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.