Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland Summary

Jan Tomasz Gross

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

  • This summary of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Tomasz Gross.

Polish-American author and historian Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001) explores the pogrom and massacre perpetrated by non-Jews against their Jewish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The pogrom resulted in the murder of 340 Jews, including women and children. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.

Established in the eighteenth century, Jedwabne was a conventional Polish Jewish shtetl, like many others dotting the countryside of Poland. Of its 2,167 residents, 1,500 were Jewish. The rest were largely ethnic Poles of Catholic faith. Compared to many other Polish cities, Jedwabne was thought to have good Jewish-Catholic relations before the war. Gross cites a 1934 event in which two murders—one of a Jewish woman and the other of a Catholic man—sparked rumors of religious strife. To help defuse the situation, a local rabbi joined with a local Catholic priest to ease any potential tensions. Many of the older residents remembered the lessons from the Bialystok Pogrom that had taken place nearby a couple of decades earlier, during which Russians manipulated Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles into attacking one another. For these reasons, few in Jedwabne believed it would be the site of a brutal anti-Semitic massacre.

In 1939, Poland became part of a power struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union’s Red Army. While the Nazis invaded from the West, the Soviet Union invaded from the East. The Nazis were the first to reach Jedwabne, where they destroyed the local resistance and set fire to the local synagogue. Less than thirty days after reaching Jedwabne, however, Germany transferred the town to the Soviet Union according to the German-Soviet Boundary Treaty. While most of the Jews welcomed the Soviet Army, at least compared to the Germans who had just burned down their synagogue, the Russian Red Army would be instrumental in setting the town’s Catholics against the Jews, just as they had during the earlier Bialystok Pogrom. Moreover, the Russians were plenty anti-Semitic themselves, shutting down Hebrew schools and banning activities planned to honor Jewish high holidays.

In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, seeking to retake various regions and towns of Poland that had been previously occupied by the Red Army. During these efforts to overrun Polish towns, the Germans sought to align Catholics against Jews by distributing propaganda spreading lies that Soviet atrocities were done with support and help from Jewish Poles. Amid this already tense religious schism, hundreds of Jewish refugees, fleeing other towns to avoid massacres at the hands of either the Nazis or Catholic Poles, entered Jedwabne looking for safe haven.

The massacre in Jedwabne began on July 10, 1941. The extent of the direct or indirect involvement of the Nazis has been disputed, but most reports suggest that Nazi secret police belonging to the German Gestapo were seen in the town’s limits on that morning. Others say that the Nazis were joined by non-Jewish Poles from nearby cities, spurred there by the Nazi-appointed governor of Jedwabne, Marian Karolak. They were joined by non-Jews native to Jedwabne, some of whom supported the Soviet police’s anti-Semitism and were largely opportunistic in how they carried out their anti-Semitic atrocities. In any case, all of this suggests to the author that the massacre was a coordinated effort, as opposed to a random explosion of violence.

That same day, around 340 Jews were rounded up in the town square where they were beaten. Again, reports vary as to whether German police participated in the massacre itself or if only ethnic Poles had been encouraged to do so. The Jews were beaten and ridiculed. Any who tried to run away were shot or otherwise prevented from getting away. Some of the Jewish men were forced to destroy a statue of Lenin that had been erected by Soviet forces, suggesting that the Poles’ anti-Semitism was spurred on by a false notion that the Jews held a foreign allegiance to Russia. After the statue was destroyed, around forty Jewish men, including the local rabbi, were marched into a barn and killed. Reports vary as to the exact manner of the killing, but it is believed that the Jews were either beaten to death or shot—or both.

After the men were killed and buried, along with fragments of the Lenin statue, an additional three hundred women, children, and infants of Jewish heritage were marched to the barn, where they were locked inside. The perpetrators poured kerosene on the barn and lit in on fire, killing everyone inside.

Through extensive interviews and documentation, Gross has attempted to recreate the massacre to the best of his ability. The book, however, is not without its detractors. Some believe that Gross overstates the role played by Catholic Poles in the massacre while downplaying the role of the German Gestapo. Nevertheless, no matter who bears responsibility, this is a chilling depiction of one of many pogroms and massacres perpetrated against European Jews during the dark first half of the twentieth century.