We, Poles, continue to weigh and measure relative guilt and to instruct others on what they should do with their conscience. We cannot [gather] ourselves to utter the word “forgiveness.”

Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw daily newspaper), July 23, 2016


Cease murdering the dead.

If you hope not to perish, if you

Want sound of them again,

Stop crying out, cease

The crying out of it.

–Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Non gridate più” (No more crying out),

translated by Jon Silkin

A few weeks ago at 7/9 Planty Street in Kielce, Poland, we of the Jan Karski Society launched a permanent exhibition devoted to the Kielce pogrom, a tragedy suffered by a local community of Holocaust survivors for whom that city became a place, not of peace and security, but of death, pain, suffering, and deep wounds. The Polish neighbors of these victims, instead of providing help, had been their tormentors.

The location of the exhibit was an obvious choice: Seventy years ago on Planty Street, a mob made up of ordinary men and women including workers, policemen, and soldiers beat, tortured, and killed other members of their community for hours on end. Presenting documents, such as photographs of the victims, photocopies of their post-mortem examinations, fragments from contemporary testimonies and depositions of pogrom eyewitnesses and participants, the current exhibition also includes videotaped testimonies of three pogrom survivors. Visitors are offered an historical review of the Jewish presence in Kielce as well as a chronology of the Shoah in the city. The exhibition culminates with details of the plans for the ultimate extinction of the remaining community, which includes images of Auschwitz survivors. As the exhibition demonstrates, the city of Kielce has chosen to speak about its shameful past in an open way and in perpetuity. It is the only city in Poland (indeed, in all of Central Europe) that does so. Let me tell the story of this permanent exhibition, which Kielce inhabitants can now visit and which operates with no armed security.

In 2000, approximately twelve members of the Jan Karsky Society, most of whom did not live in Kielce, gathered in front of the 7 Planty Street building. Joined by journalists, photographers, and camera crews, we read aloud the names of all the pogrom victims, lit 42 memorial candles, and marched the 3,254 steps to the local Jewish cemetery. As local journalist Jerzy Daniel noted,

“It was a march of remorse… Only a while ago, the very thought that people may walk the streets of this city to commemorate the one universally known event of its history seemed audacious to the extreme and totally unrealistic. Decades needed to pass since July 4th, 1946, before those murdered in Kielce on that day could rejoin us to claim out loud their right to remembrance.”

Every year since then, more people have joined this procession; this year, more than 300 attended. In the interim, monuments have been erected, including a memorial stone for the pogrom victims with an inscription listing all their names and stating the manner of their death. The Jan Karski Society also held numerous conferences, seminars, meetings, and debates.

One of these gatherings coincided with the publication of Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz by Jan Tomasz Gross. Two filmmakers, Lawrence Loewinger from New York and Michał Jaskulski from Warsaw, recorded many of these acts of honest remorse and deep reconciliation in Kielce. Filmed over ten years, their documentary Bogdan’s Journey will be shown in the United States this year. Responding to the film and foreshadowing the significance of the current exhibit at 7/9 Planty Street, Zbigniew Nosowski, editor-in-chief of Więź, wrote:

“The current debate around historical politics in the Third Republic of Poland seeks to impress a contrast between the [previous] ‘education in shame’ and the new ‘education in pride.’ The titanic and effective work on memory carried out in Kielce… eludes this categorization completely… if Kielce needs any education, it is education in conscience that sensitizes our contemporaries to the evils of the past and motivates them toward reconciliation today. Education in conscience advises us that the crucial aspect of our reaction to such events as the Kielce pogrom is not what the world will think of us, but what we think of ourselves when we look the truth in the eye.”

Barely noticed, however, Bogdan’s Journey has yet to find a distributor in Poland. Indeed, even after its screening at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the film did not provoke any debate on reconciliation or forgiveness. Why? The answer, in short: guilt.

The Polish debate around the atrocities at Kielce as well as Jedwabne has been mainly about consigning and assigning guilt. Demanding accountability, people passionately seek answers to determine who is guilty and who is not, who is guiltier and who is less. Participants have also been availing themselves of a sort of moral outsourcing. With great self-assurance, they point to those who should be doing something with their conscience and choose for themselves a suitable penance to then make public. In so doing, they leave their own conscience untouched.

Rapid instrumentalization of the discussion around the heinous acts committed by Poles has further blocked the path toward reconciliation. These events have been used as weapons in political debates, a method to define one’s opponents. Shouting matches, not conversation, have been the norm.

Reconciliation, however, cannot be found within ourselves. For many of us, the word “forgiveness” also smacks of defeatism and weakness, even if it involves forgiving ourselves. Therefore, as clamor and fury continue to prevail over the graves of the murdered Jews, we must ask ourselves: Isn’t it time to stop yelling at each other?

In Kielce, before we could answer that question, we first had to ask ourselves whether the decades-old story of these crimes and their perpetrators even concerned us, we people of the present. If it did, we still had to determine what the story meant to us; what our attitude to it was; whether telling it could be a personal experience for us; whether we could generate or derive a personal norm from such experience and our reflection on it; and, finally, whether we were or are responsible for others, and if so, to what extent. To whom are we accountable — those who lived and died decades ago and who will remain largely anonymous to us? To our contemporaries, those living with and next to us now?

In answering those questions for ourselves in Kielce, we had to accept that we would not all share the same views or opinions; nor would we need to. Likewise, we would not all follow the same train of thought. We would have differing understandings of the causation and perpetration of these crimes, and we had a right to them. In the end, however, we all agreed on two counts.

First, a similar tragedy should never happen again, ever, for any reason. No one should lose their life as a result of hatred or political calculation, ignorance, or superstition; no one should be hurt because of their language, skin color, or religion.

During one of the marches in Kielce, a young man slowed down his car and shouted to those in the front, a group mostly of men wearing skullcaps: “Don’t be afraid of us,” he said, “You are in your city; you have the right to be here.” He then drove away.

Second, the victims deserve our compassion. Among those who participated in the many marches was an elderly priest from Kielce. Until his dying day, he was convinced that the Soviets had instigated the Kielce pogrom. He believed in the innocence of his Polish brothers and sisters. Formed through years of the Church’s anti-Judaic teaching, which was abandoned only after the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965, he had a low opinion of Jews. Yet, he recognized and was truly moved by their tragedy. Whenever he passed the victims’ burial site, he always bowed down with deep emotion. Initially unsympathetic to him, I learned to respect him.

A few years ago, I participated in a commemoration ceremony in Jedwabne. I noticed the police dividing line separated local residents from out-of-town participants, even though we were all there to honor the memory of those murdered in the Jedwabne barn. Nowadays, there is only one police squad, but even that is unnecessary.

We have taken the first step. To take the next one, the contemporary inhabitants of Jedwabne must understand they are not held liable for the crime of 1941. That liability belongs solely to the perpetrators, and only them, whoever they were. Yet, irrespective of who caused the victims to suffer is such a monstrous way, the contemporary inhabitants of Jedwabne must show respect and compassion to the victims. In the name of their humanity, their Christianity, and their patriotic values, present residents of Jedwabne owe this to those of the past.

The blow dealt in Jedwabne struck the direct victims, their relations, and the Jewish community in Poland and throughout the world. It struck all local Poles, the global community of Poles, and the entire Polish Church. As Jan Tomasz Gross notes, crimes such as those committed in Kielce and Jedwabne encumber the “collective biography” of all Poles, regardless of religious affiliation. I am personally responsible for the memory of those murdered in Kielce, in Jedwabne, in Gniewczyna, even though I was not born in any of those cities. Responsibility for the memory of all those murdered is ours — individually, collectively.

If we are to tell the “whole truth,” let us cite the Polish Righteous, those Poles who saved Jews from German oppression. Let us also cite the crimes of Jedwabne and of Kielce. Our debates reach common ground when our collective memory retains our pride as well as our shame. Otherwise, feuds persist, and memory is flawed and falsified.

Ideology alone did not compel the heroes of Poland. Ideology alone did not guide the murderers of Poland. Rather, there was their humanity, the depths of their person, and what compels humans in times of crisis. We must learn how to remember well — with an understanding of our human selves and our own limitations, and without yelling.