It’s the sort of story that gets totally lost in weeks of war, presidential election campaigning and the Zika virus. Ironically, it’s the sort of feel-good story that American news-gathering organizations usually crave. For Jews, it encompasses themes of forgiveness and reconciliation that chime well with the Days of Awe.
In early September the Jan Karski Society opened a permanent exhibit on Planty Street in Kielce, Poland, devoted to the commemoration and documentation of the pogrom that took place 70 years ago on that very street. In 1946 a group of 42 survivors of the Shoah returned to Kielce, their hometown, and were greeted by a mob “made up of ordinary men and women [who] beat, tortured, and killed [them] for hours on end,” writes Bogdan Bialek, the society’s chairman.
One could easily conceive of the Kielce pogrom as a gruesome bookend accompanying the 1941 massacre of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne, well documented by historian Jan T. Gross in his 2001 book “Neighbors.” That publication and subsequent works have gotten Gross into hot water with the right-wing nationalist government in Warsaw but have had no discernible effect on the activities of the Karski Society so far.
The group is named for the courageous resistance leader who was smuggled into and then out of the Warsaw Ghetto with the aim of alerting the world to the Nazis’ plans for the Jews. On its website the group states that its aim “is to act for popularization of openness and respect for people and groups different in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or culture; to counteract any forms of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism or other behaviors which humiliate human beings; to act for saving Polish national heritage – monitoring and condemning all acts of its violation.”
Kielce, a city in central south Poland with a population of about 200,000, was once a center of limestone mining, but the 1946 pogrom is the only historical event associated with the town. In 2000 a dozen of Karski Society members gathered in front of 7 Planty St., where the exhibit is now housed, and read the names of the 42 victims, lit memorial candles for each of them and quietly walked to the local Jewish cemetery. Each year since, the Society members have repeated the event, with ever larger crowds attending.
The organization’s involvement hasn’t ended there. It has held numerous conferences, seminars and meetings, culminating this year in the opening of the exhibit.
The slow, steady accumulation of public events seems to have spurred introspection and even remorse in the local inhabitants. Filmmakers Lawrence Loewinger and Michal Jaskulski spent 10 years documenting the events and the changes wrought in the community for a documentary film, “Bogdan’s Journey,” which will be shown in the U.S. later this fall. It has yet to find a Polish distributor.
Many discussions about the programs taking place in Kielce have degenerated into shouting matches and challenges to each other’s patriotism. Bialek admits that one of the first emotions he and the other activists from the Karski Society experienced was profound dismay. “[A]s 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?” he asks.
Of course, the kind of slow, incremental change that the Karski Society has managed to spark in Kielce requires patience and endurance — traits that can be in short supply under even ideal circumstances.
Given the eagerness of the current Polish government to prosecute (and persecute) those it accuses of having publicly insulted the Polish nation; the crime carries a three-year maximum prison sentence. Jan Gross has already been questioned by representatives of the state prosecutor for five hours this spring, with the threat of indictment obviously near.
The Law and Justice Party, which currently rules in Poland, has made no secret of its attempts to undermine the country’s fragile democratic institutions. Typical of the proto-fascist parties that have emerged in Europe in the past 30 years, the Party holds the notion of “civil society” — the non-governmental institutions that help make democracy more of a reality than mere elections can — in contempt.
The Jan Karski Society has not yet provoked their well-stoked rage. So this remains a feel-good story for now.
George Robinson covers film for the paper.