Monday, April 18, 2011

Kielce Journal: The Holocaust and Anti-Semitism in Poland

Yesterday morning we left Warsaw and headed south toward the town of Kielce. The history of the town is mired in the destruction of Jewish lives and culture both during and after World War II. Before the war, the town had a vibrant Jewish community with an impressive synagogue. The population of this community stood at about 27,000. When the German occupation came, a ghetto was devised and the Jewish population was crammed into 5,000 houses. Deportations to Treblinka and other death camps followed. In a sickening example of German brutality, thirty pregnant women were shot in front of the synagogue. I have been teaching the history of the Holocaust for about eighteen years now, and I feel as though it is becoming harder to come to terms with what happened in these hellish years. In places like Kielce, Jewish life and culture were erased from the face of the earth forever; at the end of the war, only 400 Jews were left alive. The most difficult part of the day in Kielce revolved around discussions with the Polish tour guides and how they interpreted the destruction of Jewish life in the town both during and after the war. They were determined to leave us with the impression that most Poles shielded Jews from deportation by hiding them in their homes or through other means. This interpretation, however, flies in the face of historical research. It is true that there were dramatic examples of Polish families who risked their lives (the Germans shot entire families for this "crime") to help save Jewish lives. However, the evidence supports a darker reality: that a large number of Poles were involved in denouncing their Jewish neighbors and, in some cases, actively helping the Germans in their quest to solve the "Jewish Question." I don't mean to downplay Polish suffering during the war. It was unimaginable. But it doesn't address the part that anti-semitism played in the destruction of the Jewish community in Kielce and in other parts of Poland. Events that occurred after the war are also telling. In 1946 a pogrom took place in the town. Strange, given the fact that the Germany was defeated and the Soviet army had troops in Poland and much of Eastern Europe. We were told that the pogrom was the result of communist propaganda that reported that Catholic children were being kidnapped and murdered to satisfy Jewish rituals. Incensed at this, local Poles murdered Jews in full view of the police. The tour guides blamed the Soviets for the lies and that it was pure manipulation of the populace. Again, the evidence points in other directions. One interpretation points to the massacre of Jews being in revenge for bringing on the German occupation and the suffering of the Polish nation. Another interpretation focuses on the pogrom as an example of Poles identifying Jews as communists and therefore a threat to Polish independence from the Soviet Union. In both cases, anti-semitism was the common denominator. Anti-semitism was part of Polish (and European) culture for centuries. It cannot be whipped into existence through propaganda at a moment's notice. As for the synagogue, which stood as the pride of the Jewish community and was the site of terrible scenes of suffering during the Holocaust, it now stands as an archive, the symbols of Judaism stripped away. It's just another municipal building in a town with a cruel past.


  1. Hi Mr. Davis,
    I'm glad to see you have arrived in Poland. In my readings of the Holocaust and watching the interviews of survivors, I find it devastating and almost incomprehensible. To visit the places where these atrocities occured must make those feelings very intense. I have some relatives who visited these places recently,and they had a difficult time comprehending and then trying to describe their feelings of what they witnessed.
    I have had the opportunity to visit many historical sites in the U.S.and know that to visit in person is a very powerful experience, and brings history alive, but when it deals with such death and destruction, it's more than sobering.
    I enjoy reading of your experiences.
    Nancy S.
    P.S. next time I'll ask "How's the food in Poland?" ;)

  2. It was a terrible thing, in a terrible time. it is sickening to see how people will proclaim themselves as defenders, or saviors of a horrid genocide. maybe they can't own up to the dark truth that their country has done.

    did most the Polish people do unspeakable acts to the Jewish people, because they were afraid of what the German forces were capable of doing?

    I honestly wish I could go to warsaw ghettos. to see and maybe ( in a sense ) of how people managed their lives during the times when the germans forced the Jewish people into ghettos.

    it seems during the time of WW2, people got away with more. and people were afraid to speak up and let the world know what is going on.

    - jose calderas

  3. Hi DR Davis!
    It was very painful for me to read your blog about the is unbelievable how human being can do so much harm to he own kind.I would like to know how is the life in Kielce now and how the Jews interact with the Poland. I know it must be very painful for you and you student for touring all of the genocide site. I just wish one day i will go there and witness it myself.
    Honestly i think people who commit all these genocide get away without paying all this crime i think they should be pursue and arrest for their crime.

    Alexis Sime

  4. Hey Dr.Davis
    hope your having a blast on your trip, but after reading your blog, it is unbelievable how the human species can destroy another race like its okay. How can a town of 27000 Jews get decimated to only 400? And on the polish helping Jews hide out, some probably did help but in my opinion if a town of 27000 gets wipe down to 400 i think most polish was actually helping Germans solve the "Jewish question"

  5. Hello Professor Davis:

    I am glad you arrived saved and sound. By reading your blog, I came to realization that when countries commit such crimes they try deter the attention to something or someone else or perhaps justify their actions. I read the book by Professor Eliesel Weisel, titled Night and his account of the tragedies he witnessed are extremely touching and disturbing. Have you met any survivors yet?

  6. Hello Dr. Davis,

    Reading your blog and 'This way to the Gas' has been a difficult undertaking and an interesting journey into the human psyche. The duality of feeling both a victim and an executioner for those in the concentration camps surely must extend to some degree to all those suffering at the hands of Soviet occupation? And then there is just hatred, and I feel as though I understand that far less.

    I look forward to reading more about your journey. Safe home!

    - Leslie McCormack

  7. In reference to your post on the discussion that you mention you had with fellow historians about "Why". In the mind of evil men there is always a justification as to why they commit atrocities against humanity;especially when the the reasons are political or financial. Hunger for power may be a great reason for some.It happened in the new world when the power hungry Europeans took the Africans as slaves and murdered many. However if your nature cannot fathom such acts you will never have a justified answer?

    Take care

  8. Hello Dr. Davis,

    It must be so interesting to visit the ghettos and some concentration camps. It's hard to believe that only 5,000 Jews remain in Poland! The Holocaust was a terrible time in history and from reading your blogs, it seems that the Polish tour guides are trying to say they were heroes when in reality they are not. See you on Friday!

    -Samantha Fowler

  9. Dr. Davis,
    It is surprising to me as it is others that the people of Poland embellished a little. Perhaps it is because they are still trying to get rid of the stigma that they were involved in the persecution of Jews. I can only imagine the atrocities that occurred at the synagogue. Seeing as that is such an important part of their religion its easy to see the Germans would commit heinous acts there. i can only speculate that the Germans tried to break their spirit to break them.
    I feel as if even with all of our knowledge of the Holocaust no one will ever really come to terms with this dark time in history. Even our best assumptions based on fact i feel fall short of a solid understanding of it all.
    - Shawn Conway-

  10. Dr. Davis,
    It is very shocking to me whenever I hear some facts and stories about the Holocaust. I can't even imagine all the pain the Jews went through. And after reading your blog, it was more shocking to learn that the Polish did not help them much either. Then, just like you said, the big question comes to my mind again:Why??
    What in the world could justify all the horror these people had to live?

    I hope that the rest of your trip goes well. See you on Tuesday.

    Joselyn Polanco

  11. Hi Dr. Davis
    It's very shocked the Jews'history. How do the population in Poland feel when they see those monuments? (because of one horrible past and now people see and remember of the tramatic past)
    Take care
    Sarah Martins

  12. Hey Dr.Davis
    Thank you for posting these blogs and the video. For people who cant visit such places like me, its really cool to see how these memorials, are put up in memory of those who suffered.

  13. Good morning here and good afternoon there! This is Wade from your World Civ 2 course. About a hundred poems spring to mind when I am forced to revisit this era of our history, an 18th century Vietnamese concubine once wrote, "I ache thinking of this country's past, somewhere a bell tools and fades further, old heroes, old deeds where are they now? One see only this flock of shaved heads"

    "If everything we create we use to destroy, what here is worth saving?" I know this is a dark side of things but the more I look at the world the more I realize this to be the true nature of we humans at our basest of natures. We construct devices to encourage or create new vices and have lost sight of any semblance of harmony or balance in our lives. I think that most people would be able to answer that question without batting an eye or hesitation, I however find myself questioning the end game and the centuries ahead and wondering if there is something that can be done to stem the rising tide of dis-ease. I attribute to our species the same developmental milestones inherent in the individual components of our species, that of the stages of growth and maturity....infancy, toddler-hood, adolescence, latent adolescence, adulthood, and so on. It makes sense to me that just as an individual must achieve the milestones and develop further along so must the species as whole. However the stages are greatly retarded in the whole of the species verses the seemingly quick achievements within the individual. If I were to venture a guess, I would speculate that currently we are probably somewhere along the lines of toddler-hood. I make this argument based on the manner in which we conduct ourselves both domestically and globally. Just as a toddler lacks the capacity to share and will often tend towards hoarding of things they deem valuable, we too at this point act in the same manner. We conduct ourselves in the end only to the design as it is beneficial to us, the motivation often falls under the guise of charity or civil responsibility, but as is becoming invariably more clear in the events playing out in the surge of revolt in the middle-east, we have supported a number of brutally vicious regimes and dictators so that we can have more than our fair share of the available resources, not so that we can march forward, better as a whole, into the dawn of a democratic utopia. I realize I'm grouping of all us together, and placing those I know don't support these policies or actions, but I do so because I recognize regardless of our consent or lack there of we have inherited the problem, and will be responsible for our part in how to move forward with it. In the end that's what I'm asking for, I want the thoughts of the minds I respect on what to do next. I find myself at a loss as to the potential that a single man can have on such a vast systemic problem, however, I am terminally optimistic in looking for it. Will we survive this adolescence without destroying our species, is it even possible? Abraham Lincoln said the within each of us there is a battle between the darkest of our natures and the lightest, and that what we must do is appeal to the better angels of our nature in order to heal our common wounds and come together united. This is currently the only solace I find in the recesses of my mind, that we are in fact capable of beautiful acts of humanity, and perhaps when we learn to appeal to those better angels we may actually stand a chance of surviving ourselves. Thanks for sharing, see you next Tuesday.

  14. Hello Professor Davis,
    Hope your trip is going well! I agree with what you said in the above sentences... "I have been teaching the history of the Holocaust for about eighteen years now, and I feel as though it is becoming harder to come to terms with what happened in these hellish years." As long as I've been in school, I have been tought and told about the Holocaust. Even though the basic information about how many people were killed and the harsh and cruel treatments of people were displayed, It seems to get harder when you read about a personal story or have speakers come into your school who have survived the Holocaust. Everytime you hear a personal story from one person, you think about the huge amount of people who were killed and put in those condition and you realize that each one of those people have a personal story and that there not just numbers to give an example of how many people were killed or harmed, but individuals who suffered day by day in extreme conditions. Hope the rest of your trip is amazing!

    - Kelly White

  15. Hello Dr. Davis,
    I am overwhelmed after reading your blog about the Holocaust. How can a city of 27000 Jews be narrow to only 400 Jews by the end of the war? I wonder how do they interact now with each other? I also wonder if the Jews feel save living there after the all history of the Holocaust? Saw a lot of similarities in your blog with the stories of the children who survived the Holocaust. Thank you for you blog and I hope I will read some more.

  16. Dr. Davis,
    I can see why the Polish people might have that perspective. When a country is teaching its younger generations about history the vision may be skewed slightly! A country can gloss over certain details so that there is a better light shed on their side. So these people may have sincerely felt that there was a large percent of Polish trying to hide the Jews!
    Also I can absolutely comprehend Nazis shooting pregnant women. In Auschwitz there were many biological experiments done to try and make women infertile, so if they ended u surviving the camp the could no longer populate the earth with an "inferior race". There was also extensive experiments on twins done by a man of the name Mengele, I believe, he would take extensive procedures, cast of their teeth, fingerprints, and then kill them and look at their internal organs!
    It may seem morbid but WWII and the Holocaust are my favorite parts in history to learn about! Even down to the fact that prosthetic limbs were taken from Jews as they entered the camps and given to the Nazi war effort! I thank you so much for sharing this experience with us! See you in class Friday!
    -Sabrina Markham

  17. Hello Dr. Davis
    After reading your blog, I can find similarity events with slavery! how can a human beings killed people with same skin tone, but different religious belief like Jewish! I compare it to Africans and how they were kidnapped from Africa and turn into slave, and if slaves don't do what their master wants they be whipped or get killed on the spot.
    Another point that I found in your blog and how again i can compare to Slavery, is how thirty pregnant women were shot in front of the synagogu, and when it came to slavery pregnant mother would have the baby and then be separated from the child.

  18. Dr. Davis,

    As i'm reading this it really devastates me how terrible human beings can be.Killing and shooting another human being. Especially how the Germans would round up the pregnant womens and shoot them in front of a synagogue. A place where is scared to the Jewish people.

    I know this is sorta out of topic but I can really relate to this. It almost reminds me of the massive genocide of the Khmer people. How they would round people and kill them because of their light complexity(Half breed), teachers, dancers, children because they are seen as weakling and would use them as target practice. This was all seen as a threat to the Angkors, the Khmer rouge.

    Losing the one you love can be really devastating and I just don't understand why people would do such things, it's just all very disturbing. I mean, I see it as what if that was your mother, brother, sister or a friend was being put into that place. What would have you done? That is something I cannot bare to watch.

    But anywho, I hope you have a safe trip back. Poland is a place I would love to visit. :)

    -Sommaly Chea


    I think its extremely interesting that there are signs all around Germany and also that a mall is named after one in Boston, that is amazing

    What is Germany's take on Americans?

    What did it feel like when you got to Auschwitz? What emotions crossed over you. Did you visit the house of Anne Frank? Did you take pictures?

    I can read for days about the holocaust but, I will not experience the emotions or clarity I would get from going to Germany. It is not something that can be explained to me I need to go there and feel it. In time I will visit Germany, Poland, and the rest of Europe because that is where history will present itself. I will truly understand as much as I can at that point.

  20. these posts have been very informative and heart wrenching. I agree with you that it is wrong for the Polish guide to mislead tourists to think that Poland was guiltless in the liquidation of Polish Jews. I imagine these lies arise from a sense of Polish pride and patriotism. one wonders how these guides do not realize that it does harm to their country when these lies get exposed as in this blog post. the crimes of those who participated in the atrocities of the holocaust should be exposed by the people of the countries they were committed in as a way to disgrace those who share the antisemitism of those criminals.