It is a stunning post-modern building and tells the story of how the Jews of the Rhineland moved eastwards to settle in what is today's Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. They brought their language, Yiddish, (or Jüdisch in German) and German sounding surnames (Sonnenschein, Hirsch, Goldberg, Morgenstern, Spielberg, Silverstern etc.) with them. The museum's highlight is probably a staggeringly beautiful full size reconstruction of the painted interior of a 17th century wooden synagogue.
|The Warsaw Polish Jewish Museum|
This part of the world formed the heart of Jewish life in Europe. Poland's Jewish population numbered around 3.5 million, or 10% of the entire country before WW2. By comparison the Jewish population of the UK today is around 290,000 or just 0.45%. Lwów had a 45% Jewish population, Cracow 25%, while Berdychiv in neighbouring Ukraine was 80% Jewish, with 80 synagogues serving the local population. Warsaw, where one in three residents was a Jew, was second only to New York in the total number of Jewish residents. The city was the crown of European Jewry.
|The reconstructed Gwoździec synagogue inside the museum|
Then, brutally, and without any warning, the story in the museum changes to the German invasion of September 1939, and to the horrors of the holocaust that followed. The 3.5 million Jewish population of Poland was decimated: 90% were murdered by the Nazis in those short six years. Jewish Europe's "New York" ended up primarily in the gas chambers of the death camp at Treblinka. And there the story stops. Nowadays there are an absolute maximum of 20,000 Jews in the country (0.05% of the population).
All of this was amazingly well told in the way that only brand new museums can do, but for someone really interested in this whole subject, one name was missing for me in the exhibits: a town called Kielce. It's 3 hours south of Warsaw and I decided to stop there with my group on our way to Cracow for a look round.
The Kielce Jewish House
When we arrived in the nondescript former mining town, ringed by grim communist tower blocks, I wondered what we would find there and how this would go down with the group. Using the wonders of Google Maps on my iPhone, I got the driver to drop us off close to the centre. Just as our coach pulled up, three coaches filled with kippah-wearing orthodox Jewish high schoolers from New Jersey were getting ready to leave. I trusted this meant we weren't barking entirely up the wrong tree. Other than them we saw no other foreign visitors at all in the town.
After lunch, I took my group the 5 minutes from the town square to Planty Street 7, an address I had found on the internet. And there it was: a neat, ordinary looking house next to the little Silnica river that flows through the town. The images on the side perhaps give a clue as to what this once was: the former "Jewish House" of the local community. On a trip that was full of remembrance of horrors, this one stood out for a number of reasons.
|Planty Street 7, Kielce|
On 1 July 1946 the Jewish House was home to around 200 Polish Jews. These were people who had by miracle survived the starvation, disease and death in the ghettos (there had been one here in Kielce), the murder squads of Einsatzgruppen that followed behind the German army front line, and the living hell of Nazi concentration camps. Around 1/3 of Kielce had been Jewish just seven years before: some 24,000 of their fellow community members had perished in this time. The handful of returning holocaust survivors often found their reception hostile. Their homes had been taken over, and Catholic neighbours who had been entrusted with possessions were not always forthcoming in returning them. This is classic, historic Christian-Jewish economic rivalry and jealousy in action. But what happened here went way beyond that. It was a little over a year after the War had ended.
That day, 1 July 1946, an eight year old local Catholic boy called Henryk Błaszczyk disappeared. His father reported him missing, and when he reappeared on 3 July, he told his father he had been kidnapped (actually he'd been visiting a friend in a village 25km away). A family friend suggested this was probably the work of Jews or Gypsies. On their way to the police station, young Henryk pointed to the Jewish House and a Jew standing outside and said he had been held there in the cellar.
On the morning of 4 July the police dispatched a force of 12 men to search the property and let it known more widely that they would be searching for the bodies of other Christian children who had disappeared and allegedly been "ritually murdered". At the same time around 100 soldiers and five officers were also sent along and a crowd rapidly assembled and began pelting the house with stones. The police and soldiers entered the house forcibly. Their search rather unsurprisingly revealed no bodies and more to the point, no cellar. Henryk had been lying.
|Faces of some of the victims|
Firing broke out inside the house and Dr Kahane, a holocaust survivor and head of the local Jewish Committee, was shot in the back by an officer and killed. He had been trying to call the Kielce Office of Public Security for help. The soldiers forced the Jewish residents out of the house into the hands of the angry Christian mob. By noon up to 1000 steel workers had assembled and began to physically attack the handful of Jews with steel rods and clubs. Twenty were clubbed to death in the street outside the house. Others were stoned to death in the river. Nine were shot by the police or soldiers. Two were stabbed to death with bayonets. The killing frenzy lasted over a period of all a full five hours, with attendant security forces not only failing to intervene, but actually responsible for starting the the violence.
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
The violence spilled over into other parts of the town. A Kielce resident and former concentration camp inmate described a Jew being beaten in the head and face on Sienkiewicz Street by a group of 8 young Poles:
I would like to mention that as a former prisoner of concentration camps I had not gone through an experience like this. I have seen very little sadism and bestiality of this scale.Other Jewish survivors were taken from their homes elsewhere in Kielce, including Regina Fisz, who was murdered along with her baby Abram. He was three weeks old. He was apparently killed with his mother "whilst trying to escape". Jews not killed, but injured (sometimes seriously), were robbed and beaten by soldiers on their way to hospital, and wounded Jews were also attacked in their beds by other patients. Trains out of town were searched for Jews trying to escape the violence and at least two more victims were thrown off moving trains and killed.
A total of 40 Jews (and 2 non-Jews) were murdered during this post-holocaust bloodbath. It occurred just 69 years ago in a peacetime European nation. Two somewhat understated and technically inaccurate plaques on the wall of the house at Planty Street 7 mark the events.
|One of the remembrance plaques|
1000 Years of History Ended
News of the horrors tore through the battered post-holocaust Polish Jewish community. Almost all of the surviving Jews in Poland took the massacre as their prompt to leave the country. For many it was the signal that there could no longer be any Jewish life or future in this country. A flood of 150,000 survivors had left the country by the spring of 1947. This was the final end to the 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland.
That's why it's so surprising to me that Kielce wasn't even featured in the Warsaw Jewish Museum. Or perhaps not. The Polish police, soldiers, steelworkers and Christian mob in Kielce in many ways finished the work of the Nazis in making the heart of European Jewry Judenrein - and that's a very uncomfortable narrative to deal with.
Polish WW2 Collaboration
The museum is keen to stress that Judaism and Christianity co-existed peacefully in Poland for centuries. That is true to a great extent, but co-existence is just the word. It was as if there were two separate nations living within the country for most of the time. Unlike in other countries where Jews assimilated, at least to some extent, and became for example French or Dutch Jews, in Poland most Jews retained their own language (Yiddish), schools, theatres and other community structures to a remarkable extent. They traded and mixed with Polish Catholics, but they remained Jews, not Poles. The sheer size of the communities tended to keep them safe.
During WW2 Poland suffered horrendously. Nazi crimes were instant and they were particularly brutal. Poland lost a total of 17% of its population during the war (just under 6 million total, which the Poles interestingly still tend to split into "Jewish" and "Polish" victims). Only far smaller Belarus endured a higher death rate at the hands of the Germans at 25%. Britain lost less than 1%. Unlike in Western Europe, the sentence in occupied Poland for even giving a single night's help to a Jew was the death penalty instantly. Anne Frank's helpers did not face any such penalty in the Netherlands, for example, and only two of the men who gave help to the hidden group over a far longer period spent any time at all imprisoned (one for just 7 weeks).
Despite this there are 6,532 righteous gentiles from Poland honoured at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, more than from any other single country. These are Polish Christians who aided Jews in the horrific circumstances of the German occupation at enormous risk to themselves.
|Yad Vashem in Jerusalem|
It is also actually quite uncontroversial to assert that collaboration between Poles and Nazis during WW2 was considerably less than in other occupied countries. Israeli War Crimes Commission statistics indicate that less than 0.1% of Polish gentiles collaborated with the Nazis. This wasn't neighbouring Catholic Slovakia, for example, where the fascist government of priest Father Tiso paid RM500 per person for the Nazis to systematically deport and murder its own Jewish population. Nor even is it France, where it was French police who rounded up Jews for the Germans.
However, the picture isn't quite that simple. There might be 6,532 righteous gentiles in Poland, but equally this is geographically where the vast bulk of European Jews who needed help were located. By way of demonstation, Poland had 3,500,000 Jews whereas the Netherlands had just 120,000. Yet there are 5,413 Dutch righteous gentiles, which means that there is one righteous gentile for every 22 Jews in Holland. In Poland the ratio is one righteous gentile for every 535 Jews. These numbers tell the story from a very different angle.
Then there are the clear examples where Poles did join in with Nazi genocide: The 1941 massacre at Jedwabne is the most well-known example, where 340 Jews were herded together, beaten, then locked in a barn and burnt to death by ordinary Polish villagers working on German orders.
In addition it's an obvious and simplistic mistake to assume that non-collaboration with the Nazis of itself precludes the existence of widespread antisemitic attitudes. Just because Poles hated and feared the Germans, it does not mean that they didn't also harbour deep feelings of animosity towards the Jews. And that same utter hatred can go a long way to explaining a lack of desire in working alongside them, whatever their endeavours and targets.
The Kielce Pogrom did not come from nowhere. The number of people involved, the level of the violence and the nature of the prejudices (primarily the blood libel one) clearly had deep roots somewhere.
The blood libel charge, if you're not familiar with it, is that Jews murdered Christian children for their religious ceremonies. It dates back to Easter 1144 when the Jews of my local city, Norwich, were accused by Christians of crucifying a local boy, William, and using his blood for their passover celebrations. The charge was spread repeatedly around England and later Europe, and used to justify Christian attacks on and murders of Jews. Apparently Christian blood was necessary for making matzo bread. This clearly unhinged allegation was still so powerful in Catholic Kielce in 1946 that it led to these events.
|Salve Maria etc.|
No serious holocaust historian in fact disputes the Christian Church as the historical driving force behind hatred of, persecution of, and attacks on Jews. It is the starting point of every discussion on the subject. Recently deceased Professor Robert Wistrich was one of the all time leading scholars on the history of antisemitism. His seminal work "Antisemitism: the Longest Hatred" carried the strap line "From the Cross to the Swastika".
Without centuries of Christian antisemitism, Hitler's passionate hatred would never have been so fervently echoed...because for centuries Christians have held Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. On Good Friday Jews, have in times past, cowered behind locked doors with fear of a Christian mob seeking 'revenge' for deicide. Without the poisoning of Christian minds through the centuries, the Holocaust is unthinkable.You might think the above are the words of someone who is biased towards the Church. In fact they belong to Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The narrative was repeated again and again from pulpits across Christian Europe over the space of centuries. Professor Hans Küng of Tübingen University reinforces the sentiment. Father Küng is a Catholic priest:
"Nazi anti-Judaism was the work of godless, anti-Christian criminals. But it would not have been possible without the almost two thousand years' pre-history of 'Christian' anti-Judaism"It therefore would actually be somewhat surprising if the heavily Catholic Polish nation (still one of the most observant Christian nations in Europe today) were not antisemitic given the involvement of the Church in the history of the persecution of the Jews. It was only in 1964, in fact, almost twenty years after the holocaust and after heavy lobbying by a French Jewish holocaust survivor, that Rome dropped the collective charge against the Jewish people that they had been the "murders of God". A more serious crime in the minds of their believers cannot exist.
Reaction of the Church to Kielce
We now come to what is for me the most staggering part of the story. The fact that violent, uneducated and indoctrinated Christians, motivated by economic concerns and superstitious tripe fed to them by their spiritual mentors, did such an act is depressing enough. Poland in 1946, although behind the nascent "Iron Curtain", was still far from entirely cut off from the rest of Europe and the world. News of the horrors of Kielce caused a sensation in the United States in particular, where full details of the holocaust were still coming out. The reaction of the Catholic Church in Poland caused as much of a stir as the events.
The tiny surviving Kielce Jewish community had been attacked by hand grenade just before Christmas 1945 whilst celebrating the holiday of Hannukah: the first such celebration since the holocaust. The community approached the Bishop of Kielce to ask him to tell his flock not to attack Jews. He refused and said it was "no surprise that they had been attacked" because they [the rag tag group of holocaust survivors] were trying to control public life in the country. This came straight from the widespread belief that Jews were all communists and a dislike of the new political direction of the country under Soviet control. Just as with the Nazis, Jews were accused both of being world capitalists and communists: total opposites, but logic did not come into it.
Meanwhile the Bishop of Lublin added that the question of Jews' use of Christian blood in their religious ceremonies had "never been completely clarified". This is a Catholic bishop, a highly educated senior Catholic cleric, repeating in 1946 the early medieval blood libel charge, post holocaust.
Because of these somewhat disturbing utterances, the US ambassador to Poland demanded that the Archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal August Hlond, hold a press conference to set out the position of the Catholic Church on the massacre. He did condemn the violence, a week after it had taken place, but tried to explain it away with reference to rumours about the killing of Polish children by Jews. He omitted to explain these had historically been put out by the Church itself, and went on to blame the deterioration in relations with Jews on their "occupying leading positions in Poland in state life."
|Wawel Cathedral, Cracow|
The Archbishop of Cracow, Prince Adam Cardinal Sapieha, who is buried in the resting place of kings and national heros, Wawel Cathedral, and is worshipped as a saint by the population there, voiced similar sentiments. He suggested that the Jews had brought the murderous pogrom on themselves. He ordained the young Karol Wojtyła as a priest a few months afterwards.
Finally the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII was pressed to end his silence some three months later, and to condemn the killings by Rabbi Bernstein, the US advisor on Jewish affairs to Europe. The Pope declined to do so, claiming that it was difficult to communicate with the Church in Poland because of its position behind the Iron Curtain. Communication clearly improved at some point because Karol Wojtyła went on to become Pope John Paul II. Strangely enough that was in 1978 when the Cold War was far more intensively underway than in 1946. Hey ho.
Cardinal Hlond and Pope Pius XII have both been declared "Servants of God" by Rome decades later and are being canonised. Saintly men.
The Polish president described the events in 2006 as a "crime and a great shame for the Poles and tragedy for the Polish Jews" but tried to tried to brush off characterisations about Poland being an antisemitic nation as a stereotype.
I remember being puzzled during visits to Cracow, a city I absolutely love, by paintings of orthodox Jews counting their bags of money. They were openly on sale in the Old Town, and were displayed in tourist restaurants. I asked a Polish friend what they were about: she replied they were hung up because Jews are thought to have lots of money. Therefore people believe that having a painting of a Jew counting his bags of gold in their home would bring good fortune to the property. A cruder and more basic antisemitic stereotype is hard to imagine.
|A Jew counting his money bags. Poland, 2015.|
A young, educated and otherwise perfectly lovely Cracow city guide, who showed me the Helena Rubinstein birth house in the former Jewish district of town, then said to me "You might wonder why it is in such a state. I mean, show me a Jew who doesn't have money." One comment like this doesn't make an entire country of antisemites, but it sure took my breath away - and I found the fact she was comfortable expressing it to a relatively complete stranger fascinating.
Beyond this inherently unreliable anecdotes, seventy years on there is however ample academic proof that antisemtic attitudes are widespread in the country. A report by Professor Bilewicz of Warsaw University put before the Polish parliament in 2013 reported the following:
- 63% of Poles believe in a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media (classic modern day antisemitic stereotype, expounded by the Nazis)
- 23% of Poles blame Jews for the murder of Jesus Christ and believe that Christian blood is used in Jewish rituals (traditional Christian based antisemitic views)
- The 23% statistic represents an increase of 8% over the number who held these views in 2009
- 44% of Warsaw High School students wouldn't want a Jewish neighbour
- Over 50% of Polish youth visit antisemitic websites
- Prejudice is growing in particular amongst young Poles, who are of course the future of the country
God Help Us
So there we have it. A thoroughly depressing, barbaric event that is probably completely unknown to most of my readers. Amongst all the stories of barbarity during the holocaust it has a special place because it occurred afterwards, with knowledge of these crimes, by a group of predominantly ordinary people, over a space of five full hours, aimed at survivors of the genocide. The Catholic Church's reaction is depressing, telling, and of course typically utterly abhorrent. I didn't think my respect for the institution could sink much further, but it has.
If antisemitic attitudes are indeed increasing in the country, it is not enough for politicians to just dismiss them as a crude stereotype. They have to be acknowledged and worked against. It is up to the 75% of the Polish population in this wonderful country that I love so much to challenge the views of the other 25%. The victims of Kielce deserve to be remembered, which is why I wrote this lengthy blog post. If we cannot learn from it, we really are screwed.
|With Smok the Dragon, Cracow Castle|
Let's end on a happy note. This is my wonderful group who accompanied me on the tour. 27 high schoolers from New Jersey who gave up two weeks of their summer to visit Warsaw, Treblinka, Kielce, Cracow, Auschwitz, Olomouc, Prague, Theresienstadt, Lidice, Amsterdam and Westerbork with me. I'm so glad these type of people exist in the world as well. One of them, 17 year old Matt (with the camera in the front), created this beautiful 4 minute short film "Perspectives" during the tour. It really does deserve a watch!