Part of my responsibilities in Poland involve supervising Kosher establishments and inspecting various plants which generally export to the European market. This aspect of the job provides me some insight into cities and villages all over southern Poland. I have seen Tarnow, Tarnograd, Nowe Sacz, Debica, Mielec, Skawina, Lezajsk, and many other small Polish villages.

Last week I visited Kielce.

The very utterance of the name Kielce sends shivers down many spines as it evokes the frightening memory of how deep and maddening anti-Semitism goes especially in Poland. Kielce is a harrowing story of Polish–Jewish violence post Holocaust.

Many reports were given and much speculation about the events of July 4, 1946; I by no means am presenting authoritative accounts, simply collecting some information I gleaned from reading different analyses. A comprehensive report by Bozego Szaynok was written for the Jewish Virtual Library (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Kielce.html).

The bare facts are that in 1946 after a young Polish boy was thought to be abducted by Jews, a pogrom took place which included the chief of Police, the head of security and his Russian advisor and most tragically significant, random Polish citizens. The horrible outcome of the days’ events was the murder of 42 Jews. It is almost unimaginable that months after the destruction of Poland’s three million plus Jews, such a violent virulent anti-Semitic pogrom could take place. Yet…

The facts are blurry; the outcome chillingly clear. The massacre which claimed the lives of average Polish citizens reverberated through the survivor community and represented a final nail in the coffin for much of what was left of Poland’s Jewish population. How could this happen? Who was responsible? What impact would this have on Jewish/Polish relations? Jewish/Christian relations? None of these questions were addressed for almost forty years! Communist Poland would not accept such investigations nor any introspection. The collective psyche of Poland’s post-war Poles was frozen.

Then, in the 80’s the ice began to thaw. Solidarity and freedom, independence and a brighter future—all things which began the major shift in Poland’s future—also brought out by some courageous thinkers very difficult soul-searching and introspection. The conscience of Poland was being awoken and articles started appearing in the press with extremely difficult issues about wartime anti-Semitism and post-war pogroms.

One famous article was written by Jan Błonski in 1987. A teenage Pole during the war, Błonski became an historian, a literary critic, publicist and translator. He once wrote of an experience in Warsaw during the war in which he saw a young Jewish boy escape the ghetto and run into the street asking for help. Jan didn’t help him at the time and for decades after experienced pangs of guilt and shame. That deep guilt inspired his writing of his well-known article ‘The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto’. In it he forces Poles to struggle with the questions of their collective responsibility, guilt, innocence, apathy, cowardice, love, hate…

He sets us up to commiserate with the plight of the Pole at wartime and with the ‘modern day’ Pole who would rather just forget the past and move on:

“Let us think calmly: the question will have to be asked. Everybody who is concerned with the Polish-Jewish past must ask these questions, regardless of what the answer might be. But we–consciously or unconsciously–do not want to confront these questions. We tend to dismiss them as impossible and unacceptable. After all, we did not stand by the side of the murderers. After all, we were next in line for the gas chambers. After all, even if not in the best way possible, we did live together with the Jews; if our relations were less than perfect, they themselves were also not entirely without blame. So do we have to remind ourselves of this all the time? What will others think of us?

Błonski presents all the defences in the world why a Pole should not be responsible and why the concept of ‘we were victims’ should allay all need to reconciliation with Jews and with themselves. Then he flips it all upside down and despite the arguments and excuses he boldly points a finger at himself, his Christianity, his Polishness –and says the following:

“Or at least, we shall not get rid of him by forgetting about the past or taking a defensive attitude towards it. We must face the question of responsibility in a totally sincere and honest way. Let us have no illusions: it is one of the most painful questions which we are likely to be faced with. I am convinced, however, that we cannot shirk it.

We Poles are not alone in grappling with this question. It may be helpful to realize this. Not because it is easier to beat one’s breast in company. Not because in this way the blame may appear less weighty. Rather because in this way we shall be able to understand it better. To understand both our responsibility and the reason why we try to evade it.” 

We must stop haggling, trying to defend and justify ourselves. We must stop arguing about the things which were beyond our power to do, during the occupation and beforehand. Nor must we place blame on political, social and economic conditions. We must say first of all–Yes, we are guilty. We did take Jews into our home, but we made them live in the cellar. When they wanted to come into the drawing-room, our response was–Yes, but only after you cease to be Jews, when you become ‘civilized’.

This was the thinking of our most enlightened minds, such as Orzeszkowa and Prus. There were those among Jews who were ready to adhere to this advice. No sooner did they do this than we started in turn talking of an invasion of Jews, of the danger of their infiltration of Polish society. Then we started to put down conditions like that stated expressis verbis by Dmowski, that we shall accept as Poles only those Jews who are willing to cooperate in the attempts to stem Jewish influences in our society. To put it bluntly, only those Jews who are willing to turn against their own kith and kin.

Eventually, when we lost our home, and when, within that home, the invaders set to murdering Jews, did we show solidarity towards them? How many of us decided that it was none of our business? There were also those (and I leave out of account common criminals) who were secretly pleased that Hitler had solved for us ‘the Jewish problem’. We could not even welcome and honour the survivors, even if they were embittered, disorientated and perhaps sometimes tiresome. I repeat: instead of haggling and justifying ourselves, we should first consider our own faults and weaknesses. This is the moral revolution which is imperative when considering the Polish-Jewish past. It is only this that can gradually cleanse our desecrated soil.

Blonski’s concluding line says it all: “In this graveyard, the only way to achieve this is to face up to our duty of viewing our past truthfully.”

This truthful viewing of the past is manifest in the remarkable actions taken by Pope John Paul II. His trip to Auschwitz (first time ever by a Pope), his article on remembering the Shoah, his establishing fomral relations with the state of Israel, his Papal concert dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, his trip to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall–all these cemented the understanding that Pope John Paul II was making great efforts to ‘truthfully view the past’.

Perhaps his greatest act of humility and reconciliation was his apology to the Jewish people for actions of the Church over history and during the Holocaust. All this has left a deep impact on Jews and Jewish/Christian relations leading to a statement by Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, that never in history did anyone do as much for Christian-Jewish dialogue as Pope John Paul II. Indeed Pope John Paul II put into motion much of the subsequent soul-searching in Poland in general and in Kielce in particular.

Following in the Pope’s footsteps is the work of one pioneer in Kielce named Bogdan Białek of the Jan Karski Center. But more on this in the second instalment of Confronting Kielce…