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Book of nightmares: Kielce in Polish Jewish history

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In Enemy Land: The Jews of Kielce and the Region, 1939-1946 by Sara Bender (Academic Studies Press)

Sara Bender’s In Enemy Land: The Jews of Kielce and the Region, 1939-1946, appears at a time when Holocaust history is under new pressures. These pressures are most evident in Poland, where a nationalist government has seen fit – and has largely failed – to limit certain kinds of Holocaust-related terminology if it ascribes guilt to Poles during wartime. 

The Polish government has also applied influence to museums, as well as through its own research arm, the Institute of National Remembrance, to push for shifts in Holocaust study.  The ruling National Justice Party prefers – as one might expect from a right-wing populist platform – investigations of Polish heroism in the face of German atrocity, and it aims to raise the profile of efforts by Poles to preserve Jewish life during the war.

Bender’s carefully researched and tightly focused study of Kielce and its environs is not directly engaged with these discussions until its concluding chapter. But Kielce, as is well known, was the site, in the spring of 1946, of the worst postwar pogrom in liberated Poland.  Like the wartime events in the smaller northern town of Jedwabne, the events at Kielce, in which 47 Holocaust survivors were murdered in mob violence, remain a flashpoint in any postwar account of Polish-Jewish relations. 

The Kielce pogrom has attained the status of a template against which historians test their theories to explain Polish anti-Semitic outbreaks.

Bender, a longtime professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, has access to documents in numerous languages, while the ongoing discussion in Polish circles motivated her to refocus and reconsider Kielce as a key historical landscape for Poles and Jews.

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One of the revelations of In Enemy Land is the value, to the researcher and the reader, of narrowing a study’s focus.  Kielce, a city of some 20,000 Jews before the war, is located in south central Poland near to other important communities, including Radom and Czestochowa.  These places experienced similar but not entirely the same wartime disasters as Kielce.

Bender begins with a detailed account of Kielce’s history. Though it is an ancient Polish settlement, its Jewish community took shape in the19th century. The community underwent devastation during the First World War, but reasserted itself, so that by 1931 Jews made up roughly a third of the city’s 60,000 inhabitants. The Jews of Kielce were active in the local resource economy, founding limestone quarries, lumber mills, and brick and tile manufacturing outfits.

In interwar Kielce anti-Semitic nationalist activism was vocal and influential, and contributed to an anti-Jewish riot shortly after the First World War. Stores were looted and two killed.  These details pale in contrast with the treatment meted out to the Jews of Kielce and its environs by German occupiers in the Second World War. Bender brings these events into sharp focus. Poles fade largely from view in this section of the study, although they do appear from time to time as marginal players in German undertakings.

Looting, beatings, ransom and dispossession of property became commonplace from the outset. In many cases, Bender’s sources allow her to name both perpetrator and victim as each stage of assault and destruction takes place, so that her study offers carefully described scenarios, intricately supported by accounts from witnesses, postwar trial documents, and reports given by survivors to institutions such as Yad Vashem.

Kielce Jews lived in a rapidly deteriorating ghetto from November 1939 through 1942. In contrast with the neighbouring city of Czestochowa, Bender suggests that the Kielce Judenrat was not capable of reaching any kind of self-protective stand-off with its German overseers. And the Jewish police in Kielce – its leadership drawn from German Jews deported east – were notable for their willingness to follow the Gestapo’s orders.

When the ghetto was brutally emptied of its population in preparation for deportation, Ukrainian auxiliaries, Jewish police, and the Polish “Blue Police” provided the necessary muscle that resulted in almost 20,000 people (many gathered from surrounding towns and villages) being sent by locked railcar to the Treblinka death camp.

Bender’s account of the brutality meted out in this process is among the harshest one can read in Holocaust documentary writing.

A small remnant of local Jews was retained by the Germans until late in the war for work at a variety of work camps, some based at manufacturing outfits founded by Jews.

The final section of In Enemy Land returns to the tangled story of Jewish-Polish interaction.  In Kielce, this subject is overshadowed by its outcome: a substantial postwar pogrom.  But before dwelling on this subject Bender devotes careful attention to the experience of Jews in hiding during the war who were protected by Poles.  These stories are presented in impressive detail, and in many cases the protectors were honoured by the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations program.

In contrast with these stories, Bender conveys how great the threat was to Jews in hiding during wartime and immediately after, from bands of rightist Polish partisans who targeted Jews as part of their nationalist ideology. As Bender puts it, this ideology, which asserted itself in the ‘30s, was motivated by “the aspiration to establish an ethnocentric Poland, new and free of Jews.”

These sharply contrasting elements of Kielce’s history – dark and enlightening scenarios taking place at the same time – underwrite the debate over Polish-Jewish history that continues to resonate today.  

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