60 years on, Europe's last pogrom still casts dark shadow

Share this article

AIR-raid sirens echoed across the small Polish town of Kielce yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Europe's last pogrom.

Dignitaries from Poland and Israel and relatives of those who died unveiled a memorial not far from the inconspicuous building that was the site of a mass murder that still casts a shadow over Polish-Jewish relations.

On 4 July, 1946, a mob armed with clubs, iron bars and firearms, and angered by rumours a Christian child had been kidnapped by Jews, attacked a building housing Jewish refugees. When the violence ended a few hours later, 40 men, women and children, many of them Holocaust survivors, lay dead.

The bloodletting in Kielce prompted thousands of Jews to flee Poland, with an estimated 60,000 leaving in the three months that followed.

To this day, and despite a formal apology from the Warsaw government, many Poles maintain that the massacre was conceived by Soviet intelligence, eager to discredit Poland in the eyes of the world; a stance regarded by some Jewish groups as evidence of Polish society's unwillingness to confront what they consider to be persistent and pervasive antisemitism.

Yesterday, Lech Kaczynski, Poland's president, said democratic Poland had "no room for racism and antisemitism".

But he insisted Poles should not be tarred as anti-Jewish, saying he rejected "the stereotype of the Polish antisemite".

Mr Kaczynski did not attend the ceremonies -his office said he was ill. An aide read out his sharply worded remarks, which come amid European Union criticism of Poland for an alleged rise in intolerance under the new, conservative government.

"As the president of Poland, I want to say it loud and clear: what happened in Kielce 60 years ago was a crime," he said. "This is a great shame and tragedy for the Poles and the Jews, so few of whom survived Hitler's Holocaust."

Yet, in spite of the memorial service and the passing of time, the ghosts of Kielce aren't going away. A new book, Fear, by Jan Gross, a Princeton University professor, which examines antisemitism in Poland in the months following the end of the war, concludes that the reasons for the massacre lay in a vicious Polish hatred of Jews. He also claims that up to 1,500 Jews died in antisemitic violence in Poland during this period.

Five years ago, a book by Prof Gross on the 1941 massacre by Poles of 1,400 Jews in the village of Jadwabne provoked a storm of controversy in Poland. Fear is widely expected to provoke a similar reaction.

Renewed debate over the Kielce pogrom and Polish antisemitism will add tension to already fraught Polish-Jewish relations.

Radio Maryja, a popular Catholic radio station that has strong ties to the government, has faced numerous accusations of antisemitism and racism, and both the US and Israeli administrations have voiced concerns over the inclusion in the country's coalition government of the nationalist League of Polish Families (LPR).

The party traces its lineage to antisemitic movements in pre-war Poland, and members of its youth wing frequently carry Nazi placards on demonstrations.

The inclusion of the LPR in the government has prompted some to warn that it has given antisemitism a coat of legitimacy, and helped fuel anti- Jewish activity.

In June, Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi, was attacked by a man said by police to have neo-Nazi links.

Back to the top of the page