For many Jews, the city of Kielce is remembered as the brutal end of the centuries long encounter between Poles and Jews. It was here, on July 4 1946 that local Poles set upon a group of Holocaust refugees trying to rebuild their shattered lives, killing not just these victims but also any hope that staying in Poland was feasible for Jews after World War II.
After the Kielce pogrom, most remaining Polish Jewish survivors fled Poland for new homes abroad.
This month, 64 years after the Kielce pogrom, a new monument will be unveiled in Kielce’s Jewish cemetery. The massive black granite stone, designed by Israeli artist and Kielce native Marek Cecula, rests on a base engraved with the names of the 39 Jewish and three non-Jewish victims of the pogrom. Dignitaries from the local and national government and from Jewish communities near and far will attend the event.
But this is only the latest in a series of commemorative events and installations devoted to Kielce’s tragic history.
In 1990 it became possible for the first time to place a plaque on the wall of the house on Planty Street where many of the refugee Jews were living at the time of the massacre. Subsequently, other plaques have been added. The city can also boast of two additional public memorials: one a conceptual piece named “White/Wash II,” created in 2006 by Jack Sal, an American Jew, and the second a half-submerged menorah erected in 2007 by Cecula.
What is one to make of all this memorialization in a city with at most a handful of Jewish residents?
The question is not limited to Kielce. Wandering around Poland this past May, and especially at the sites of Jewish interest, I was constantly struck by the Poles’ intense, seemingly genuine interest (obsession?) in all things Jewish. While relaxing on a bench one Sabbath in front of a monument to Krakow’s lost Jews in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a friend and I — two dark-haired, olive-skinned women in a country of fair skinned Slavs — attracted the unmistakable, if furtive, interest of passing tours. As a Polish tour guide explained the nearby synagogue, cemetery and ritual bath to a group of Polish tourists, I could not help but feel like an exhibit myself.
But I was at least as interested in them as they were in me. What inspired a Pole to go on a conducted tour of an old Jewish neighborhood? Visiting Krakow from elsewhere in Poland made perfect sense. The great Polish kings and queens are buried in the cathedral on the hill. But why schlep down to the crowded, mazelike, medieval city once inhabited primarily by Jews? Kielce helped me to make sense of this conundrum.
Bogdan Bialek, a local psychologist, has devoted himself to the cause of uncovering the past in Kielce. In the face of general indifference, occasional verbal abuse and even death threats, Bialek has been an energetic advocate of many efforts to recognize Kielce’s past, including some of the plaques and monuments. He has traveled to Western Europe, Israel and the United States to raise money and interview survivors of the pogrom. He has hosted debates, and frequently speaks and writes about his findings.
When I asked Bialek where he finds the inspiration to pursue his work, he responded immediately that it was his responsibility as a Pole and a Catholic. This answer is, I believe, is the key to understanding the recent proliferation of Polish interest in Poland’s Jewish past. For the Poles, it’s not about the Jews; it’s about their effort to understand themselves.
Robert Gadek, the non-Jewish deputy director of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, made the point by way of a metaphor. Just as a person who loses a limb frequently suffers from phantom pain, Polish Catholics, born after the war and without the memory of either the life or the death of the Jews, still feel the loss of the Jewish community that was once so central to Poland’s ethnic and urban landscape.
Like a prosthetic, of course, neither the memorials nor the Krakow festival can ever replace the flesh-and-blood limb, a reality to which Gadek freely admitted. But Bialek’s tremendous dedication to facing the dark side of the Polish-Jewish experience, like Gadek’s celebration of the richness of Jewish culture in Poland, is a fundamentally Polish, not Jewish, endeavor. Both men, as well as other activists across the country, are seeking to heal their own wounded nation. To do so means to learn about the experiences of Jews in Poland and to work with Jews at home and abroad. But ultimately, Jews are incidental to these efforts. Poles are coming to terms with their own past.
The result, from the Jewish perspective, can be somewhat jarring. The most recent plaque on the house in Kielce where the pogrom began, erected through the efforts of Bialek, quotes the prayer that Pope John Paul II placed in the Western Wall on his 2000 visit to Jerusalem. A Jewish plaque would, to memorialize the Jews who died, quote the Torah and perhaps list the names of the martyrs. But this is not a Jewish plaque. The purpose is not to remember the dead and comfort their descendents, but to remind the descendents of the perpetrators both about what took place and how it should be understood.
Jews who travel to Poland seeking an apology, or even a site for Jewish mourning, will be disappointed. But Jews traveling through Poland seeking evidence of at least the beginnings of Polish recognition of their past, and the place of Jews in it, may be pleasantly surprised. Of course coming to terms with the absence of Jews is quite different from interacting with living and breathing Jews. But it may be the first, and most vital, step.
Contact Eliyana Adler at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eliyana Adler is a student and teacher of East European Jewish history.