in: Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book, Translation of Sefer Jedwabne; Historiya ve-zikaron, 1980, [online] http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/jedwabne/yed001.html#5 [Accessed 04 January 2020
- [1.4] The Destruction of the Beautiful Synagogue and the City of Yedwabne in 1913, in: Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book, Translation of Sefer Jedwabne; Historiya ve-zikaron, 1980 [online] http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/jedwabne/yed001.html#5 [Accessed 04 June 2014
- [1.5] T. Rothshild, Craftsmen, Religious Teachers and Teachers, in: Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book, Translation of Sefer Jedwabne; Historiya ve-zikaron, 1980 [online] http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/jedwabne/yed001.html#5 [Accessed 04 January 2020
- [1.6] A. Bikont, My z Jedwabnego, 2004, 30-45
- [1.7] A. Bikont, My z Jedwabnego, 2004, 118-120
- [1.8] L. Crago, Jedwabne, in: P. Megargee, M. Dean (eds.), Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1939–1945, vol. II, Ghettos in German Occupied Eastern Europe, A (2012), 901.