On July 4, 1946, little more than a year after the end of World War II, a pogrom erupted in the Polish city of Kielce, resulting in the killing of more than 40 Jews.
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The atrocity took place against a background of ongoing violence against the remnant of Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust or been repatriated by the Soviets. But it was by the far the most severe expression of such hostility, and led, in the months that followed, to the hasty departure of a large portion of Poland’s Jewish population.
The immediate spark for the massacre in Kielce, in south-central Poland, was the two-day disappearance of Henryk Blaszczyk, a 9-year-old boy.
When he returned, on July 3, Henryk reported that he had been kidnapped. When prompted, he pointed to a resident of 7 Planty Street, in whose basement he said he’d been held.
The building, in the city center, was then the home to some 150 of the 200 Jews who had returned to Kielce after the war (its prewar Jewish population was 24,000) – and it didn’t have a basement.
Nonetheless, on the morning of July 4, the police undertook a search of the structure, letting it be known to bystanders that they were also seeking the bodies of other gentile children who had been ritually murdered by the Jews.
At the same time, they confiscated the weapons held for self-defense by some of the apartment house’s residents.
By late morning, the police had been joined by some 100 Polish soldiers, who were told only that the Jews were suspected of killing Christian children.
When a shot was fired, security personnel inside the building began shooting at the Jews, killing several. A short time later, up to 1,000 workers from a nearby steel mill showed up, and they beat a further 20 Jews to death in the street.
Later, a number of Jews were beaten and robbed while on their way to the hospital for treatment.
Only after 2 P.M. did officials take any serious measures to stop the violence. By then, 42 Jews had been murdered, and another 40 wounded. Two non-Jewish Poles died as well.
Because no independent investigation of the pogrom was undertaken until 1989, after the fall of the communist regime – by which time some key records had been destroyed, and witnesses were deceased – there is no historical consensus on what was behind the events.
At the time, a veritable civil war was underway, between the communist regime in place and a pro-Western one – which included the government-in-exile that had been based in London during the war. Soviet forces still occupied the country, and many Poles identified Jews with the communists. Others feared that Jews who had survived the Nazis would press claims for real estate they had lost during the war and now occupied by their former neighbors. Furthermore, Church officials – from rural clergy up through the level of archbishop – refused to unconditionally condemn the anti-Semitic violence, in some cases saying the Jews had brought it upon themselves.
Most researchers do not think the violence was spontaneous or unplanned. But whether it was instigated by the Soviets, or by Polish security forces, and whether it was intended to deflect international attention from a rigged referendum on the country’s future staged by the communists in late June, remains unclear. What is clear is that during the next three months, more than 60,000 Jews poured out of Poland, most of them headed for Palestine and the West.