Dear Readers: The Jewish Press came up with such a sanguine title for my column, as “story” usually connotes an upbeat tale. Although I try not to disappoint, upon occasion (like our last column and this current one) we encounter a story that does not have a happy ending. Any student of Jewish history is well aware of this, and I am committed to presenting you the unvarnished tale.
One year after the guns of World War II had been silenced, matters were far from rosy for the Jewish community worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in Europe who had nowhere to go were still not being allowed into Palestine by the British Mandatory Authority who had sealed the border to Jews to appease the Arabs.
David Ben-Gurion announced in a press conference in New York that if the British would continue to enforce the White Paper’s restriction on Jewish immigration to Palestine, then all Jewish military forces in the Yishuv (meaning the Hagana, Irgun, and Etzel) would have no choice but to unite and fight the British with constant and brutal force. Indeed, this is what happened.
The most successful assault of this united resistance was on June 16 and 17, 1946 when 11 coordinated attacks seriously injured the road, bridge, and railroad system in Palestine. British personnel were now isolated and crippled in Palestine, and could not move their goods or soldiers beyond Palestine’s borders. The repairs cost over four million pounds sterling, an enormous figure at that time.
Twelve days later, the British retaliated with Operation Agatha, which the Yishuv labeled “Black Sabbath.” The British placed Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Jerusalem, and Haifa, under lockdown. Seventeen thousand British soldiers swept across Palestine, hunting militants, weapons, and incriminating documents. They arrested some 2,700 Jews, many from the Zionist leadership; Ben-Gurion escaped arrest only because he was in Paris.
As Jews were being rounded up in Palestine, they were still being murdered in Europe. Just five days after “Black Sabbath,” on July 4, 1946, Kielce, Poland, which had a large Jewish population prior to the war, was now home to less than 200 beleaguered Jews who had returned to their former community or had been placed in a Jewish Committee home in the town’s center.
It was on July 3 that 9-year-old Henryk Blaszczyk, a non-Jewish boy, returned to Kielce after having left home without informing his parents. To avoid punishment for wandering off, he told his parents and the police that he had been kidnapped and hidden in the basement of the local Jewish Committee building.
Police officers went to investigate the alleged crime in the building, even though Henryk’s story began to unravel (for one, the building did not have a basement), as a large crowd of fiercely antisemitic Poles assembled outside. The mob began to circulate a rumor that Jews were kidnapping Christian children for their blood. The Poles were also fearful that the Jews who had returned to Kielce would reclaim their prewar houses and businesses, which represented substantial parts of downtown Kielce.
Polish soldiers and policemen entered the Jewish Committee house and began to shoot the Jewish residents and loot their possessions. Outside, the incensed mass viciously beat Jews fleeing the shooting, murdering some of them. By day’s end, civilians, soldiers, and police had murdered 42 Jews, beating and stoning the remainder, seriously injuring 40. Two non-Jewish Poles died as well, killed by the mob for having offered aid to the Jewish victims.
Wounded Jews were brought to the hospital. While being transported, they were beaten and robbed by soldiers. The mob subsequently made their way to the hospital and demanded that the maimed Jews be handed over to them.
The pogrom spread all over town. A Jewish mother and baby were dragged from their home and murdered in broad daylight. There were also attacks on Jewish rail passengers traveling through Kielce that day.
In exquisite tragedy, after all that Polish Jewry had endured during the war – somehow, miraculously, surviving the Holocaust – a medieval blood libel yet again resulted in more Jewish martyrs, perpetrated by their own neighbors and countrymen.
Kielce’s Catholic clergy, who were silent during the War, had no change of heart one year later. They were unsympathetic to the massacre, and insinuated the lethal absurdity that Jews require Christian blood for their matzah.
Like Kishinev for the Jews in the Russian Empire, the Kielce pogrom was a watershed for the scant remnant of Polish Jewry. It was now manifest that remaining in Poland was a death trap for them. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews left their homes and headed to the borders to get out of Poland en route to Palestine. Czechoslovakia humanely offered them aid and passage, but the British stopped them when they arrived at the Occupied Zone in Austria. The mass of refugees was growing, but they had nowhere to go.
The story of one desperate attempt to make it to Palestine aboard the Exodus shall be described in our forthcoming column, G-d willing.