The Kielce Pogrom
(July 4, 1946)
by Bozena Szaynok
For many years, the anti-Jewish pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946, was one of the many taboo topics in modern Polish history. At the end of the 1980s, the great political changes in Poland meant that historians could begin to research the history of Poland using secret archives and records which had not previously been available to them. These new research opportunities also applied to the history of Jews in Poland after 1945 -- my field of specialization. I became the first historian to gain access to materials on the Kielce pogrom contained in the archives of the Polish Ministry of the Interior in Warsaw and in the local archive in the town of Kielce itself.
The pogrom in Kielce took place on July 4, 1946, but some events which are very strongly connected with that pogrom started a few days before. On July 1, a nine-year-old boy, Henryk Blaszczyk, left home without informing his parents. Little Henryk set out to visit friends of his parents in the village of Bielaki, almost 25 kilometers from Kielce. Henryk’s visit took place during summer vacation, and it was not the boy’s first visit there. During the war, his family had lived in the village for some time as well. In Kielce, Henryk’s father, Walenty Blaszczyk, troubled by his son’s absence, began searching for him. When searches and inquires brought no results, Henryk was reported missing to the police at midnight. On July 3, Henryk decided to return home, and that evening he came back to Kielce.
His family and neighbors asked him where he had been. In response, he told a story about an unknown gentleman whom he had met in Kielce. He asked him to deliver a parcel to some house and after that he put the boy in a cellar. With the help of another boy who was also there, Henry escaped on July 3. Obviously, the story was told by the boy to avoid punishment, but the neighbors and the boy’s parents believed it. But two neighbors who were at the Blaszczyks’ home when Henryk came back had questions. One asked the boy whether the gentleman he described was a Gypsy (Roma) (Roma) or a Jew, and the boy replied that the unknown gentleman did not speak Polish and that he therefore had to be a Jew. However, in response to a similar question asked by another neighbor, the boy merely replied that he was put in a cellar by a man without giving any information about his nationality. In other words, two persons suggested to little Henryk that Jews could have been the perpetrators of his abduction, and this information was reported to the police station on the evening of July 3.
On the next day, July 4, at about 8 a.m., Walenty Blaszczyk (the boy’s father) set out for the police station with his son and one of the neighbors. On the way, they passed the house where Jewish families lived in Kielce, the so-called Jewish house.
According to the testimony given by the father and the neighbor, they asked the boy if he had been kept at the Jewish home. Henryk not only stated that he had been held there, but he also pointed to one short man standing near the Jewish house and said that this man had put him in a cellar.
At the police station, Henryk’s story was treated as a truthful. In a short time, three police patrols were dispatched to Planty Street, where the Jewish house was located. Planty street was a small street in the center of the town, and it ran perpendicular to the main streets in which the regular police, the Security (political, secret police ), and the army had their headquarters.
The policemen from the first patrol arrested the young Jewish male pointed out by the boy, and the next patrol started searching for the place where the boy had been held. Each of the three patrols had about ten policemen. They walked with Henryk and obviously attracted the attention of the residents of Kielce. When the policemen were questioned about what had happened, they spread false reports about Jews holding a Polish boy, and they also talked about searching for murdered Polish children in a Jewish home. All of this took place in the center of Kielce.
People started to gather very quickly along the way and to congregate in front of the so-called Jewish house. The behavior of the policemen and the people who were gathering near Planty Street made the Jewish families living there apprehensive. Severyn Kahane, the chairman of the Jewish Committee in Kielce and an inhabitant of the Jewish house, went to the police station to get some explanations. The police promised to release Singer Kalaman, the young Jewish male who had been arrested, but they did not keep their promise. The initial search of the house by the policemen convinced the crowd that the rumor about Polish children being kept there was, in fact, true, although, at the beginning, most of the people in the crowd behaved passively. They simply watched the police conduct their search.
Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., some of the main representatives of state authority in Kielce found out about Henryk’s story and its consequences. Among them were the chief of police and his deputy. In addition, two of the most important people in Kielce at that time, the chief of the Department of Public Security (the secret, political police) Wladyslaw Sobczynski, and his Soviet advisor also learned of the events unfolding on Planty Street.
At about 10 a.m., the police patrols and a group of functionaries from the political police were joined by an army contingent on Planty Street. According to the testimony of the deputy commander of the army division to which the soldiers belonged, about one hundred soldiers and five officers were dispatched to Planty Street. The newly arrived troops had not been told anything about the events, and they came to believe that Jews had kidnaped and murdered Polish children in the house on Planty Street. The soldiers got their information from the people gathered on the street. With the arrival of the troops, tensions rose very quickly.
The soldiers and the policemen then went into the building. Jews were told to surrender their weapons, but not all of the residents obeyed the order. The entry of the policemen and the soldiers into the Jewish house marked the beginning of the pogrom. Excerpts from testimony supplied by people who witnessed the outbreak of the pogrom describe what followed.
Ewa Szuchman, resident of the house on Planty Street, said:
Albert Grynbaum, another inhabitant of the Jewish house who was on the first floor, said:
This is how the Kielce pogrom began. The behavior of the policemen and the soldiers, influenced by the crowd outside, provoked it into action. After the attack inside the building, the Jews were led outside where the people killed them in a cruel fashion. Other eye-witness accounts given by Jews and Poles confirm these events.
Baruch Dorfman (Jew, resident of the Jewish house):
Ryszard Salapa (one of the policemen) recalled:
At about 11 a.m. Seweryn Kahane, the chairman of the Jewish Committee in Kielce, was shot by soldiers. He was killed while calling for help. Within the first hour of the pogrom, representatives of such key institutions in Warsaw as the Ministry of Public Security (secret police) and the Chief Commander of the Police found out about the pogrom from their subordinates in Kielce, who called Warsaw at about 11 a.m.
Major Sobczynski, the local secret police commander, and his Soviet advisor Szpilevoy, were on Planty Street at that time, as were other local officials and army commanders. During the first phase of the pogrom, the monsignor of the cathedral parish in Kielce went to Planty Street with another priest. They were going to check on what had happened and to talk with people gathered there. Officers stopped them. The priests were told that the situation was under control, and that civilians were prohibited from entering Planty Street.
Until noon, all attempts to stop the pogrom brought no results. At that time, the pogrom spilled over into the city itself as well. One resident of Kielce recalled:
At about 12 o’clock, the army managed to push the crowd back from the square facing the Jewish house. However, the crowd did not disperse. The temporary calm was interrupted by the arrival of workers from the Ludwikow steel mill. The arrival of the workers marked the beginning of the next phase of the pogrom, during which about 20 Jews lost their lives. According to eye-witness accounts, once the workers arrived nothing could be done for the Jews inside the building or on the square. Neither the military and secret police commanders, nor the local political leaders from the Polish Workers’ Party did anything to stop the workers from attacking Jews. The pogrom lasted until 2-3 p.m. New units of soldiers from a nearby school run by the Interior Ministry and from Warsaw finally succeeded in restoring order. Also, around 2 p.m. an official from the Kielce court placed a call to the Curia requesting that the Church intervene on Planty Street. Five priests went to Planty, where they tried to convince people gathering there to return home. The priests warned the mob that the soldiers would use their weapons. However, one of the soldiers standing nearby said that the Polish army would never shoot at Poles.
Meanwhile, wounded Jews were brought to the hospital. While being transported, they were beaten and robbed by soldiers. The anti-Jewish mood did not end with the pogrom. In the afternoon, a large, anti-Jewish demonstration took place on Planty Street. In addition, a crowd approached the hospital and demanded that the wounded Jews be handed over to them. The pogrom in Kielce began about 10 a.m. and ended in the afternoon. Anti-Jewish events took place not only at Planty Street but all over town. In Kielce, a Jewish mother and baby were carried out of their house and killed. Anti-Jewish actions also occurred on trains passing through Kielce that day.
Over forty people were killed in the pogrom (some of them died later in the hospital), including two Poles. Who were the victims of the Kielce pogrom?
- The Chairman of the Jewish Community in Kielce, Severyn Kahane.
- Young Zionists who wanted to leave Poland for Palestine.
- Jewish soldiers and former prisoners of concentration camps were among the victims.
- Estera Proszowska, killed because she helped wounded Jews.
On July 8, 1946, the victims of the pogrom were buried at the Jewish cemetery in Kielce. Several trials grew out of the Kielce pogrom. During the first such trial, nine people were sentenced to death. By September and October, other trials were being held in Kielce in which the accused were not only civilians, but also soldiers and policemen. Among those charged was the commander of the Kielce Office of the Security Service and the Chief of Police, both of whom were acquitted. Most of the people put on trial were arrested at random, and the trials themselves were far from clean. Some of the people arrested were not even at the place where the pogrom took place. Security officers could arrest anyone they wished to. During interrogation, some of the arrested were beaten and tortured. Witnesses called to testify on behalf of the accused were not questioned at all. Nor were the Soviet advisors who were in Kielce at that time questioned.
Funeral procession for victims of the Kielce pogrom. Kielce, Poland (July 1946)
It is not possible to tell exactly how many trials took place in conjunction with the Kielce pogrom, because some of the relevant files were destroyed in 1989. While we are now able to reconstruct the events of July 4, 1946, some aspects of the pogrom do remain unexplained. For example:
1) Dygnarowicz and Pasowski, the neighbors of the Blaszczyk family who originally suggested that little Blaszczyk had been kept by Jews, went unpunished. Pasowski did not stand trial, and Dygnarowicz was acquitted. This fact can be used in support of a provocation theory. But, on the other hand, one must note that little Blaszczyk, after his return home, originally gave a version of events that did not incriminate Jews. It is therefore unlikely that Pasowski and Dygnarowicz were, in such a short time, trained by anyone to play the role of provocateurs. Moreover, Pasowski’s question to Blaszczyk, “who was the man who kidnaped you, a Jew or a Gypsy (Roma)?” was a typical manifestation of the stereotypes existing among certain social groups at the time. In April 1946, three months before the pogrom in Kielce, the Jewish Press Agency had written that “untrue stories about ritual murders committed by Jews on Polish children, or, for a change, by Gypsies are meant to provoke unrest and pogroms.”
2) The reactions by the police and security forces did indeed look like a provocation but, on the other hand, these forces were incapable of acting jointly because of a conflict between the provincial commander of the police and the head of security forces, Major Sobczynski.
3) There is no question that the actions by the police enabled the pogrom to spread. This may have been the result of anti-Jewish sentiments prevalent in the Kielce police. For example:
- The dispatch of police patrols to Planty Street lent credence to the Blaszczyk rumor.
- The Deputy Police Chief participated in the anti-Jewish rally.
- On July 4, the Chief of Police in Kielce stated in a meeting by of the provincial council that Jews had killed some Polish children.
One should also take note of the widespread perception in Poland after 1945 that Jews were responsible for the new, communist regime in the country.
4) We do not know who was responsible for giving the order to use live ammunition against the Jewish residents inside the building and to seize weapons from the Jews.
5) We do not know who fired first. Did the Jews fire in self-defense, or were the soldiers the first to open fire?
6) The actions of the head of the Provincial Bureau for Public Security, Major Sobczynski, were, without doubt, designed to escalate the pogrom. Sobczynski had been in Rzeszow during an attempted pogrom there in June 1945. He understood perfectly well how people and soldiers behave during a pogrom. The reasons for Major Sobczynski’s actions are not known. One can only state that he had an interest in seeing the pogrom spread.
7) We do not know whether the orders dictating the actions of the security service, the military, and the police came from commanders in Kielce. During the pogrom, some people in Kielce contacted highly placed officials in the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police Headquarters in Warsaw.
8) One must place the Kielce pogrom in the broader political context that existed in Poland in the second half of 1946. The pogrom offered an opportunity to discredit the anti-communist Polish Peasant Party as well as the underground opposition. The pogrom also diverted public opinion within Poland and in the West away from the national referendum that the Communists had staged and rigged in June 1946 as a dry run for parliamentary elections.
9) We do not know what instructions the officers from the security police received before the post-pogrom interrogations, when they beat some of the suspects unconscious.
10) We do not know why the commanders of the army, police and security service present in front of the building did not undertake any actions to prevent the second stage of pogrom from occurring.
11) We do not why the firing squad that executed the nine people condemned to death in the trials was already in Kielce on July 8th. Is it possible that the court verdict was ready before the start of court proceedings?
12) How does one explain that the inaction during the pogrom of some officers of the police, the army, and the security services helped their careers?
13) And, finally, to what degree was the Kielce tragedy used by the secret police to break the structures of the anti-communist underground in the Kielce district and in Kielce itself ? Since so many of the circumstances and events connected with the pogrom remain unexplained, several interpretations of the Kielce events have been put forward. The literature on the Kielce pogrom contains a few theories that try to explain its causes and to identify people responsible for the pogrom. One of the first theories asserted that the pogrom had been provoked by the underground opposition tied to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and to the Polish Peasant Party, or PSL, the main legal anti-communist force in Poland at the time. Proponents of this theory, communist leaders such as Wladyslaw Gomulka and Jakub Berman, argued that soldiers from the pro-London army of General Anders took part in the pogrom. However, the ensuing investigation proved this thesis inaccurate. When it turned out that the Kielce pogrom could not be used against the anti-communist opposition, it was quickly hushed up.
According to members of the anti-communist opposition, the pogrom was prepared by Polish or Soviet security services. They wanted to change Western opinion about Polish society and to counteract the impression that the results of the June referendum had been falsified. This opinion was repeated by modern historians and researchers.
Let me briefly discuss the political situation in Poland at the time in order to shed additional light on the provocation thesis. In 1946, a very intense political struggle was underway in Poland. The magnitude of violence and repression in Poland was larger than anywhere else in East Central Europe, and Poland from 1945 to 1947/48 experienced what can accurately be termed a civil war. Two main political orientations confronted one another. The aim of the first was to put Poland under Soviet influence. The Polish communists gradually tried to increase their influence by resorting to more severe methods to strangle the anti-communist resistance. On the other side, there was the pro-Western political groups that wanted to conduct the free and democratic elections in Poland guaranteed by Churchill , Roosevelt and Stalin in the Yalta Accords of February 1945.
Both sides understood perfectly well that Polish society was dominated by strong anti-communist sentiments. For this reason, the Polish communists wanted to delay the elections. But there was also a problem for the Polish Peasant Party. How could it ensure that free elections would indeed be held when the country was occupied by the Red Army?
The referendum of June 1946 represented the first attempt to measure public opinion in Poland. It was kind of a test. Both the communists and the opposition were interested in the referendum’s outcome. The results were important for both the West and for Stalin. There is no question that the communists falsified the results of the referendum. Despite the fact that the communists claimed victory in the referendum, everyone in Poland knew that referendum had been a great defeat for the Polish Workers’ Party.
The Kielce pogrom took place just as the results of the referendum were made public. What I have outlined here is, of course, only a general description of the overall political context. Some historians, however, have interpreted the political situation in Poland at the time as a priori proof that the pogrom did in fact grow out of a premeditated act of political provocation. A further provocation theory was put forward by the leaders of the anti-communist Polish Peasant Party, Stefan Korbonski and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. Korbonski and Mikolajczyk contended that the pogrom had been organized by the head of the Kielce Security Bureau, Major Sobczynski, with the aim of discrediting Polish society in the eyes of Western Europe. Korbonski and Mikolajczyk pointed to the unexplained role of the neighbors of the Blaszczyk family, the ones who suggested to little Henry that Jews had kept him. Korbonski and Mikolajczyk also emphasized the manner in which the pogrom unfolded and its proximity to the national referendum.
One historian has recently argued that Major Sobczynski organized anti-Jewish incidents in Rzeszow in 1945. There is no question that the provocation theory enjoyed popularity in Polish society. Public protests against the death penalties carried out after the first Kielce trial and workers’ refusal to condemn the pogrom should not be dismissed merely as displays of anti-Semitism. The causes were more complex.
One anonymous author of a letter sent to the Provincial Bureau for Public Security in Kielce stated that “society and foreign opinion keep asking where were the security forces, the police, and the army? Why didn’t they, in the span of 9 hours, intervene and disperse an unarmed crowd? The authorities are at fault, not some stupid and backward individuals.”
Arthur Bliss-Lane, the US ambassador to Poland at the time, wrote that “I did not have a final proof for the Government’s participation in the instigation of the Kielce pogrom, but, because of the incredible inefficiency demonstrated by the police and Security Bureau, I started to consider whether the Government willingly used that occasion to condemn its main critics.”
The most sophisticated provocation theory is the one presented by Michal Checinski in his book, Poland, Communism, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism. Mr. Checinski thinks that the pogrom was prepared by Soviet advisers present in Kielce. He argues that the Soviet Union had the most to gain and that “the political opposition suffered by gaining a bad reputation abroad [...] the attention of Western media was turned away from the rigging of an important national referendum by the Polish authorities. The Soviet Union achieved an important political goal when mass-emigrating Polish Jews overflowed the Displaced Persons camps in the western zones of Germany and Austria and, at the same time, undermined British rule in Palestine.” Mr. Checinski supports his thesis by noting that Soviet advisers took part in the interrogations of people arrested during and after the pogrom.
Archival documents that I found do confirm the presence of Soviet advisers in Kielce in general. In particular, they also prove the presence of a high-ranking Soviet officer on Planty Street and in the office of Major Sobczynski. The version of events presented by Mr. Checinski is another attempt to answer the question: who is responsible for the Kielce pogrom?
In 1992, a new investigation of the pogrom got underway. It was conducted by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against the Polish Nation. The Commission has been charged with collecting all existing reports and documents on the Kielce pogrom as well as political and historical literature on the subject. The members of the Commission made a list of living witnesses of the pogrom, and over 130 people were interviewed.
The Commission acquired some new documents on the Kielce pogrom from the Soviet archives and the Archive of the Polish Ministry of Interior. Some files, however, were destroyed at the end of the 1980’s. The most important of these destroyed sources were army reports.
The Commission’s investigations have yielded some important new elements. The Commission received two reports sent on the day of the pogrom by Soviet advisors present in Kielce. These reports were addressed to the main Soviet advisor attached to the Polish Ministry of Public Security - Davidov. According to these reports, the Soviet advisors were completely surprised by the pogrom. The Commission also confirmed that little Blaszczyk had, in fact, been in the village outside of Kielce where his family had spent some time. However, the Commission refused to state definitively whether the boy’s disappearance had or had not been prepared in advance.
The Commission reaffirmed that the local authorities in Kielce failed to undertake decisive steps against the pogrom. In the first phase of the pogrom, between 11 a.m. and 12 a.m., when the events unfolded with the speed of lighting, no officials counteracted them. The Commission concluded that the Chief of Kielce Security, Wladyslaw Sobczynski, should have coordinated all actions in defense of the Jews. And, as we know, he behaved passively. The Commission’s investigation has been handed over to the District Prosecutor’s Office in Kielce. And it will be continued.
The Kielce pogrom touches many problems. The most painful and traumatic of these problems is the existence of anti-Semitism in Poland after World War II. Poles were clearly willing to participate in an act of anti-Jewish violence. Some anti-Semitic attitudes present in Polish society after 1945 had roots in the period before the war. And others were connected to specific post-war developments, including what has been called the “heritage of the war.” Edmund Osmanczyk, a Polish writer and journalist, has written about “the generation infected by death”. This first post-war generation knew death intimately--death was something tangible and real. It was easy to kill or to allow someone to be killed. Osmanczyk also highlights a corresponding weakness of morality and values.
One of the articles on Polish-Jewish relations from 1944 to 1947 identifies another consequence of the war. Its author writes that:
An additional psychological factor that should be mentioned is the Poles’ memory of the behavior of some Jews on the Polish territories seized by the Soviet Union in September 1939. Disputes over property were motivating factors in their anti-Semitism. For example, 13 Jews were killed in the Kielce region in June 1945. Ten of them were killed because of property disputes. From June 1945 to December 1945 there were about thirty attacks on Jews in all of Poland. Eleven attacks involved robbery, and five were caused by property disputes.
The political situation in Poland after World War II also cast a dark shadow on Polish- Jewish relations. Some groups of Jews did support the communist regime; several prominent communists were either Jews or seen by Polish society as Jews. Also, the communist authorities used the Jewish issue in their struggle against the opposition by, for example, identifying all expressions of anti-communism as “reactionary” and therefore potentially anti-Semitic.
The pogrom in Kielce was a turning point in the post-war history of Jews in Poland. After the pogrom, the majority of the Jews remaining in Poland decided to leave. Until July 1946, some groups of Jews had wanted to stay in Poland in spite of dominant influence exerted by Zionism. Before the pogrom, an average of one thousand Jews crossed the Polish border illegally each month. In July, August, and September 1946, over sixty thousand Jews left Poland.
Until July 4, 1946, Polish Jews cited the past as their main reason for emigration. In this respect, the Shoah was the decisive turning-point in the history of Polish Jewry. For them, it was impossible to live on a cemetery. A memorandum prepared by Polish Jews in February 1946 for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry stressed that anti-Semitism was one of the reasons for emigration, but not the main one. The representatives of the Central Jewish Committee wrote that:
After the Kielce pogrom, the situation changed drastically. Both Jewish and Polish reports spoke of an atmosphere of panic among Jewish society in the summer of 1946. Jews no longer believed that they could be safe in Poland. Despite the large militia and army presence in the town of Kielce, Jews had been murdered there in cold blood, in public, and for a period of more than five hours. The news that the militia and the army had taken part in the pogrom spread as well. From July 1945 until June 1946, about fifty thousand Jews passed the Polish border illegally. In July 1946, almost twenty thousand decided to leave Poland. In August 1946, the number increased to thirty thousand. In September 1946, twelve thousand Jews left Poland.
What I have presented here is a brief overview of the historical and political aspects of an incident in which over forty innocent people were murdered. From a historian’s point of view, it is an event in modern Polish history which, like many others from the same period, can now be discussed openly and, with some limitations, authoritatively.
Source: Bozena Szaynok, “The Jewish Pogrom in Kielce, July 1946 - New Evidence,” Intermarium, Vol. 1, No. 3, (1997).
Map: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Lahav