The Kielce pogrom was an outbreak of violence against the Jewish community centre in the city of Kielce, Poland on July 4, 1946, initiated by Polish Communist armed forces (LWP, KBW, GZI WP) and continued by a mob of local townsfolk. Following a false tale of child kidnapping, including allegations of blood libel which led to a police investigation, violence broke out which resulted in the killing of around 40 Jews. Polish Communist courts later tried and condemned nine people to death in connection with the incident.
There is general academic agreement that the massacre was instigated by Soviet-backed Communist security forces, possibly for propaganda purposes to discredit Poland’s anti-Communism and maintain totalitarian control over the country. Because the top-secret case files were destroyed, there is an ongoing academic inquiry and debate about whether the violence resulted from antisemitism or secret coordination with the NKVD by the Polish authorities.
As the deadliest pogrom against Polish Jews after World War II, the incident was a significant point in the post-war history of Jews in Poland. It took place only a year after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, shocking Jews in Poland, many Poles, and the international community. It has been considered a catalyst for the flight of most remaining Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust away from Poland.
During the German occupation of Poland, Kielce was completely ethnically cleansed by the Nazis of its pre-war Jewish population. By the summer of 1946, some 200 Jews, many of them former residents of Kielce, returned from the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet Union, and other places of refuge to live there. About 150-160 of them were quartered in a single building administered by the Jewish Committee of Kielce Voivodeship at Planty, a small street in the centre of the town.
On July 1, 1946, an eight-year-old Polish boy, Henryk Błaszczyk, was reported missing by his father Walenty. According to Walenty, upon his return the boy said that he had been kidnapped by an unknown man. A neighbour suggested that this might have been a Jew or a gypsy. Two days later, the boy, his father and the neighbour went to a local police station. While passing the ‘Jewish house’ at 7 Planty St., Henryk pointed at a man nearby who, he said, had allegedly imprisoned him in the house’s cellar (though the building actually had no cellar). At the police station, Henryk repeated his story that he had been kidnapped and specified the Jews and their house as involved in his disappearance. A police patrol of more than a dozen men was then dispatched on foot by the station commander Edmund Zagórski to search the house at 7 Planty Street for the place where Henryk had allegedly been kept.
The police publicized the rumours of the kidnapping and further announced that they were planning to search for the bodies of Polish children supposedly ritually murdered and kept in the house, resulting in the gathering of civilian spectators. A confrontation ensued between the police and officers of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland (UBP), which had been called in on the suspicion that the incident was a Jewish “provocation” to stir up unrest. During the morning, the case came to the attention of other local state and military organs, including the People’s Army of Poland (LWP, regular army), the Internal Security Corps (KBW, interior ministry paramilitary), and the Main Directorate of Information of the Polish Army (GZI WP, military intelligence and counterintelligence). About 100 soldiers and five officers were dispatched to the location at about 10 a.m. The soldiers had not been told anything of the circumstances, but soon picked up rumours from the people in the street, who at this time began pelting the building with rocks.[
Outbreak of violence
The police and soldiers then forcibly broke into the building to search it. The inhabitants of the house, who had permits from the authorities to bear arms for self defense, were ordered to surrender their weapons and give up their valuables. Someone started shooting. Police and the KBW opened fire, killing and wounding a number of people in the building. There was also some shooting from the Jewish side and at least two, possibly three Poles, including a police officer, were killed as the Jews tried to defend themselves. Dr. Seweryn Kahane, the head of the local Jewish Committee, was shot in the back and killed by a GZI WP officer while calling the Kielce office of Public Security for help. Priests from the local Catholic Church went to the building to find out what was going on, but were stopped by police officers who assured them that everything was under control. After the initial killings inside the building, more Jews were forced outside by soldiers and then attacked with rocks and sticks by civilians gathered in the street.
By noon, the arrival of a large group of estimated about 600 to 1,000 workers from “Ludwików” steel mill, led by activists of the Poland’s ruling Polish Workers’ Party (PPR, communist party), marked the beginning of the next phase of the pogrom. About 20 Jews were brutally beaten to death by the workers, who were armed with steel rods and clubs. Many of the workers were members of the ORMO (reserve police) and at least one had a handgun. Neither the military and security commanders, including a Soviet military advisor, nor the local political leaders from the PPR did anything to stop the latest attacks. A unit of police cadets which also arrived there did not intervene, but some of its members joined in the looting and anti-Jewish violence which continued inside and outside the building.
Among the murdered Jews, nine had been shot dead, two were killed with bayonets, and the rest beaten and stoned to death. The dead included women and children. The mob also killed an ethnic Jewish nurse of Slavic appearance (Estera Proszowska), whom the attackers had mistaken for a Polish woman trying to aid the Jews. In addition, two Jews who did not live at Planty Street were also murdered on this day. Regina Fisz, her three-week-old son Abram, and a male friend were seized at their home at 15 Leonarda Street by a gang of four men led by police corporal Stefan Mazur. They were robbed and driven out of the city, where Regina and her baby were shot “while trying to escape”, while her friend did indeed escape.
Three Poles were among the dead. Two uniformed state servicemen were killed by gunfire, possibly shot by Jews. The cause of death of the third person, in plain clothes, was undisclosed and remains unknown.
Cessation of violence
The pogrom was eventually stopped at approximately 3:00 p.m with the arrival of a new unit of security forces from a nearby Public Security academy, sent by Colonel Stanisław Kupsza, and additional troops from Warsaw. After firing a few warning shot salvos in the air on the order of Major Kazimierz Konieczny, the new troops quickly restored order, posted guards, and removed all the Jewish survivors and bodies from the house and its vicinity.
The violence in Kielce, however, did not stop immediately. Wounded Jews, while being transported to the city hospital, were beaten and robbed by soldiers, injured Jews were assaulted in the hospital by other patients. A civilian crowd approached one of the hospitals and demanded that the wounded Jews be handed over, but the hospital staff refused.
Trains passing through Kielce’s main railway station were searched for Jews by civilians and SOK railway guard servicemen, resulting in at least two passengers being shot or thrown out of the train and killed. As many as 30 more may have been killed in this manner, as the train murders reportedly continued for several months after the pogrom. The large-scale disorder in Kielce ultimately ended some nine hours after it started.
Julia Pirotte, a well-known photojournalist with the French Resistance, photographed the pogrom’s immediate aftermath.
Attempts to blame Polish nationalists
One immediate reaction of the Communist government of Poland was to attempt to blame the pogrom on Polish nationalists, even to the extent of alleging that uniformed members of antiCommunist resistance formations backing the Polish government-in-exile were egging the mob on. At the funeral of the Jewish victims, the Minister of Public Security, Stanisław Radkiewicz, stated that the pogrom was “a deed committed by the emissaries of the Polish government in the West and General Anders, with the approval of Home Army soldiers.” Other early official statements at the time followed this line.
As the police and army are known to have been involved in the pogrom from its inception, this has given rise to the idea that the pogrom was deliberately incited by the Communists to discredit the government in exile (possibly to distract attention from the rigged referendum which had taken place at the end of June 1946). When it became clear following trials that the nationalists could not be blamed, this line of propaganda was swiftly dropped by the government.
Further investigation into the circumstances of the pogrom was resisted by the communist government until the era of Solidarity, when in December 1981 an article was published in the Solidarity newspaper Tygodnik Solidarność. However, the return of repressive government meant that files could not be accessed for research until after the fall of Communism in 1989, by which time many eyewitnesses had died. It was then discovered that many of the documents relating to the pogrom had been destroyed by fire (under unclear circumstances) or deliberately by military authorities.
For these reasons, debate about the origins of the pogrom has remained controversial. Some claim it was a deliberate provocation by the communists to discredit the opposition. Some claim that it was a spontaneous antisemitic incident that was later exploited by the government. Others accuse the Polish Catholic Church hierarchy of passivity during the pogrom and its aftermath. The fact that a number of Jews held important positions in the Polish Communist party and security services also affected popular sentiment. The absence of clear documentary evidence complicates analysis.
Between July 9 and 11, 1946, twelve civilians (one of them apparently mentally challenged) were arrested by MBP officers as perpetrators of the pogrom. The accused were tried by the Supreme Military Court in a joint show trial. Nine of them were sentenced to death and executed the very next day by firing squad on the orders of Polish Communist leader Bolesław Bierut. The remaining three accused received prison terms ranging from seven years to life.
Other than the Kielce Voivodeship MO commandant, Major Wiktor Kuźnicki, who was sentenced to one year for “failing to stop the crowd” (he died in 1947), only one police officer was punished—for the theft of shoes from a dead body. Mazur’s explanation regarding his killing of the Fisz family was accepted. Meanwhile, the regional UBP chief, Colonel Władysław Sobczyński, and his men were cleared of any wrongdoing. The official reaction to the pogrom was described by Anita J. Prazmowska in Cold War History, Vol. 2, No. 2:
Nine participants in the pogrom were sentenced to death; three were given lengthy prison sentences. Policemen, military men, and functionaries of the UBP were tried separately and then unexpectedly all, with the exception of Wiktor Kuznicki, Commander of the MO, who was sentenced to one year in prison, were found not guilty of “having taken no action to stop the crowd from committing crimes.” Clearly, during the period when the first investigations were launched and the trial, a most likely politically motivated decision had been made not to proceed with disciplinary action. This was in spite of very disturbing evidence that emerged during the pre-trial interviews. It is entirely feasible that instructions not to punish the MO and UBP commanders had been given because of the politically sensitive nature of the evidence. Evidence heard by the military prosecutor revealed major organizational and ideological weaknesses within these two security services…
The neighbour of the Błaszczyk family who had originally suggested to Henryk that he had been kidnapped by Jews was subsequently tried, but acquitted.
Effects on Jewish emigration from Poland
The brutality of the Kielce pogrom put an end to the hopes of many Jews that they would be able to resettle in Poland after the end of the Nazi German occupation and precipitated a mass exodus of Polish Jewry. In the words of Bożena Szaynok, a historian at Wrocław University:
Until 4 July 1946, Polish Jews cited the past as their main reason for emigration. 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 [i.e.: milicja] 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.”
Reaction of the Catholic Church
Six months prior to the Kielce pogrom, during the celebration of Hanukkah, a hand grenade had been thrown into the headquarters of the local Jewish community. The Jewish Community Council had approached the Bishop of Kielce, Czesław Kaczmarek, requesting that he admonish the Polish people to refrain from attacking the Jews. The bishop refused, replying that “as long as the Jews concentrated upon their private business Poland was interested in them, but at the point when Jews began to interfere in Polish politics and public life they insulted the Poles’ national sensibilities”. Therefore, according to the bishop, it was not surprising that the local population had acted violently.
Similar comments were made by the Bishop of Lublin, Stefan Wyszyński, when he was approached by a Jewish delegation. Wyszyński stated that the popular hatred of Jews was caused by Jewish support for communism (there was widespread perception in Poland after 1945 that Jews were supportive of the newly installed communist regime; see Żydokomuna), which had also been the reason why “the Germans murdered the Jewish nation”. Wyszyński also gave some credence to blood libel rumours, commenting that the question of the use of Christian blood was never completely clarified.
The controversial stance of the Roman Catholic Church towards anti-Jewish violence was criticized by the American, British, and Italian ambassadors to Poland. Reports of the Kielce pogrom caused a major sensation in the United States, leading the American ambassador to Poland to insist that Cardinal August Hlond hold a press conference and explain the position of the church. In the conference held on July 11, 1946, Cardinal Hlond condemned the violence, but attributed it not to racial causes but to rumours concerning the killing of Polish children by Jews. Hlond also put the blame for the deterioration in Polish-Jewish relations on Jews “occupying leading positions in Poland in state life”. This position was echoed by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, who reportedly said that the Jews had brought it on themselves, and by Polish rural clergy.
On September 14, 1946, Pope Pius XII gave an audience to Rabbi Phillip Bernstein, the advisor on Jewish affairs to the U.S. European theater of operations. Bernstein asked the Pope to condemn the pogroms, but the Pope claimed that it was difficult to communicate with the Church in Poland because of its isolation behind the Iron Curtain.
Theory of Soviet involvement
Scholars have alleged that the Kielce pogrom was organized by Communist or Soviet forces, possibly for propaganda purposes. While it is beyond doubt that a mob consisting not only of civilian gentiles of Kielce but also members of the communist police and army carried out the pogrom, there has been considerable controversy over possible outside incitement. The hypothesis that the event was secretly provoked or inspired by Soviet intelligence services has been put forward, and a number of similar scenarios are offered. None has been proven by the post-communist investigation.
Aleksander Wat,] Tadeusz Piotrowski, logician Abel Kainer (Stanisław Krajewski), and Jan Śledzianowski, allege that the events were part of a much wider action organized by Soviet intelligence in countries controlled by the Soviet Union (a very similar pogrom took place in Hungary), and that Soviet-dominated agencies like the UBP were used in the preparation of the Kielce pogrom. Polish Communist and Soviet commanders were in the locality. The most notable was the Jewish expert Nathan Spychaj (a.k.a. Natan Shpilevoi or Szpilevoy) who was also the brother of a senior official in Stalin’s puppet Polish regime; plus a high-ranking GRU officer for special operations, Mikhail Diomin. It was also uncommon behavior that numerous troops from security formations were present at the place and did not prevent the “mob” from gathering, at a time when even a gathering of five people was considered suspicious and immediately controlled.
Michael Checinski, a former Polish Military Counter-Intelligence officer, emigrated to United States after the 1968 Polish political crisis, where he published his book in which he asserts that the events of Kielce pogrom were a well planned action of the Soviet intelligence in Poland, with the main role in planning and controlling the events being played by Mikhail Diomin, and with the murders carried out by some Poles, including Polish policemen and military officers.
On July 19, 1946, former Chief Military Prosecutor Henryk Holder wrote in the letter to the deputy chief of LWP General Marian Spychalski that “we know that the pogrom wasn’t only a fault of Police and Army guarding the people in and around the city of Kielce but also members of the official government who took a role in it.”
One line of argument that implies external inspiration goes as follows: The 1946 referendum showed that the communists had little support and only vote rigging won them a majority in the carefully controlled poll – hence, it has been alleged that the UBP organized the pogrom to distract the Western world media’s attention from the fabricated referendum. Another argument for the incident’s use as distraction was the upcoming ruling on the Katyn massacre in the Nuremberg Trials, which the communists tried to turn international attention away from, placing the Poles in an unfavorable spotlight (the pogrom happened on July 4—the same day the Katyn case started in Nuremberg, after the Soviet prosecutors falsely accused the Nazis of the massacre which was actually committed by the Soviets themselves in 1940).
Jan T. Gross attributes the massacre to what he describes as Polish hostility towards the Jews. Gross’s book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, offers a somewhat different and more nuanced interpretation. Gross, while agreeing that the crime was initiated not by a mob, but by the communist police, and that it involved people from every walk of life except the highest level of government officials in the city, says that the indifference of the majority of Poles to the Jewish Holocaust combined with demands for the return of Jewish property confiscated during World War II created a climate of “fear” that pushed Poles to commit violence against Jews.
A monument by New York-based artist Jack Sal entitled White/Wash II commemorating the victims was dedicated on July 4, 2006, in Kielce, on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom. At the dedication ceremony, a statement from the President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczyński condemned the events as a “crime and a great shame for the Poles and tragedy for the Polish Jews”. The presidential statement asserted that in today’s democratic Poland there is “no room for antisemitism” and brushed off any generalizations of the antiSemitic image of the Polish nation as a stereotype.