Regrets and recriminations mark 50th anniversary of Polish pogrom

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One calls upon the lessons of eighth-grade wrestling practice at the strangest moments — for instance, in the midst of a melee with two drunk Poles on a train, en route back to Warsaw from the site of a pogrom.

It wasn't much of a fight. The wild gleam in one Pole's eyes as he spied me in the crowd and silently approached, and the way he shifted his grip on his bottle, telegraphed his intentions. I deflected the bottle as he swung it at my head; warm, sweet-smelling wine sloshed over the mother and child beside me.

From their muscular builds and close-cropped hair, I took both lads to be off-duty soldiers on a bender. But they weren't in top fighting form. After a few seconds of grappling on the floor, I was sitting on top of them both. It helps to weigh 250 pounds in such situations.

If I had been wearing a kippah, as were so many at the commemoration I had just left in Kielce, this would have been a juicier tale. But I am neither a Jew nor a Pole — just a student of these people's troubled attempt to coexist.

Two hours earlier, I had stood by the grave of 42 Jews killed by Poles in a pogrom on July 4, 1946. World Jewish Congress vice president Kalman Sultanik spoke of the time just after the war when Poles attacked the train in which he rode. His words reminded me that several Jews were murdered on trains in the Kielce area around the time of the pogrom, and recalled the 1940 report of Polish Underground emissary Jan Karski, who saw Poles shoving Jews from their seats and beating them on trains early in the German occupation.

At the commemoration, Elie Wiesel said he did not believe in collective guilt.

"But how was it possible," he asked, "that a huge, frenzied mob was allowed to…go on killing Jews for almost an entire day?"

Before July 1946, there was still a chance that Jews in Poland could regain a nearly normal life. But Kielce's Poles went on a rampage and changed all that. Ultimately, some 100,000 Jews fled the country.

Today, Poland's tiny Jewish community seems much more at ease with the Poles than do Jews from America or Israel.

When vandals overturned more than 66 tombstones in Warsaw's Jewish cemetery in June, cemetery director Boleslaw Szenicer expressed outrage — as did many Poles. But when he led a group of young Americans through the cemetery soon afterward, he didn't mention the vandalism, fearing the visitors would fixate on Polish anti-Semitism and "think of nothing else after they got home."

Recriminations continue, however.

In February, the Polish government issued a formal apology for the Kielce pogrom. Edward Moskal, president of the Chicago-based Polish American Congress, condemned this, lambasting the government's "submissiveness" to Jewish desires. He claimed the pogrom might have been the work of Communist secret police.

Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski publicly denounced Moskal's criticism.

Three million non-Jewish Poles died in the war along with the 6 million Jews — but it seems shared pain breeds mutual contempt.

In Kielce, a sprawling provincial city that became an arms manufacturing center under communism, the local and national governments' penitent gestures draw a mixed response. Every Pole I meet says the pogrom was a "communist provocation."

Still, the city's conciliatory gestures — a play about the pogrom, school programs, plaques — draw praise from Yale Reisner, a Warsaw-based official of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which backs the current, modest renascence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

"The flip side," Reisner notes, "is that there

was an attack on Gypsies in Kielce last week."

The writer is the author of "Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust" (John Wiley & Sons, 1994).