In tenebris lux

No comfort is forthcoming. We cannot raise the murdered from the dead. We cannot undo the facts.


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The Kielce Murder

Forty-one people killed and twice as many wounded during the anti-Jewish pogrom in Kielce - this appalling fact was bound to shock public opinion in Poland. Justice was duly served and the main culprits were sentenced to death. Yet even before the sentence was passed, the entire nation had denounced the murder in what was a clear demonstration of its moral health.

Raised in the spirit of Christian morality, the Polish nation was never one to succumb to the psychosis of mass persecutions. Catholic ethics dictates that love and justice should be the guiding principles of relations between people regardless of their race, nationality, religion or beliefs. And conversely, Catholicism categorically denounces hatred. The Church has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism. The Church teaches love, while anti-Semitism is an offshoot of hatred. A Catholic is obliged to hate evil, but he must not hate another man. That is why the history of the Polish nation is devoid of racial or religious persecution. From the 13th century onwards, Poland was a refuge for people fleeing the persecutions that occurred at one time or another in nearly all European countries. Acts of intolerance and occasional unrest were the exception in Polish history and were never perpetrated by society at large. This tradition has continued to the present day. During the last war, a great many Poles risked their lives to help and protect Jews at the time when the Germans were determined to wipe out the Jewish nation in the worst ever act of mass murder. Surely, had it not been for this help, hardly any Jews would have survived in Poland.

The events in Kielce stand out as a painful aberration in our history. They have done enormous harm to our nation in the eyes of the civilised world. There will no doubt be people who will try to hold a broader spectrum of our society responsible for the murder. The truth is different, however. Those directly responsible for inciting the Kielce murder, who, alas, have never been brought to justice (suspicions have fallen on the National Armed Forces), deftly instigated a backward and ignorant rabble by spreading rumours about an alleged ritual murder. Clearly, the response thus provoked (while no less criminal) was an isolated and exceptional event. One must be careful, therefore, not to arrive at any hasty generalizations.

The failure of local law enforcement to take full control of the situation is another matter of concern for public opinion and must be investigated. According to the press coverage of the trial, the rioting continued until 6.00 pm. It appears that a more energetic response could have, at the very least, reduced the scale of the atrocities. The public welcomes the arrests of the head of the State Security Office (UB) and the Chief of Police in Kielce and trusts that the matter will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible duly brought to justice.

The Polish nation has behind it six years of bloody fighting with purveyors of hatred and violence. The terrible sacrifice suffered by the Poles - believing as they did that the war must give rise to a better and more just world - would be in vain if events that take us back to the cruel, blood-ridden times of slavery were allowed to repeat themselves. If our historic traditions are to continue, an enormous effort of moral renewal must be undertaken. This is where the Church and Catholics have a prime role to play.

With this task in mind, the Polish Episcopate has strongly denounced all murder and acts of violence in a pastoral letter recently read in all Polish churches. The greater the Church’s freedom in carrying out its mission and the stronger its role in educating the young, the more likely the Kielce events shall never be repeated.

Editorial published in Tygodnik Powszechny No. 29/46.

The Kielce murder has shocked us deeply. All the more so because - let’s be frank - it was utterly unexpected; indeed, its very occurrence took us by surprise. That even the most virtuous of societies can produce fools, lunatics or murderers is well known. But how do we explain the fact that a peaceful community which had suffered so terribly in recent times is attacked by an angry mob armed with guns and radiator pipes? And that the frenzy lasted not a quarter of an hour, but a good six hours - long enough for those involved to come to their senses?

The initial shock of horror is followed by outrage and then, worst of all, by a moment - no! moments, hours, days - of burning shame. When an event like this happens, our natural human reaction is to refuse to take responsibility, shed it somehow, blame somebody else, narrow the spectrum of culprits to those we can safely distance ourselves from. So, we frantically begin to look for the culprit, and that is where the tragedy begins. Was it the partizans? But then - how awful! - the Citizen’s Militia was also there. The partizans and the police - how come? And what about the so-called “common man"? He was there, too - an otherwise quiet locksmith or shopkeeper. Or perhaps illiterate, ignorant people are to blame? Yes, but the Kielce intelligentsia was there, too - silent or simply incapable of reversing the course of events for the whole six hours. Perhaps men whose instincts were corrupted by the war are to blame? But women’s voices were also heard instigating the murder. Well, then? Clearly, there was no divide along political, social, class or cultural lines that would narrow down the potential culprits to a single group.

The theory of foreign instigation is hardly appealing: after all, can a healthy society act according to the dictates of foreign interests? Seeking an explanation in the post-war gangrene of Nazism is equally discomforting: susceptibility to plague augurs badly for an organism’s health.

No comfort is forthcoming. We cannot raise the murdered from the dead. We cannot undo the facts. We cannot shirk responsibility. Nor can we stick our heads in the sand. The judiciary has done its bit, in its own way, but this cannot draw a line under the Kielce affair. An honest diagnosis points to the beginnings of a social malady. It is time to seek treatment.

We must frankly acknowledge that the whole affair has been a miserable failure on the part of two ideological realities that differ - undoubtedly - in the range and weight of their influence: the one currently at the helm which proclaims the Great Revolution slogans of equality and fraternity irrespective of race, class, and wealth, and the much more ancient one which follows Christ’s commandment of love amongst all people. Their feelings of pain and shame are particularly acute. In consequence, both are quietly but unwaveringly determined to take responsibility off their shoulders. The latter says to the former: this is what your rule has led to. The former says to the latter: this is what centuries of Christian culture have led to; this is the fruit of Catholicism.

The bitterness of mutual recriminations is understandable. The two ideological realities must, therefore, engage the public and put up the matter for scrutiny both in Poland and abroad. The reality operating under the banner of the Declaration of Human Rights will, we trust, prove up to the task.

But what position will the other reality - Catholicism, the faith that aspires to govern souls in Poland - take? Catholicism which has the right and the duty to explicitly and actively respond to this tragic symptom, the right and the duty to offer treatment, the right and the duty to enlighten both us and the outside world about the whole affair.

Words of condemnation and outrage are necessary but insufficient. A regular mission must be launched in the name of Jesus Christ. In this respect, the Catholic press will have an enormous role to play. The world must learn about Polish Catholicism’s attitude to the whole affair - an attitude which, fortunately, finds support in historical facts.

That attitude must, at the same time, be communicated to Polish society, firmly anchored in the people’s minds and advocated as a starting point of a political and social programme. A policy that prohibits deviation from what has been already achieved must be strictly enforced.

Now the time has come for things that have remained unsaid (perhaps for reasons of modesty) to be spelled out. What needs to be said will serve both as our defence and as our programme.

The Germans murdered several million Jews in Poland; only a few hundred thousand have survived. Of these, just a handful escaped mass murder of their own accord or by accident (for example, in the camps).

The majority were rescued by Poles - Christians, Catholics. Poles sometimes helped those hiding in the woods, but in the majority of cases they saved Jews directly by offering shelter in their cellars and homes, their wardrobes and lifts, in all those dark nooks and crannies. True, some of them profited from their good deeds, but the majority did what they did because it was the right thing to do. That was what their conscience, their basic human instinct honed by centuries of Christianity, commanded them to do. And, let us not forget, their behaviour was heroic. Giving shelter to a Jew was a crime punishable by death. Jews were given refuge in buildings plastered with posters proclaiming that anyone sheltering a Jew would be summarily executed. What each one of us (yes - each one of us) offered by saving a Jew’s life were not crumbs from the master’s table but ourselves. We pledged our own lives for theirs. When arranging “Aryan" papers for Jews, we risked losing everything through treachery or indiscretion. Yet, few are those in Poland who did not take that risk, who hesitated to do that which we simply call duty, who did not summarize the years - and hence not just isolated instances - of their heroism with Żeromski’s quietly proud words: “these are my morals."

This attitude was almost universal and not specific to any particular social stratum. Everybody gave shelter to the persecuted: the landed gentry, urban intelligentsia, suburban smallholders, workers, craftsmen, and peasants, who did not hesitate to collectively bring food to Jews hiding in the nearby forest (I personally know of such cases in the area near Lvov).

However, the campaign to rescue fellow human beings was spearheaded by what may be termed “representative" Catholics: monks, clergy. Is there a single monastery in Poland that would not have a recent track record of saving people, perhaps even in their hundreds? Those persecuted for being non-Aryan survived in monastic cells, often disguised as monks. In times of direst need, Jews found shelter in parishes and received initial - and hence crucial - help from Catholic priests who, by reason of their profession, were under special watch.

Those things have not been written about. Perhaps it feels indecent to boast about something so self-evident, wrong to profit from a capital which is not of this world. No historian, it seems, has researched this subject. And no one, I believe, would mind if the whole thing were forgotten by everyone but God. Yet strange times are upon us, which make it necessary to enlighten the outside world about Polish Catholic culture, to point to the foundations on which we want life to be based in Poland. A testimony must be given. But whose duty is it? Not of those, I believe, who laid down their life for their brother at every second. Rather, it is that brother’s duty. I realize it is difficult: those with papers officially confirming their Jewish nationality are not the only ones eligible to speak. This eligibility extends to those of Jewish origin who were and continue to be Poles, just like we all are. And to those who, through baptism, have become so assimilated with us that they never felt - and we never thought them - strangers until the Germans claimed otherwise. You must say what we said when misfortune befell you: “this is the right thing to do." Show your civic courage and give back what we gave you through death-defying military courage.

Two conclusions follow from the fact that the majority of surviving Jews - those of Jewish nationality or origin - owe their survival to the Christian culture of Polish society: one pro foro externo, the other pro foro interno.

Pro foro externo: taking into consideration the historical test it recently passed in the most difficult of circumstances, the situation of Christian culture in Catholic Poland is not at all bad. Let the facts speak for us and raise us out of the shame in which we have found ourselves since the Kielce murder.

Pro foro interno: the Jews in Poland who were saved by Poles in the acts of heroism continue to be sheltered by our Christian and Polish culture. No strange, evil forces shall touch them, no pressure of stupidity and murder shall crush them. This must be stressed to the greatest possible extent in Poland. And it must be emphasised that this is the cornerstone, the guiding principle of the Polish reality which wishes to be bona fide Catholic.

To summarise: let us throw light on the facts. With those facts, we will make known to the outside world the position of Polish Catholic culture as exemplified by its recent deeds. Hard facts will also support us in our internal mission: in the name of Christ, we will not allow any member of our society to treat the recent past as a thing of no consequence or no historical significance - as nothing more than a heroic whim.

STEFANIA SKWARCZYŃSKA (1902-1988) - a historian of literature and drama, professor of Łódź University. Exiled to Kazakhstan during the Second World War, Skwarczyńska returned to Lvov at the intercession of Professors Juliusz Kleiner and Rudolf Weigl (the latter employed her at the Institute for Typhus Research). She was a Home Army soldier.

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Artykuł pochodzi z numeru TP 13/2010

Artykuł pochodzi z dodatku „Żydownik Powszechny (English)