In the summer of 1941, after the German attack on the USSR, a wave of pogroms against Jews swept through the rear of the Eastern Front. Murders, beatings, robberies and other manifestations of anti-Jewish violence by the local population occurred in the first weeks of the war in the territories that had been under Soviet occupation - from the Baltic states through the eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic (II Rzeczypospolita) to Bessarabia. Attacks on Jews took place in more than three hundred towns in that area.
The main motive of the perpetrators was to retaliate against the Jews for the wrongs suffered during the Soviet occupation. Due to the deep-rooted stereotype of "Judeo-Communism" (Żydomonuna), Jews were seen as supporters and beneficiaries of the Soviet regime. After the escape of Soviet officers, they became the object of focus and revenge. The anti-Semitic motivation of the perpetrators was even stronger because the initiators and main perpetrators of the pogroms were most often members of extreme nationalist organisations, which had been promoting for a long time the programme of elimination of Jews from their own homeland. People recently released from Soviet prisons often took part in the pogroms.
In many cases, the factor that initiated anti-Jewish violence and made it go beyond the scale of "traditional" pogroms was German encouragement and consent. Even before the invasion of the USSR, the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen were instructed not to counter "self-purification efforts on the part of anti-communist or anti-Jewish circles". They were supposed to discreetly trigger them and "steer on the right track" [1.1].
However, the pogroms did not follow a uniform pattern. In many places, the attacks on Jews took place without the presence of Germans while the German inspiration was clearly noticeable in other locations. Sometimes the pogroms were followed by executions performed by the Germans with the participation of local auxiliary forces. Usually, attacks on Jews were combined with plundering of their property by the local population.
In Lithuania, members of the Lithuanian Activist Front and anti-Soviet partisans were the main perpetrators of the pogroms. The largest pogrom took place in Kaunas (Kowno) on 25-27 June 1941, and its inspiration by Einsatzgruppe A is well documented. At that time, Lithuanian activists (the so-called people with white armbands) attacked the Jewish district of Vilijampolė (Wiliampol), where several hundred people were murdered. The emblematic event is the photographically documented massacre in Lietukis's garage, where dozens of Jews were beaten to death with iron rods. In the following days, the anti-Jewish violence in Kaunas turned into regular executions in Fort VII performed by Lithuanian auxiliary units under German command.
Events in Latvia were similar. After the Germans entered Riga on 1 July 1941, the auxiliary police formed by them and spontaneously organised "self-defence" groups began to plunder Jewish homes under the pretext of looking for weapons and communists, killing more than 300 people. Regular executions of thousands of Jews started soon, in which the Viktors Arājs Commando, subordinate to the Germans, played the leading role.
In turn, in Eastern Galicia and Volhynia (Wołyń), attacks on Jews, most often under the slogan of getting even with Soviet collaborators, were carried out by units of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and by the militia established by it later on. A factor intensifying the aggression was the discovery in prisons of the corpses of prisoners murdered by the retreating Soviets, for which the Jews were blamed. In Lviv (Lwów), on 1 July 1941, hundreds of Jews detained in the streets or dragged from their homes were forced to wash corpses. The violence spilled into the streets of the city, where the militia and civilians abused and humiliated Jews. Nearly a thousand Jewish residents were killed in Lviv that day. Then, on 4-5 July and 25-26 July (the so-called Petlura days), the OUN militia assisted in the mass executions of Jews carried out by Einsatzgruppe C.
In northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, the initiating force behind the violence against the Jews was the Romanian army and police as well as members of the Iron Guard (Żelazna Gwardia). In villages and towns, they were joined by civilians taking revenge "for the Soviet occupation". However, the biggest pogrom began on 26 June 1941 in Iaşi (Jassy) in the previously unoccupied territory of Romania. 8,000 Jews were killed there within a few days and thousands more died of hunger and thirst on the trains that deported them to a special camp.
The regions where ethnic Poles took part in pogroms against Jews was Łomża and Western Białystok Region. Acts of anti-Jewish violence took place in 26 towns located there. Nationalist formations cooperating with the Germans did not operate in that area, but the pre-war influence of the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) and its anti-Semitic ideology was strong there. In the pogroms, the active role of the Polish local authorities and civic guards, which emerged spontaneously after the front had passed, was noticeable. In many places, inspiration from the Germans, who incited revenge against the Jews and controlled the situation, was evident. There were also localities where the attacks happened without their presence.
The largest scale murders of Jews took place in Szczuczyn, Wąsosz, Radziłów and Jedwabne. The last three are among the best researched. On 5 July 1941, German security police officers appeared in Wąsosz, accompanied by a Polish interpreter. At a convened rally, they urged Poles to take revenge against Jews. They probably also set fire to the synagogue that day. After the Germans left, at night and the following day, a group of Polish townspeople attacked the Jews killing 150-250 of them [1.2].
On 7 July 1941, Gestapo commandos supervised by Hauptsturmführer SS Hermann Schaper appeared in Radziłów. They asked the members of the local civic guard to gather the Jews in the market square. For several hours, the Germans and Poles abused and humiliated them, e.g., forcing them to weed the grass with spoons from between the cobblestones. The Germans incited the Poles to murder the Jews, but the last act of the tragedy took place without their participation. After the Gestapo left, a group of Poles took the Jews into a barn on the outskirts of the town, which was set on fire. Most probably several hundred people died there[1.3].
On 10 July 1941, probably the same commando initiated the murder in Jedwabne. As in Radziłów, for several hours, the Germans and Polish activists abused the Jews who had been brought to the market square. They were ordered to weed the cobblestones, forced to dance, sing and perform humiliating gymnastics. During the Jedwabne pogrom, a unique event was a ceremony of symbolic revenge for the Soviet occupation. A group of Jewish men were forced to smash a statue of Lenin and stage a mocking "funeral procession". Then, they were murdered and buried with the remains of the statue in a barn outside the town. After some time, the men, women and children gathered in the market square were taken to the same barn and burned alive. At the same time, the looting of Jewish homes continued. While the participation of the Germans in the events at the market square is confirmed based on many accounts, their presence at the barn is not proven. Either way, the Germans were in control of the situation, as there was a permanent field gendarmerie post in Jedwabne at that time.
In 2000, the forgotten murder in Jedwabne was described by Jan Tomasz Gross in his book "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland" (Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka). The disclosure of the mass murder of Jews by Poles has triggered a huge, emotional public debate. The Institute of National Remembrance launched an investigation and a research programme to clarify that. In 2001, a new monument was erected at the site of the crime and the mass grave of the victims. At the unveiling ceremony, the President of the Republic of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, expressed apology "on behalf of himself and those Poles whose conscience was touched by that crime". The book by Gross, published in English in 2001, has inspired further research into non-German perpetration of crimes against Jews in occupied European countries.
dr Krzysztof Persak
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- Dieckmann Christoph, Sužiedėlis Saulius, Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews during Summer and Fall of 1941, Vilnius 2006.
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- [1.1] Dmitrów E., Oddziały operacyjne niemieckiej Policji Bezieczeństwa i Służby Bezpieczeństwa a początek zagłady Żydów w Łomżyńskiem i na Białostocczyźnie latem 1941 roku, in: Wokół Jedwabnego, vol. 1: Studia, eds. Paweł Machcewicz, Krzysztof Persak, Warszawa 2002, p. 293.
- [1.2] Kornacki P., Pogrom w Wąsoszu 5-6 lipca 1941 r. – nowe ustalenia, "Studia Łomżyńskie”, vol. XXX (2020), p. 102.
- [1.3] In the decision to discontinue the investigation into the crime in Radziłów of 24 October 2014, the prosecutor of the Institute of National Remembrance estimated the number of its victims at around 500.