Now for the first time, survivors were able to think about something other than food and how to stay alive another day. This was the time when numbness wore off and reality set in. This was the time when the survivors began to learn who was lost. This was the time to pick up the pieces. In many cases, there were no pieces to pick up, as many survivors found themselves to be the sole survivors of their entire family. After the war, Jewish survivors from Kielce attempted to return to Kielce, in order to find any family or anyone else that may have survived.
What did they find when they returned home to Kielce? Upon liberation, my father, the lone survivor of his family, returned to Kielce on January 15, 1945. In the streets here, he was greeted with hatred and angry words, and shortly became surrounded by a menacing group, as if he was the enemy. My father felt that he would have been badly beaten, had not some Russian soldiers happen to be passing by. My father was warned that it would be dangerous for him to remain here. With that warning in mind, my father only stayed a short while at the building located at 7 Planty.
With my mother, a survivor from Birkenau, they attempted to leave Poland as quickly as possible. Consequently, I was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, rather than here in Kielce. This, sadly was the common experience of so many of the Jewish former residents of Kielce upon returning to their homes, now occupied by strangers. They all felt that they were drowning in a sea of hostility. This was at a time when the Jewish victims of Nazism were desperately seeking some sign that would restore for them some hope in humanity.
I understand that we will never know all the pertinent facts concerning the pogrom that took place in Kielce on July 4, 1946. The pogrom was initiated by the rumor that the Jewish survivors captured Christian children and kept them in the basement of their building at 7 Planty, in order to drain their blood, which was needed to give strength to their bodies ravished by the Nazi camps. Regardless of who was responsible for this rumor, the pogrom would not have happened, had not so many people in Kielce actually believed this story, given strength by deep rooted anti-Jewish indoctrination.
I find it so difficult to imagine what it was like, only 66 yrs ago. I stand here today, and I try to imagine my cousin, Bella Gertner, a teenage girl from Ostrowiec, who survived the death camps, only to be brutally murdered at the building at 7 Planty. For Bella, staying there was to be only a temporary station, as she was preparing herself to go with other fellow survivors to Palestine, our Jewish homeland, her only dream. I try to imagine her fear when she looked out onto the street and saw thousands of angry citizens of Kielce, many armed with knives, clubs, clutching pipes, and pitchforks, intent on murder.
How could this be? So many people, men, women and children, coming together in broad daylight. There is no denying the intense hatred and broad participation of Polish citizens against the surviving remnant of the Jewish community of Kielce, and the many eyewitness bystanders that cheered them on, or at best, stood silent. I realize that most of the mob that gathered on that tragic day, were not all perpetrators. But I am puzzled. What was in the minds of the many onlookers, bystanders, and the normal citizens of Kielce who once lived side by side in harmony with their Jewish neighbors? What efforts were made to stop the massacre that continued almost an entire day? This, unfortunately was not an isolated incident. This irrational hatred and hysteria exhibited itself throughout Poland at that time.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, spoke at the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. He asked the question, and I quote “will the Kielce of today remember and acknowledge the Kielce of yesterday?” It’s not an easy task. It requires courage and integrity, and I see this is indeed the case today. It is apparent that the Kielce of today is not the Kielce of so many years ago. Since Elie Wiesel raised his question 16 years ago, I feel that Kielce has done much to advance Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
Polish-Jewish reconciliation cannot be based on polite, expedient ambiguity. It must be built on a foundation of facing our shared history with honesty. It must arise out of an acknowledgement of unpleasant and shameful historical truths. We are heartened by the many positive efforts from the highest Polish government and Kielce officials, and they are greatly appreciated.
I would like to acknowledge the mayor of Kielce, for his courage, his sincerity in ensuring that we remember and we commemorate. In particular, I would like to mention the Jan Karski Foundation, and the tremendous energy and commitment of it’s president, Bogdan Bialek, a remarkable individual that I am proud to call my friend. We, the new generation of the Jewish descendents from Kielce, thank you for your dedication, your courage, and your continuing efforts in the recognition of the Jewish community that once thrived in Kielce.
Manny Bekier is The Chairman of The Kieltzer Society in New York