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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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Post Script

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Post Script

The second edition of Pogrom Cries is enlarged by an additional chapter, entitled The Polish Underground Organization “Wolność i Niezawisłość” and Anti-Jewish Pogroms, 1945–1946. The chapter deepens and completes the author’s analysis of the cognitive attitudes towards Jews of the members of that organization; a question is what turned into pogromschiks. The chapter is very important and based on thorough documentation, but I am happy to say that even before it was added the book has been recognized as a major achievement in Polish-Jewish studies. What’s more, Pogrom Cries has provided a grounding for the next step in Joanna Tokarska-Bakir’s extraordinarily incisive writing about the history of violence against minorities on the territory of Poland. That next step takes the form of the book Pod klątwą. Społeczny portret pogromu kieleckiego (Under a Curse. A social portrait of the Kielce pogrom). The book appeared in 2018 and is certainly a final word on the reasons and, especially, the sequence of events during the 1946 Kielce pogrom. On the basis of years of archival research, intense study and interviews, Tokarska-Bakir was able to prove beyond doubt that there was no single decision or intent behind the pogrom (the “communist provocation” thesis), and, following that certitude, was able to show multiple agencies that lead to the explosion of accumulated hatred and malevolence. Under a Curse allows us to see the actors and the events in all their horrible vividness.

Under a Curse is a breakthrough not only as an illuminating analysis of the mechanism of the two-day Kielce massacre, but also as an innovative approach to the historical and biographical documentation. In her accumulated knowledge about the region, the city, the participants in the pogrom and its victims, Tokarska-Bakir was able to reconstruct the social scene that made the violence happen. She discovered the links between participants, the dynamics of the decisions taken or avoided by the authorities, the atmosphere of siege in the city and its environs. I expect her book to lead to the revision of the commonly accepted version of the history of that pogrom. And, consequently, to have an enormous impact on the interpretation of the entire period of recent Polish history tout court.

One could say that there are no “final words” in the writing of history, but the depth and conclusive documentation that lie at the basis of Under a Curse allow me to make an exception to this rule. Many of the preceding studies that prepared this Kielce book are contained in the present volume. The fact that they lead to a next step in the author’s work does not diminish their value. Quite the opposite, their insight has been proven right, their energy turned out to be fertile ←13 | 14→and productive. It is fascinating to see how the texts in this volume inform each other, build upon the knowledge that has been tested and enriched. They are part of a continuum of research, thinking and writing that is removing barriers to the clear and straight image of recent history.

This ark of historical, cultural and ethnographic work is quite unprecedented and should be admired as such. Fortunately, Professor Tokarska-Bakir does not labor totally alone. Pogrom Cries is a part of a larger intellectual production. I’m referring here to a (small) movement I would call the New School of Thinking about the Shoah, i.e., a number of historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, writers and journalists whose work examines the extermination of Jews during and after World War II. Most of the people I have in mind are women who, like Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, in their writings pierce through almost iron taboos. They avoid the pressures of discretion, academic loyalties, good taste, patriotism; they don’t search for exculpatory context or for equilibrium between “two sides” of the matter. Another thing they reject is the paralyzing question: “How would I myself behave in such a situation?” that excuses the questioner from moral judgment or even study of reprehensible acts, placing the matter on the level of you-who-are-without-sin cast the first stone. I think about women-writers rather than men, because they accomplish this taboo-boosting style of work by renouncing the position of authority that protects against questioning and rejection. They look for what happened on a very basic level, most of all in human biography, but also in the changes of the city maps, in literature, in oral history. Learned as they are, they do not use a priori theories, they move on the ground rather than in the air. Knowing that they are not and don’t want to be insulated by commonly accepted ideas, they fortify their research by extremely thorough documentation. They are governed by the belief that we can learn what happened and can present it in a way that will be heard. I have in mind historians, anthropologists, journalists and writers like Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Barbara Engelking, Alina Skibińska, Anna Bikont, Elżbieta Janicka, Anna Zawadzka, Aleksandra Domańska, Monika Sznajderman, and many others working on subjects of violence but also on family and neighborly stories that throw light on the history of Jews. Their work requires knowledge, modesty, and industriousness, because it goes against strong group loyalties, established clichés and authorities, state supported institutes and academia, and the easy camaraderie of the majority. The members of that New School work on the past without propagating any ideology or group. It seems to be the most fruitful way one can write about the Holocaust.

The flourishing of the New School of Thinking about the Shoah is meeting with strong political and academic barriers. The breakthrough in the approach ←14 | 15→to the study of the Shoah did not come from the Polish historical establishment. For a long time already, the academic history in Poland has been too focused on being patriotic to produce any breakthrough. The authors of the most important works in the domain of recent history came from anthropology, ethnography, cultural and literary studies. Now these domains are under siege, and not only because they are often dealing with Jewish topics. All study of power relations in culture, of exclusion, gender, nationalism, postcolonialism are considered subversive. The new reforms of the Ministry of Education abolish these academic specializations, introducing instead a new discipline of “studies of culture and religion.” The state “captured” history: the universities and institutes that produce and employ new historians openly conduct a policy of regimentation of topics to be researched and conclusions to be reached. But it is never easy to silence people moved by the sense of responsibility for how the past is seen in the present. No matter how much money and honors the state-captured history bestows upon its acolytes, it is this other work, independent and free that is fruitful and interesting. As proven by the present book.

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