Not for the Dead: Bogdan Białek, Memory and Hope

by Rakheli Hever, ICCI’s Communications & Development Coordinator

In terms of Jewish-Polish relations, the Polish city of Kielce is arguably best known for a single, terrible event in its history: the Kielce Pogrom of July 1946, perpetrated by locals. Just prior to the Second World War, about a third of the city’s residents were Jewish (some 24,000 people). Of the 200 or so who survived the Nazis and returned to Kielce after the war, about 40 men, women and children were killed in the pogrom, and the rest subsequently left the city. Today, there is no Jewish community in Kielce, but the memory of its Jewish past is coming alive in recent years thanks to the work of devoted activists.

One of the leading figures in this process is Bogdan Białek, of Kielce, a publisher, organizer, and founder of the Jan Karski Society, an organization devoted to healing the wounds between Poles and Jews. I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Mr. Białek, who recently visited ICCI’s Educational Center to talk about his work in conserving the Jewish past of Kielce. The lecture was part of “Red-White / Blue-White: Religious, Historical and Social Aspects of Jewish-Polish Relations“, a special ICCI course in collaboration with the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Białek introduced the story of the Kielce pogrom and the controversy surrounding it in Polish collective memory, using videoclips from “Not for the Dead“, a documentary film about the subject, in which he is featured as the main character.

It was both sad and shocking to realize that after 60 years, people are still arguing about what happened in Kielce in 1946, and that many seem to believe that it was somehow the fault of the Jews. Nevertheless, in some ways this represents progress: for almost 40 years, the subject was taboo and, especially in Kielce itself, the newer generations had very little knowledge of it (Białek’s wife, a native of Kielce, heard of it for the first time when she went to university in Warsaw, much to her amazement).

The videoclips shown during the lecture included testimonials from survivors, the views of historians, authors and locals of Kielce about the issue, and, perhaps most engaging, one particular clip showing Białek speaking with two female survivors in Israel, during his visit here a few years ago. The ladies, who seemed absolutely taken with him, spoke about their past and about Polish anti-Semitism post-WWII. They began to argue amongst themselves, which led to a fascinating exchange. One of the ladies said: “I am sure, if Bogdan would have been alive at that time, he would have hidden me.” Białek honestly—and perhaps painfully—replied, shocking her: “I didn’t live at the time. I don’t know what I would do.” It’s true; he can never know for sure what he would have done faced with the same choices as others have in the past. None of us can know that. But Białek chooses to focus on making this world a better place in the present, and for the future, by educating for tolerance, empathy and respect for the “other”.

In 2007, Białek and others created a special cenotaph in memory of the victims of the Kielce pogrom. The monument is in the shape of a Menorah, with only its upper part visible above ground. This gives it an ambiguous quality that’s quite fitting. Is it sinking into the earth, representing the Jewish loss in Poland and Poland’s loss of many of its Jews, or is it rising from the earth, signifying new hope and growth? Or perhaps both…

Kielce Menorah cenotaph

Bogdan Białek’s view is that this monument is “not for the dead, but for the living”. That seems to be his motto in general. He believes that memorial rituals are less significant than the accumulative impact of education, of constant public presence and efforts at raising awareness. When he talks to youth in Poland, his focus isn’t on teaching them historical facts, but rather on reaching their hearts.

It seems that, albeit slowly, this work has a noticeable impact. One expression of this was a special festival of Jewish culture in Kielce, organized by the Jan Karski Society and endorsed by the mayor of Kielce. Rather than mourning the tragic events of the past, that event celebrated Jewish presence and history in Kielce, and brought together Christians and Jews from all over the world.

There is an old Jewish saying: “Water wears away stone” (Job 14:19). The conclusion I’ve reached after listening to Mr. Białek was that one person can make a difference. It may be hard, and it may be slow, and it may not be the huge, dramatic change we’d like to see, but with patience and passion, we can make this world a better place if we don’t give up. This is definitely a lesson we can apply to ICCI’s work in this region…

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