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50 Years Later, Poland Atones for Massacre of Jews in Kielce

“The heavens are weeping on our ceremony,” New York Rabbi David Blumenfeld told a crowd of about 2,000 people who 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, besieged the building and during a day of bloody violence, 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 for the slaughter.

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 survivor of Auschwitz, who wore a concentration camp uniform and bore a sign calling Kielce the shame of Polish Roman Catholics.

Alongside a Chasidic man in a frock coat was a group of local teen-agers 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.

“We see the need to work toward true Polish-Jewish reconciliation and brotherhood, which we truly believe is possible in a world on the threshold of the third millennium,” he said.

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 angry responses 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 the issues and 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?”

“What happened in this place showed that normal citizens could be as cruel as the killers of any death camp,” he said.

“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. Honor without memory is inconceivable.”

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, echoed Wiesel’s call for a thorough examination of the past.

“Only when a complete and truthful historical account of Polish Jewish history has been recorded shall Poles and Jews be able to engage in an open constructive dialogue that will bear fruit for the future generations,” he said.

In his remarks, Sultanik recalled 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 ceremony in 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.

“They came up to me to shake my hand,” he said. “I can’t speak Polish, but I saw in their eyes that things will be better.

“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.”

Holocaust survivor William Mandell, leader of an association of Jews in the United States from Kielce, said in an interview that he appreciated the efforts of the Polish authorities to atone for the pogrom, but that it was too long in coming.

“The wound has healed, but the scar has not healed,” he said. “We hope that today’s events bode well for the future, but for us older generation, it is tough to forgive.

“Today opened up some discussion, but I would not say forgiveness.”

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 in an interview.

During the ceremonies, side-by-side 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.

“Both are meaningful and needed monuments,” Krajewski said, “but I am a little unhappy they are juxtaposed.”

“And also, the monument to the Righteous Gentiles is much more elaborate; its inscription is so much larger. The Jews are commemorated as a number, 27,000, an anonymous mass,” he said.

“Those who helped them are commemorated as individuals with names. An anonymous abstraction vs. individuals about whom we care.”

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