The need to help Polish Jews took on new urgency in July 1946. An eight-year-old boy in Kielce, a small city 120 miles south of Warsaw, had gone to visit friends in a nearby village without telling his family. His worried parents reported his disappearance to the police, and when he returned two days later, his father claimed that the boy had been kidnapped by Jews but had escaped. Soon, a rumor spread that other Christian children had been kidnapped and murdered.
Within hours, more than 1,000 angry protesters had surrounded a building owned by the Jewish community in Kielce and attacked every Jew inside. When the rampage ended, about 75 Jews were injured and 42 were dead, including a number of children.
Police officers and soldiers had both been on the scene, but none of them tried to stop the violence.
What caused the post-war violence against Jews, like the rampage in Kielce? Some think it arose from Poles’ sense of guilt—for turning a blind eye to the murder of their neighbors, for helping the Germans, or for taking the belongings that Jews had left in their safekeeping. Some say it grew out of a long habit of antisemitism that predated Nazism by centuries. Others believe it was caused by fear that Jewish survivors would seek revenge on those who had betrayed them.
Even after such violence, many Europeans did not see Jews as worthy of special protection. Although they could not help knowing about the murder of millions of Jews, a consciousness of the significance of the Holocaust—and even the use of the term “Holocaust” itself—would not emerge for decades. Jewish victims were subsumed into other national groups or such categories as “political deportees” or “victims of fascism,” if they were acknowledged at all. Most Europeans simply wanted to forget the years of the war and move on with their lives.
So, as historian Tony Judt writes,
After Germany’s defeat, many Jews in Eastern Europe pursued their wartime survival strategy: hiding their Jewish identity from their colleagues, their neighbors and even their children, blending as best they could into the post-war world and resuming at least the appearance of normal life. And not only in Eastern Europe. In France . . . taboos [against antisemitism] of a later generation had not yet taken hold, and behavior that would in time be frowned upon was still acceptable . . . In these circumstances, the choice for most of Europe’s Jews seemed stark: depart (for Israel once it came into existence, or America after its doors were opened in 1950) or else be silent and, so far as possible, invisible.
- How does this reading connect with the history you’ve already studied? In what ways does it surprise you or challenge your thinking?
- Why do you think old myths, stereotypes, and hatred of Jews persisted after World War II, even after the Nazis were defeated and their ideas discredited?
- In what ways might post-war life in Europe have activated antisemitism?
- What choices did Jewish survivors face during this period? What options might have been available to them when they were confronted with antisemitism? Why might they have chosen not to identify themselves as Jews and as survivors?