This year is the sixtieth anniversary of an event that caused Polish Jews to despair even more of ever reestablishing their kehillos.
On July 1, 5706/1946, a Gentile named Walenty Blaszczyk was consumed with worry. His nine-year-old son, Henryk, had disappeared as if swallowed by the earth. Hours passed, night fell, and still the boy had not returned home. At midnight, the frantic father went to the nearby police-station and registered his son as missing. The next day dawned and passed and still the boy had not shown up. After three days, on July 4, Henryk finally turned up at his home with a lot of explaining to do. “Where were you?” his father roared.
A TALL STORY
To get off the hook, Henryk used his imagination.
“A stranger grabbed me and locked me up in a cellar somewhere in town,” he said, “and it took a few days until I managed to escape.”
Surprisingly, Blaszczyk accepted this flimsy excuse as the truth. Then a neighbor began asking the boy leading questions.
“Who caught you?” he inquired. “A Gypsy or a Jew?”
Henryk’s imagination was still working at full throttle.
“The man didn’t speak Polish,” he told the neighbor, “so I suppose he must have been Jewish.”
Since many Catholics and Poles had accepted Blood Libels against Jews as absolute facts for centuries, Henryk’s tale sent alarm bells ringing in his listeners’ minds.
Next morning, as Blaszczyk and a neighbor took the boy along to the police to lodge an official complaint, they passed a building on 7 Planty Street, known as the “Jewish House.” It was then being used as a hostel for Holocaust survivors, many of them waiting for a chance to move on to Eretz Yisroel. The boy was now supplied with another leading question:
“Were you, perhaps, locked up in the ‘Jewish House?’” his father and the neighbor suggested.
Here was a golden opportunity for the boy to validate his tall tale.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “And that short man standing over there is the person who caught me!”
A young Jew, Kalmen Singer, had chosen this wrong moment to stand outside. The trio continued on and repeated the twice-revamped tale to the police. Like father and neighbor, they, too, did not dismiss the story as the product of a young boy’s overly-active imagination.
A large consignment of policemen hurried off to search the “Jewish House,” and as they surged through the roads, curious passers-by were regaled with the news that a new Blood Libel was under investigation. The story zigzagged through the town like wildfire. Arriving at the “Jewish House,” the police stormed inside and ordered the Jews to hand over any weapons they might possess. Then things became violent – the police began beating and shooting Jewish residents, and the huge crowd outside joined in. Other police and soldiers, attracted by the commotion, joined in while a local police commander, Major Sobxzynski and other police and army officials stood around doing nothing to stop the violence.
By midday, the army came to its senses, pushed the crowd back and calmed the violence. Although nineteen Jews had already died, the ordeal was not over. A new, more violent crowd came storming down the street – workers from the Ludwikow steel mill who wanted to join in the Jew-baiting. Bursting through the soldiers, they headed into the building and murdered an additional twenty Jews.
It was not long before the Poles realized that the whole thing was a tragic mistake. Henryk had not been in town at all during his three days of absence. Investigations revealed that he had been given a lift to friends of his family in the village of Bielaki, about fifteen miles away, and decided to remain there. Four days later, Poles and Jews participated in the funeral of the thirty-nine Jewish victims at the Jewish cemetery.
After a hurried government investigation, nine of the rioters were executed, and three people were jailed, including a police commander who was sentenced to only one year.
The Kielce pogrom was the catalyst that destroyed the Jews’ last hope of reestablishing their communities in Poland. Although this was by no means the only anti-Semitic killing since the war’s end – Jews had been killed in the Kielce region itself the previous year – the scale of the Kielce pogrom and active participation of the army and police convinced most Jews that they could never stay in Poland. While 50,000 Jews had left Poland in the previous eleven months, 62,000 fled in the three months following the pogrom.
The Church now put itself in a bad light. A week passed before the Catholic Church publicly denounced the pogrom that had been carried out by its constituents. Only on July 11 did Cardinal Hlond, Catholic Primate (Church head) of Poland, declare the following lukewarm condemnation:
“The Catholic Church has always condemned killings, and done so immediately. It condemns them in Poland as well, irrespective of whether they have been committed by Poles or Jews, in Kielce or in any other part of the Polish Republic. The course taken by the unfortunate and grievous events in Kielce shows that racism cannot be attributed to them. They developed against a wholly different background, a painful and tragic one. These are a great calamity that fills me with grief and regret. When Jews were being annihilated in Poland, Poles, though themselves persecuted, supported and hid Jews at the risk of their own lives. Many are the Jews who owe their lives to Poles and Polish priests.”
What is this “painful and tragic” background that the good Primate alludes to? The rest of his proclamation is more specific:
“Blame for the breakdown in these good relations is borne to a great extent by the Jews. In Poland, they occupy positions in the first line of the nation’s political existence and their attempt to impose forms of government, completely rejected by the great majority of people, is a pernicious game, for it is the cause of dangerous tensions. Unfortunately, in the fateful armed clashes taking place on the front line of the political struggle in Poland, not merely Jews but incomparably more Poles are losing their lives” (Gutman & Krakowski, 1986: 373-374).
In addition to the Primate’s scurrilous claim (common in anti-Semitic history) that the Jews were guilty of their own persecution, many guilt-stricken Poles offered a number of theories that the pogroms were instigated by outsiders for political reasons. One popular theory is that the pogrom was provoked not by anti-Semitism but by the Soviet-backed authorities. However, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance thoroughly investigated this claim and found it to be based on no solid evidence.
AN EARLIER KIELCE POGROM
It is instructive to compare this pogrom with earlier ones that occurred in Kielce, shortly after World War I on November 11 and 12, 5679/1918. These pogroms left four Jews dead and 250 injured, and this time, there were no Communist authorities around to be blamed for the trouble. When the local Jews complained, after three weeks, that the authorities had neither lifted a finger to protect them nor condemned the atrocities, the Kielce town council was kind enough to criticize them, but with the same caveat as that given by the Primate years later – that the Jews had brought their troubles down on their own heads.
As the town council wrote: “The council affirms that the anti-Semitic movements were an instinctive reaction of the mass of citizens. They were aroused by the ceaseless exploitation on the part of the class of shopkeepers… and by the provocative behavior of the Jews during the time of war, when they put themselves at the service of the Germans and Austrians. They were also provoked by the Jewish meeting that was held in Kielce, on November 11, in which the Jews not only asked for equal rights, which the Polish state does not refuse them, but also for special privileges, which they have in no other state. They demanded national autonomy…”
Achille Ratti, the man who would later become Pope Pius XI in 5682/1922, who investigated Polish pogroms of the time, which included the burning and killing of 73 Jews in Lvov, also concluded, in a report to Rome concerning Kielce, “the Jews blame the Christians and the Christians blame the Jews,” and, concerning Lvov, too, he reported, that it was uncertain who was to blame.
These excuses boil down to the same thing – be he Capitalist or be he Communist, the Jew is always wrong and his murderers’ motives are understandable, or even inevitable.
This year, Kielce marked the sixtieth anniversary of the pogrom by sounding air raid sirens and unveiling a monument, shaped like a gigantic number 7 lying on its side, to commemorate the martyrs of 7 Planty Street.
(Source for first Kielce pogrom: The Unholy War, The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Anti-Semitism, by David I. Kertzer, MacMillan, 2002.)