June 28, 2011
The Legacy of the Kielce Pogrom
“... The sight of the large, modern apartment house on Planty Street was the ultimate in ruthless havoc. ... The immense courtyard was still littered with bloodstained iron pipes, stones and clubs, which had been used to crush the skulls of Jewish men and women. Blackening puddles of blood still remained. ... Blood-drenched papers were scattered on the ground — sticky with gore, they clung to the earth though a strong wind blew through the yard.”
— S. L. Schneiderman, “Between Fear and Hope,” 1947
Sixty-five years ago, on July 4, 1946, in the central Polish city of Kielce, a mob of thousands surrounded the Jewish community house; killed 42 Jewish men, women and children; and maimed and injured more than 100 others. The victims were residents of a communal house for survivors and returnees from Soviet Russia. The tragedy of their murder has been overshadowed by politically motivated struggles to define history from the moment the wounded were evacuated to Lodz. The emotional and crippling injuries that afflicted the survivors went unnoticed for decades. Kielce, the last major anti-Jewish pogrom, became the final chapter of the Holocaust.
Because the pogrom occupies such a controversial place in Polish-Jewish consciousness, I felt drawn to understand how it happened. Thus began my search to discover as much about the pogrom as I could, and in the process, examine the messy and emotional web of Polish-Jewish relations. My investigation began on the streets of Kielce in 1992. From the scene of the crime, I traveled across Poland, to Oxford, London, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, New York, Moscow and many places in between.
I scoured secret archives that are today inaccessible or missing; interviewed witnesses, perpetrators and survivors; interviewed a dying, octogenarian journalist who covered the trial that followed the massacre. I consumed books, articles, videos, photos, anything that might shed light on that dark day. I discussed the events with scholars and intellectuals, historians and journalists, doctoral candidates and government officials, all in an attempt to understand, describe, explain and bear witness.
The story begins with the disappearance of 9-year-old Henryk Blaszczyk. A rumor spread that he had been kidnapped by Jews and kept in a basement with other children to be used for making matzah. After he was found, the police brought Henryk to the building on Planty Street and found that the building had no basement. However, the angry mobs had already started to gather.
We know that in the harrowing hours that followed, thousands of Kielcers, hundreds of armed soldiers, militiamen, the fire department and other security forces all descended on the building. After being disarmed by the army, and despite pleas for protection from Dr. Kahane, the head of the local Jewish community, men dressed as soldiers began removing the Jews, ostensibly for their safety. However, the mob descended on the Jews and the building, and in the ensuing mayhem and murder, Kielce’s fate was sealed. Kielce became a town of infamy.
News of this massacre spread across the globe. Journalists, officials, independent observers and communal workers dashed to the scene of the crime to see the streets still covered in Jewish blood. The implements of death used to bludgeon and maim still littered the street. A hastily convened military tribunal passed out sentences and even executed nine accused ringleaders.
The pogrom sounded the alarm for 100,000 Polish Jews, who headed to the borders. And though many murders occurred after the war across Poland, the scale and ferociousness of Kielce signaled that remaining in Poland was another death sentence. Politicians, journalists and survivors immediately labeled this tragedy the Kielce Pogrom, and it was canonized into the history of the Holocaust, becoming an epilogue to Polish-Jewish relations. Kielce was betrayal. Polish Jews would never forget or forgive that after all they endured during the war, a medieval blood libel yet again resulted in more Jewish martyrs.
When World War II officially ended in the West, Poland still struggled in civil war. Members of the Soviet red army, the army of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Polish army fought a guerrilla war with the anti-communist, nationalist Home Army, the Ukrainian Insurrection Army and the ultra-nationalist National Armed Forces. Poland’s future lay in the balance. Whether Polish rule would be under the harsh repression of Stalin or the nationalist independent and usually anti-Semitic elements on the Polish right was still in question. The communist officials in Warsaw promised the Jews something other than harassment, pogroms and fear. As Antek Zuckerman, a Warsaw Ghetto hero, wrote, “In that period, to be a partner of the communists was a Jewish national role, if only from the single perspective of Jewish existence.” It was against this backdrop of civil war that Kielce erupted.
The stories and allegations of guilt fall into a few main narratives:
• The communist authorities immediately blamed the pogrom on anti-Semitic anti-communists. Within hours of the pogrom, they issued a release placing responsibility on the ultra-nationalists. While this was politically expedient in order to consolidate power, it was also not without merit. In Kielce and surrounding areas, anti-Jewish leaflets warned Jews to leave starting in 1945. Jews were murdered in other cities by these gangs.
• The nationalists, who were anti-communists, immediately blamed the communist government and the U.S.S.R. Their theory was that the Polish secret police and the Soviet NKVD orchestrated the pogrom to distract attention from the corrupt July 1 referendum that had made Poland a protectorate of the Soviet Union. They said the pogrom was meant to sideline the anti-communists, who would lose support from the West if they were perceived to still be hunting down Jews. While it is a fact that communist soldiers were involved in some way, they claimed to be trying to protect the Jews.
• Other, more conspiratorial, theories blame the British and even the Jews themselves.
• Lastly, there is a theory that a tragic, spontaneous chain of events sparked the pogrom. Polish hatred toward the Jews fueled the murderous mobs, which were joined by local members of the army and militia. Poles in Kielce were afraid Jews would take back their prewar houses and businesses, which represented substantial parts of downtown. Kielcers also blamed communism on the Jews. Local Catholic clergy were unsympathetic, and insinuated that Jews might use blood in their matzah. As well, the Kielce district was notoriously nationalist and anti-communist.
A government investigation concluded as recently as 2004 that there was still not enough evidence to make a definitive finding. While many books, journalists and former members of the secret services have blamed the Soviets, the Polish investigators dismissed the theory of Soviet inspiration because of a lack of direct evidence and obvious Soviet interest in provoking the events.
The pogrom continues to be enmeshed in crossing accusations of guilt. Despite a formal apology from the Polish government, many Poles still maintain that the pogrom was conceived by the Soviets, eager to discredit Poland in the eyes of the world.
To those willing to ascribe blame for the pogrom on Polish anti-Semitism, the denial of responsibility by many Poles stands as
further evidence of Polish society’s unwillingness to confront a history of anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the last survivors are almost gone. Although some were able to move past the events to establish families and businesses in Israel and America, others were permanently damaged. Despite miraculously surviving the Holocaust, Jews in Kielce saw their own neighbors and countrymen try to extinguish them, leaving them unable ever to overcome their physical and psychological injuries.
I did not find the smoking gun that conspiracy buffs yearn for. Rather, I reached the unsettling conclusion that the communists, anti-communists, the church, local politicians and others — and even, ironically, the Jewish survivors who fled Poland in the aftermath — all benefited in some way from the horrific pogrom.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, founder of Jewlicious Festival and executive director of JConnectLA, based this article on his manuscript “Legacy of the Kielce Pogrom.” A Fullbright scholar, Bookstein worked in Poland for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation on Jewish community renewal and innovation from 1991 until 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiYonah.