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Pogrom Cries – Essays on Polish-Jewish History, 1939–1946

2nd Revised Edition


Joanna Tokarska-Bakir

This book focuses on the fate of Polish Jews and Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and its aftermath, in the ill-recognized era of Eastern-European pogroms after the WW2. It is based on the author’s own ethnographic research in those areas of Poland where the Holocaust machinery operated. The results comprise the anthropological interviews with the members of the generation of Holocaust witnesses and the results of her own extensive archive research in the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (IPN).

«[This book] is at times shocking; however, it grips the reader’s attention from the first to the last page. It is a remarkable work, set to become a classic among the publications in this field.»

Jerzy Jedlicki, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences

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Introduction: The land of the deadly exclusion

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Irena Grudzińska-Gross

Introduction: The land of the deadly exclusion

Those who are following the present developments in Poland will not be surprised that the question of what happened to Jews during the Second World War and right after it is steadily getting more and more attention. As time passes, the temperature of the debate seems only to increase. Since the formation of the Law and Justice [PiS] government, entire institutes and ministries have been devoting themselves to this topic. History is being written anew, in which Lech Kaczyński features as the leader of the Solidarity movement, and millions of Poles are involved in saving Jews in the Nazi-occupied Poland. A shrine to the Polish Righteous has been erected in Father Rydzyk’s Toruń sanctuary. The Second World War is being fought again.

There are several reasons for the continued presence of this particular fragment of the past. Its harrowing nature and lasting consequences do not allow it to fade. The book Pogrom Cries is one of the efforts to examine this part of history in all its documentary depth. The author, Professor Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, is an ethnographer, cultural anthropologist, and public intellectual – her thinking defies artificial disciplinary divisions. She bases her work on archival research, interviews, anthropological and ethnographic studies. She writes about the culture of antisemitism and studies violence and social rituals. Her c.v. shows an impressive list of publications and awards. Her presence in public debates is invaluable. Hers is one of the most important voices in the controversies about Polish history and she keeps them more grounded in documented facts than they would be otherwise.

The ten studies that form the present book probe the history of Poland during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period. The studies are based on materials from three regions – Kraków, Kielce, and, partially, Białystok. Focusing on these territories allows a dense description of something that is difficult to call other than ethnic cleansing: both during the German occupation and after the occupation ended. The focus of the studies is on perpetrators and abettors, the “neighbors” and the anti-German resistance movements, both on the left and the right. Their actions and motivations are described with unflinching clarity. For the author, the documentary thoroughness seems to be here a moral imperative of sorts. The reader will find the studies emotionally difficult to read. It must have been at least equally hard to write them.

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As I said, all of the studies are thoroughly documented. Their innovative character consists in working on the words of persons who witnessed the events analyzed or participated in them. These words are found in interviews, legal depositions, various testimonies, and reminiscences. Tokarska-Bakir calls these fragments “verbal fossils” and they permit the reconstruction of both the facts and how people understood them. Hence the title of the book – Pogrom Cries. We are lucky to have it masterly translated by Blanka Zahorjanova (and one text by Avner Greenberg). The author exhibits a high degree of methodological self-awareness. There are no unsubstantiated claims. The assumptions are always questioned, opinions separated from facts. It is an exemplary work of research, on a topic whose violence did not distort the writing process.

The first study in the volume, “The Polish Underground Organization Wolność i Niezawisłość and anti-Jewish Pogroms, 1945–1946,” has been added to the present edition. It presents the newest thoughts and discoveries about the immediate post-World War II situation. The second study presents the etiology of the situation of Jews hiding to survive: the author analyzes several case stories from the regions mentioned above. She discusses the sources and the language of witnesses: their use of terms such as “to apprehend Jews,” “to hand over Jews”, “to hold,” “to conceal.” It is a particular vocabulary – a phrase can sound matter-of-fact and colloquial, but mean exploitation and death. Quoting the novelist and Holocaust survivor Bohdan Wojdowski, Tokarska-Bakir calls these words “the memory of that time.” Confronted with the testimonies of those who were hidden or saved, we get to comprehend the utter extremity of their situation.

Chapter three of the book is a case study of the trial of Tadeusz Maj, the leading commander of the leftist anti-German partisan movement in the Kielce region. His case, as well as the case of General Korczyński, contradicts the theory that it was only right wing partisan groups that were involved in the extermination of Jews. After the war, Tadeusz Maj was convicted of the systematic killing of Jews who, in June and July of 1944, were escaping from the Starachowice labor camp. The study unearths the links between those who persecuted Jews during the war and the post-war Kielce pogrom: these links point to Mieczysław Moczar, a “patriotic” communist, later responsible for the 1968 anti-Jewish purges.

The next chapter discusses the post-war completion of the anti-Jewish ethnic cleansing in the town and surroundings of Klimontów Sandomierski, a small urban entity typical of south-central Poland. The chapter is based on the ethnographic research undertaken in the years 2004–2008, and can be described in terms of the archeology of language. In the interviews with local people, the author and her collaborators probed the question of why the Jews who returned after the war soon disappeared from that area, how they were killed or chased ←10 | 11→away. We follow the fate of four local millers and their unsuccessful efforts to reclaim their property and to rebuild their former lives. The author shows them as victims of the antisemitism that transforms itself into a discourse of anti-communism. The characters from that chapter reappear in the next study, which, analogically to Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s play Our Class, looks at the neighborly and school links between the Klimontów victims and victimizers.

Chapter six discusses the role that the figure of the Bloodsucker played in the consolidation of the Polish nation in the immediate post-war period. In this cultural and anthropological study, Tokarska-Bakir looks at three versions of that figure: religious, national, and leftist. In the following chapter – “Pogrom Cries” – the work of the Bloodsucker is shown in all its murderous potential. The author cites the words uttered by participants or witnesses in the attempted Rzeszów pogrom of 1945, in the pogrom of Kraków of the same year, and in the 1946 pogrom of Kielce. In all three events, the blood libel rumors were the motivation for the initial mob gathering. The study shows the mentality of the victimizers and the dynamics of the transformation of a crowd into a pogrom mob. Chapter eight continues the analysis of the Kielce pogrom, which, although the best documented among such events, is still contested as to the reasons and inspiration behind it. In a structural analysis of the pogrom, the presence among the attackers of the representatives of the authorities is interpreted by Tokarska-Bakir in terms of the desire to establish territoriality – the “our-ness” of Polish territory. That social eruption bound the “people” to the elites. From then on, the elites tried to encourage Jewish emigration from Poland. “Antisemitism,” Tokarska-Bakir writes, “became a social cause that united Communists and anti-Communists alike.”

The ninth study, written with Alina Skibińska, is devoted to the important aspects of the history of a famous unit of the Home Army – Wybranieccy – and of its leader. A thorough analysis of sources allows us to see the pattern of systematic murdering of Jews on the pretext of protecting the safety of the unit (or even without any pretext at all). The next and final chapter continues the research in the “racial liquidation” of Jews by partisan units. It is also a methodological summary of the way such research should be conducted. It is a proper end to the book, the language of which is direct and somber, the stories of killings and persecution horrific. Though its tone seems mild, it is highly polemical toward the established ways Polish historians use to work on these issues. If they touch them at all.

The above summary does not do full justice to this book, which is rich in argument, historical background, and insight. The ten studies have continuity between them and this quality gradually enriches the image of these times. Each study ends with conclusions, but they pertain to the topic discussed, without generalizations. Enough material is provided, though, for the reader to understand the repetitive ←11 | 12→nature of ethnic cleansing. My own conclusions from reading these studies are very painful. The words quoted in the book, the “fossils” that come from the depth of violence, from the very heart of darkness, show murderous prejudices enshrined in customs, tradition, beliefs, and religion. Prejudices supported by local structures and social institutions. The rites of violence and the reasons for them are documented, not explained away. They cannot be contextualized or limited to a certain moment in history, though certainly the war provided a very fertile ground for them. We can recognize them in the language of the present; we can see the persistence of hostility that once led to murder. We are facing the revival of aggressive victimhood that removes the barriers of civility and remorse. Today’s return of Polish fascist movements, the acceptance of antisemitic argumentation, the near-sanctification of the soldiers who perpetrated the murders of Jews, described in this book, are all terrifying developments. Wojtek Wołyński’s cover illustration captures it aptly: The thugs are coming. The very same thugs. They are almost here.

I started by wondering about the reasons for the continued interest in the events of the Second World War: shouldn’t we have by now engaged in some other, more recent preoccupations? Pogrom Cries – the poignancy of its descriptions, the desperation of its quiet tone – is proof of the presence of that past. The writings about war, violence, Shoah, exterminations, refer to the past but speak also about the present. We can apply to this phenomenon the term, used in literary studies, of “synchronicity,” the coexistence of two time zones. This explains the popularity of the term “trauma” used in relation to war experiences – even if submerged in denial, the events resurface each time we encounter a “trigger” situation. Traumatic events seem to have the longevity of toxic waste; they remain in circulation, and are not degradable.

The concept of trauma is not necessary for “synchronicity” to function: memory itself is at the same time “now and then.” We think about ourselves, as individuals or members of a community, in a temporal way. In order to have an identity, to be authentic, we need continuity. We have a past so that we can hope for a future, a future that we want, that we imagine for ourselves. And what kind of continuity, of our past, do we see in the studies making up the present book? We see a land that is hostile to Jews not only because of the danger that hiding them brings. We see Jews pushed beyond the line that separates those who have an obvious right to live from those who are destined to die, their goods to be harvested, their traces erased. There was always a difference between the Christians and the Jews, but that difference was maximized in the years described in the book. What we are talking about is the complicity in ethnic cleansing, and the persistence of the hostility toward its victims. The echoes of the pogrom cries have not faded away.

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