On 4th July 1946 a pogrom took place in the city of Kielce. It was the deadliest pogrom against Polish Jews after the Second World War: 42 Jews were killed, more than 40 were wounded and many more concluded that Poland was - although the war had ended - no safe country to live in. Today, an "official version of the events" is being told, which for the most part excludes Polish responsibility. Dr. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, cultural and historical anthropologist, who is a professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences at Warsaw conducted her research on the pogrom and wrote a "Social portrait". Doing so, she referred to biographies and used anthropological theories. In an interview we asked her about the study, as well as a new law regarding the Holocaust in Poland, that has recently been established.
"Poland still remained a dangerous country for Jews to live in"
Interview with Joanna Tokarska-Bakir on the Kielce pogrom in 1946
"A abundance and diversity of sources"
L.I.S.A.: Professor Tokarska-Bakir, you have written a voluminous study on the Kielce Pogrom in 1946, which has been recently published. Before we go into detail, what has motivated you to start research on this pogrom? What were your considerations in the beginning of the scientific process?
Professor Tokarska-Bakir: Frankly speaking, in terms of the technical side of the research, there were two things about the Kielce pogrom that especially drew me to the topic: the abundance of sources and the limited time in which the events took place, namely 8 to 12 hours.
As far as the first aspect is concerned, the abundance and diversity of sources was connected with two investigations, the ones that were conducted by the communist authorities immediately after the pogrom, and then the second one from the late 1990s and early 2000. Moreover, due to the fact that the Kielce pogrom proved to the Jewish Poles that despite the end of the war, Poland still remained a dangerous country for them to live in, there was an outpour of memoir-type of literature in all the languages of the world with Yiddish and Hebrew in preponderance. It was thus rather clear that, considering such a huge volume of sources, the anthropological method of thick description must generate results – provided, of course, the right choice of theories.
The second aspect, namely the temporal isolation of the different events, was just as important in the practical sense. The thick description mentioned above is made by laying different accounts one on top of the other, regardless of whether they are mutually confirmative or divergent. For them to be identifiable, their physical coordinates cannot be too far apart. To put it in Aesopian language of Buddhist parables, it all could be compared to the famous description of an elephant by blind people, where some say that it has a trunk, others that it has large ears, and others still that it has got a thin tiny tail. If we were unable to recognise these elements as aggregates belonging to a collection known as “elephant” we would never be able to sum them up – they would simply not fall in together. But in the case of the Kielce pogrom, they were all next to each other. This was a short paroxysm indeed.
"The Kielce pogrom was spontaneously effectuated"
L.I.S.A.: A lot of books have been published considering the Kielce Pogrom. Your book offers a new perspective on the incidents on July 4, 1946. You call it a “Social Portrait”. Could you please explain, what you mean by this?
Professor Tokarska-Bakir: In descriptions of significant historic events a narrative that soon starts to dominate is one which James C. Scott called public transcript – something that we could translate into “the official version of events” in contrast to the unofficial version, i.e. a hidden transcript which is whispered behind the backs of those in power. It does not matter who is in power now nor who was responsible for the historic events. It is about a certain type of convenient public simplifications in which they are inscribed. Being an anthropologist, I knew from the very beginning that I had to look behind the scenes.
The method I adopted was the rather obvious one based on biographies. Thanks to the huge and still unresearched collection of the Polish archives, especially of the Institute of National Remembrance, whenever I was able to establish the date of birth of the pogrom’s participant (which was possible based on the information notes with data in the minutes from the interrogations held in 1946), I would submit a request for a record of the person. The request was processed by the Institute’s archivists hence the guaranteed objectivity of the results. And so, I was able to reconstruct some 300 biographies in the ending to my book.
Having insight into the lives of these people I was able to retrace their social networks – the family, business, religious and professional ties that linked them. Kielce was not a big town back in 1946. Communists had entered it a year and a half before and began recruiting people to their institutions, especially to the Citizen’s Militia. It turned out that the people they recruited were the ones who were available, and who had actually been in the anti-communist guerrilla troops and often fought against them just two years before. A big number of the newly employed were also guilty of wartime murders on Jews. And it was by hands of these people - despite the efforts of their communist management – that the Kielce pogrom was spontaneously effectuated.
"Rumours of Jews kidnapping Polish children"
L.I.S.A.: Somehow, your thesis reminds of Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men”. You show in your study that it was ordinary people that started violence and murder against Jews in Kielce. As you argue, there was no need for a conspiracy. The binding link between different people was anti-Semitism, which has its roots before the German occupation. Please tell us something about these men and women. Who were they?
Professor Tokarska-Bakir: What exploded in Kielce was indeed, as one scholar remarked, a social dynamite: a mixture of elements from the past with elements of the present. Everything was there: the aggressive pre-war anti-Semitism of the nationalists, the economic-based stereotypes, the motif of “żydokomuna” [Yid-Commie] with some motifs from the Christian tradition.
To make the long story short, I see there being four reasons for the pogrom in Kielce:
- the fear of the returning owners of the Jewish property that was taken over by Poles after the Jews had been locked up by the Germans in ghettos in 1940,
- the wrath evoked by the fact Jewish Poles were in 1945, for the first time in history, allowed to serve in public administration,
- the fresh experience of the wartime murdering of Jews by the local community,
- and, last but not least, the rumours of Jews kidnapping Polish children which, from the 12th century onwards, were animated by the Catholic Church (the pogrom began with a rumour that a Polish boy had been abducted by Jews).
I have actually dedicated a monograph to the subject, published in French as Légendes du sang. Pour une anthropologie de l'antisémitisme chrétien (éditions Albin Michel, Paris 2015). Perhaps this is the biggest controvesy in Poland. Polish historians are often oblivious about their class-related biases which they manifest by the fact that they place the entire responsibility for the pogrom on the lower classes whose represetnatives participated in the pogrom. At the same time, they seem to forget that it was these classes who realised the ideology which had for decades, or even centures, been produced by the Catholic Church and elites.
"A serious reception of my book, both in Poland and abroad"
L.I.S.A.: Which feedback did you get in Poland after the book was published? And how does it differ from other reactions?
Professor Tokarska-Bakir: Truth be told, I am quite astounded by such a serious reception of my book, both in Poland and abroad. During none of the meetings I’ve had, including the book’s premier in Kielce in the house where the pogrom had taken place, were there any unpleasant situations. Almost no anti-Semitic voices were heard. The debate which is now unfolding is mainly related to the above mentioned role of the Church and the elites. After all, the thesis that Polish communism was not built by “żydokomuna” but by the former anti-communists/turned Red cannot simply be refuted, as is proven by the researched biographies of those who made up the institutions in Kielce.
By the way, this is no exception but a rule whenever there is a change of those in power. The West German authorities also took a lenient stance when assessing the careers of public officers who had served before 1945. As far as I know, such legal careers were a few years ago the subject of an investigation by a special committee of historians led by Prof Christoph Safferling. It was revealed that half of the employees of the Ministry of Justice of the German Federal Republic had been members of the NSDAP. Every fifth of them had belonged to the Nazi SA militia. As late as the 1970s, 93 out of the 170 directors and managers had a Nazi past. 27 of them actually worked in the Ministry in the times of the Third Reich. Therefore, the rule discovered in the Kielce communist takeover is not as unusual as it seems...
"An ironic commentary to the law"
L.I.S.A.: In this respect, what is your opinion towards the new law in Poland that recently has been established concerning the Holocaust? Is your work effected by the new legislation?
Professor Tokarska-Bakir: This law on the Institute of National Remembrance is obviously deplorable and its latent effects are unknown. But for the time being I have not felt any negative repercussions of this regulation. That is also because I have long stopped counting on domestic financing for my research. I am observing my independent schedule, having of course the support of my Institute in the Polish Academy of Sciences but seeking funding exclusively abroad. Which slows me down (especially in terms of translations into English), but I do manage somehow. The research for my book about the Kielce pogrom has been financed from a two-year grant of the Gerta Henkel Foundation. I have published it in Czarna Owca [Black Sheep], a Polish private publishing house, whose name is, by the way, an ironic commentary to the law you are asking about.
Prof. Dr. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir answered our question in written form.