Bogdan Białek is a man on a mission. Living in Kielce for the last 20 years he has embarked on a quest for truth, for reconciliation and for a brighter future for Poland. He seeks to confront one of the starkest and yet most controversial events in post-war Poland—the Kielce pogrom in which 42 Jews were killed and 80 more were injured. Covered up by the communists for decades, there is still heated debate as to who instigated the event, who perpetrated it, and why. Was it the corrupt police who were planning more pogroms in other cities? Was it communist authorities who were trying to distract the attention from political issues? Was it simply the sentiment of the average Pole, the neighbor, the steel factory worker, the Church? It sounds like it was a combination of all these nefarious parties and conditions.
Is Bogdan alone? Absolutely not. Is he the majority? Absolutely not! For years Kielce was not ready to admit guilt, to emerge from victimhood and acknowledge that sometimes evil happens even amongst our own. Lately however, and partially due to the brave words of Pope John Paul II, Polish academics and thinkers, and Bogdan’s efforts, the language has changed. It is not an all out confession, more like an ‘understanding’ “that events perpetrated against the Jewish Poles did take place and they are very unfortunate”. A beginning indeed! It’s complicated and complex; it requires much patience and perseverance.
I met Bogdan on July 4th, normally a joyous day for Americans but for Jewish Poles it sends a shiver down the spines. 68 years after the terrible blood libel which led to the pogrom more and more people show up at the cemetery to memorialize the 42 souls who perished brutally. Bogdan invited the Chief Rabbi of Poland, and I, as his representative, went on his behalf. All events, the cemetery memorial and the ceremony on the street of the infamous house Planty 9, together with media, and representatives, all of it was orchestrated by Bogdan.
At the cemetery around 40 mostly non-Jews joined together for a service which included introductory words from Bogdan, my words (in Polish), speeches by Catholic priests and monks as well as a Protestant Evangelist pastor, the Mayor, the District Chairman, heads of Jewish communities and quite a few others. Bogdan asked me to recite the el male rachamim (we both knew that we wouldn’t have a minyan for kaddish). He handed me a list of 42 names and I began to shudder. Each name represented a life cut down, a shocked survivor of the recent horror. Next to each name was a number—their age. Adam Fish was 4 weeks old; he died together with his mother. Then, at the bottom of the list I saw a frightening line; there was no name, only a number—Auschwitz B 2969. Apparently, this man returned from the death camp and after he was murdered by the angry mob nobody knew his name, only the number seared on his arm remained.
I reverently recited the names, the el male, and then spoke of the necessity to search for the facts of such tragedies and not to cover them up. At the same time Judaism believes in the capacity to do teshuva, and how Bogdan and Poles today, in spearheading these activities cannot change the past tragedy but will definitely influence a brighter future.
Another important person who spoke to represent the Kielce Jewish community is a man named Yaacov Kotlicki. Born in Israel after the war, his family stemmed from Kielce and his father actually returned to Kielce on the day of the pogrom. Were it not for the security guard at the courthouse who knew his uncle and hid them from the mob, Yaakov would not be alive. Yaakov lives in Ramat Gan and made his life in Israel, but his roots and heritage are a big part of him. As such he is co-responsible for funding many projects of commemoration including the memorials at the cemetery and in the center of town, as well as various projects for Jewish awareness in Kielce.
After the memorial at the cemetery, we joined Bogdan and his wife at their lovely home in Kielce. With some kosher food provided I was nourished both physically and intellectually as the topic of the nature Jewish Polish/relations was center stage. We sat there, rabbis, leaders, thinkers, and discussed the immediate past and the prospect of a brighter future in Poland. Unfortunately Bogdan is unwilling to paint a rosy picture as extremism and xenophobia are on the rise all over Europe. Yes, Kielce in particular and Poland in general has come a long way. The government has made efforts in engaging Polish society in the history of the Jews as well as the magnitude of loss Poland itself felt as a result of the destruction of Jewish life during world war II. But there is a long road ahead filled with obstacles political and social, and challenges to be overcome.
The ceremony was at Planty 9, the house where the horrors began, where young Henryk Błaszczyk and his father walked past on their way to report the alleged kidnapping and the boy turned to his father and casually said, this is the house where they abducted me and this Jew who was standing outside is responsible. 68 years later, a group of 150-200 Poles of all ethnicity, protected by police, stood solemnly and listened to a young woman sing a sad Polish elegy. I was asked by Bogdan to make a declaration which was repeated in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew:
“On July 4, 1946, an inflamed mob of sparked by allegations of a blood libel, accompanied by soldiers and militiamen, attacked their Jewish neighbors, survivors of the holocaust and death camps who had returned to Kielce. The city authorities did not react n or did their fellow citizens. Over 42 Jews were brutally murdered, 80 were injured. Following this pogrom the exodus of Polish Jews began, many of them to the Land of Israel.”
May the memories of these souls be a blessing for all of us and may God continue to give strength and courage to Bogdan, the priests, the government officials and the average citizens who continue to pursue truth, hope and peace.