Painful memories resurface as Poles mark Kielce massacre

KIELCE, Poland — "The heavens are weeping on our ceremony," New York Rabbi David Blumenfeld told about 2,000 people gathered this week outside a white building in the center of this southern Polish city.

As rain fell, Blumenfeld lit a memorial candle and held it before the crowd.

Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1946, a Polish mob, inflamed by anti-Semitism and rumors that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child, stormed the building and slaughtered 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Sunday's emotional ceremonies were held at the site where the pogrom took place, as well as at the Kielce Jewish cemetery and at the former Kielce synagogue, now used to house city archives.

The commemorations marked Poland's official atonement for the pogrom and its request for forgiveness.

Attended by Polish, Catholic and Jewish leaders, local dignitaries and townspeople, and Holocaust survivors from Kielce and their children, the commemoration was marked by solemn speeches as the ceremonies — and crowd — moved from site to site.

Among those in the crowd was a Polish Auschwitz survivor who wore concentration camp garb and bore a sign calling Kielce the Polish Roman Catholics' shame.

Alongside a Chassidic man in a frock coat was a group of local teenagers wearing tank tops.

A survivors' group from the United States distributed yarmulkes specially imprinted with the commemoration date.

According to Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the ceremonies represented a hoped-for stepping stone toward better Polish-Jewish relations as well as toward a more honest Polish re-examination of Polish behavior during and after the war.

"Half a century after the tragic Kielce events, which have left a bloody imprint on Polish-Jewish relations, we owe ourselves words of truth and moral evaluation," Cimoszewicz told the crowd.

The Kielce pogrom, the worst of a series of Polish attacks on Jewish survivors returning to their homes after the Holocaust, became a landmark in Polish anti-Semitism, sparking the mass emigration of some 100,000 Polish Holocaust survivors.

Although nine people were hastily tried and executed for the Kielce murders by Poland's Communist authorities, the pogrom has been a festering and divisive memory over the years.

Many Poles refused to accept that ordinary people could have carried out such carnage and blamed the attack on provocation by Soviet-backed secret police.

Public discussion of the affair during the Communist era was virtually taboo.

In January, Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati wrote a letter of apology to the World Jewish Congress for the pogrom.

His letter elicited anger from Polish rightists as well as a highly critical open letter from Edward Moskal, head of the Polish American Congress, who called Rosati's apology "unfortunate and unnecessary" and accused the Polish government of catering to the Jews.

On Sunday, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel thanked Cimoszewicz for what he called his courageous words and praised the current Polish government for its efforts toward better relations with Jews.

But he raised questions that have blighted the memory of Kielce for half a century — and that still, despite recent official investigations into the pogrom, remain largely unanswered.

"True, the killing was perpetuated by hoodlums," he said. "But what about the soldiers who reportedly took part in them? And what about the others, the onlookers, the bystanders?"

"The history of the Polish people is filled with suffering and glory," Wiesel added. "Be worthy of that history, citizens of Poland. And face the recent past which is also yours. To forget is to choose dishonor."

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, echoed Wiesel's call for an examination of the past. He also cited his own experiences.

"From 1945 to 1946, more than a thousand Jews were killed in various places by Poles; taken off trains, they were hunted down in small towns and killed," he said at the Jewish cemetery.

"I was one of those Jews on a train from Kielce to Ostrowiec when the train stopped and hooligans entered to hunt for Jews — and I hid my face, so therefore I speak to you today — and I remember that I was frightened to death."

Jews who attended the ceremonies expressed appreciation for the efforts by the Polish government and local Kielce officials to be open about the past.

Blumenfeld said in an interview that he was gratified at the number of local Poles, particularly young people, who attended the ceremonies.

"What was disturbing, though, was that I could see that behind the crowd at the ceremony, in the park, were people who were just there having fun. It was testimony that they didn't care."

Some Jews expressed disappointment with some facets of the occasion.

Polish Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, secretary general of the Polish Episcopate, was faulted for giving a bland speech in which he cited church statements condemning anti-Semitism without talking of the ambivalence demonstrated by some senior church figures.

"He said the right things, but clearly he was not trying to face the totality of the church's attitude at the time," Stanislaw Krajewski, Polish consultant to the American Jewish Committee, said.

During the ceremonies, monuments were dedicated at the former synagogue to commemorate the 27,000 Jews deported to Treblinka from Kielce and to remember a number of local Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the war.