History Podcasts

7 July 1941

7 July 1941

7 July 1941




US Marines occupy Iceland, Trinidad and British Guiana, freeing up British troops for more active service

TWU Retreats Under Many-Sided Pressure

From Labor Action, Vol.م No.㺛, 7 July 1941, p.ق.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEW YORK CITY – Philip Murray, president of the CIO, yielding to the pressure of the La Guardia government, has entered into an agreement with Mayor La Guardia on the transit situation. In effect, the 32,000 transit workers of New York City are being put in refrigeration, for perhaps A WHOLE YEAR. In addition, the Quill leadership, which is known to be friendly to the Stalinists, may have acted under Stalinist pressure. With their new war line, the Stalinists want least of all to embarrass the government with strikes – especially with a subway strike which would paralyze the financial center of the nation.

For months the, Transport Workers Union has been fighting the union-busting policy of Mayor LaGuardia.

It was preparing to strike on the three subway lines on July 1, if the Mayor and the Board of Transportation did not grant the transit workers their right to collective bargaining. This right has now been definitely denied them by their boss, the city of New York. Instead of going ahead with the fight their leaders, including the “fiery” Michael Quill, international president of the TWU, now tell them to cool off.

The pretext for this retreat is the lawsuit which the Board of Transportation brought in the Supreme Court. The board contends it hasn’t the legal right to bargain collectively with the subway workers. The union has all along claimed that there is no federal, state or local law prohibiting the board from bargaining collectively with the workers. On the contrary, the union’s position has been that the state and federal laws grant ALL workers the right to collective bargaining and do not say “except workers employed by the Board of Transportation on the subways of New York City.”

But Philip Murray consented to await the outcome of this lawsuit obviously brought by the board as part of its stalling tactics. The stalling may now add up to a year, according to those who understand court procedure. First will come the trial, which cannot take place until September at: the earliest. Appeals to the state courts may take more time and then there is the possibility of dragging the case into the federal courts.

Because of the thorough preparations of the TWU, the solid backing of organized labor and sympathetic support from a public, a strike at this time, though necessarily bitter, had excellent chances of success. A transit workers’ victory in New York City would, not only for themselves but for the whole working class, answer IN THE NEGATIVE the question: Can labor be reduced to industrial peonage by the government taking over private industry? The chance tor such a victory has been bartered away.

What did Murray get for the 32,000 transit workers in return?

The status quo will be maintained in the sense that the IRT and BMT agreements which expired on June 30, will be considered extended until the determination of the lawsuit. The closed shop is out and Murray further conceded that the Civil Service laws take precedence over the provisions of the union agreements. Murray asks the Mayor to stretch a point and include in the arrangements the workers on the Independent line, who are not covered by the existing agreements.

Murray also requests that, the Board of Transportation “will not discriminate against any person by reason of his membership or non-membership in TWU nor attempt to encourage membership in any other organization nor to discourage membership in TWU.” However, the Mayor’s statement to Murray is silent on these aspects of union-busting.

The understanding is that the board will meet with the TWU officials immediately as to wages and hours, special grievances and working conditions. However, since the right of collective bargaining is denied, these meetings are simply “to confer,” not to negotiate a new agreement.

Because of the complaint of the TWU that the Board of Transportation is autocratic and unwilling to take up labor grievances, the Mayor intends to create a labor grievance board within the Board of Transportation “to expedite consideration of grievances and facilitate in their adjustment.”

These are the dubious gains that Murray secured for the transit workers.

The correct size-up of the transit situation was made by Harry Sacher, attorney for the union, when he said:

“The board is vitally concerned with operating the transit lines at a profit. This aspiration necessarily must come into conflict with the ambitions of its employees for better wages, shorter working hours and improved working conditions.”

This is the set-up in all industry and it necessitates militancy on the part of the workers to cope with it.

At a union meeting on June 25, Quill declared, amid loud applause, that if the Mayor persists in withholding from the transport workers their legitimate rights, he will have to be treated “THE FORD WAY.”

North Haven, CT – July 7, 1941

On July 7, 1941, an airplane carrying three people crashed and burned in North Haven Connecticut. Witnesses stated the craft swooped low roughly 50 feet off the ground and flew between two trees at the edge of a field, before accelerating and clipping a wing on another tree 250 feet away. After striking the tree, the ship nosed into the ground and burst into flames.

The pilot, Harry Lesnow, 35, and one of the passengers, Anna Lesnow, were thrown clear by the impact but received fatal injuries. The other passenger, Miss Theresa Gans, (about 30) was pulled from the flaming wreckage by several men who were working nearby, but she did not survive.

It was surmised that Mr. Lesnow was attempting to land in the field when he aborted the attempt due to rough terrain.

Mr. Lesnow was the plant manager for Lesnow Brothers Inc. a shirt manufacturing business in East Hampton, Massachusetts. Miss Lesnow was the office manager, and Miss Gans was a stenographer for the company.

Source: New York Times, “Air Commuter Killed With Two In Crash”, July 8, 1941

Pearl Harbor Wasn’t the Only Target on Dec. 7, 1941

For most of my life, I thought the only country the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, was my own, the United States of America.

In my defense, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was an enormous event for the United States. Within the short period of ninety minutes, 2403 Americans were killed and all the battleships in the US Pacific Fleet were either damaged or sunk, along with 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, a training ship, a minelayer, and 188 airplanes.

A day later, as a result of the attack, we declared war on the Empire of Japan, and at the same time we went from supporting the British clandestinely to active support. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and we reciprocated.

Andy Cromarty and his best friend before the siege of Monte Cassino

For Americans, everything changed as a result of that attack. We were at war. For me, our entry into World War Two meant that my dad would be in a tent in Italy when I was born.

Our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously declared December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”. Until I researched the topic for my novel, I assumed he was speaking only of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But in his December 8th speech to Congress, which was carried to the American people on the radio, he also mentioned the Japanese attacks on the Philippines, American Midway, Wake and Guam Islands, British Hong Kong and Malaya.

All those places, with the exception of Midway Island, lie west of the International Date Line, so even though they were attacked at the same time as Pearl Harbor, it was already December 8 th there.

In order to take full advantage of the element of surprise, the Japanese struck all these locations at the same time. Besides the countries and islands mentioned in Roosevelt’s speech, the Japanese also attacked Thailand and the International Settlements in China which they’d previously spared, including those in Shanghai, Tientsin, Hankow, and Kulangsu.

You may never have heard of Kulangsu (now known as Gulangyu), but it was the place that interested me because my late husband was born there. Also, it’s the setting for my novel, Tiger Tail Soup.

When the Japanese landed on Kulangsu on December 8, there was no resistance. They already controlled the surrounding territory. Here’s how a missionary, Dr. Theodore V. Oltman, described the action:

At 4 A.M. Monday morning, December 8, 1941 armed Japanese Marines crossed the narrow harbor from Amoy and landed in the International Settlement of Kulangsu. With the aid of Consular police and Formosan interpreters (they) began to round up all American and European Nationals. They proceeded, first to the American and British Consulates and the residences of the Netherlands Indies and Hongkong Shanghai Bank officials where they arrested the foreign staffs at the point of bayonet or pistol end. Before day break a large number of other Americans and Europeans were similarly routed out of their house by armed Marines and Japanese Consular Police, and as the day wore on, all Americans and Europeans except two or three overlooked or exempted for reasons of health were rounded up. All of these Individuals except the Consuls were taken to a large building — an empty Japanese hospital — the neutrals were registered and released, to return to their homes.

And that was that. The Japanese were in total control of Kulangsu.

At the end of that fateful day, the Japanese command must have been pleased with all they’d accomplished. Only one problem: the American aircraft carriers hadn’t been in Pearl Harbor.

And furthermore … if I can give my personal non-historian point of view … the Japanese bit off more than they could chew. It couldn’t be that easy to conquer and hold onto such a large portion of the world, especially when you make enemies with such actions as the Nanking Massacre and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Around the League.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy became the first Major Leaguer drafted into the Armed Forces for WW II. An All-Star in 1940, Mulcahy would pitch less than one-hundred innings after he returned from the war. Over the next two years over one-hundred major leaguers were drafted and two (Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill) were killed in action.

In response to the notorious "bean ball wars" of the 1940 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers inserted protective liners into their caps as a safety precaution. The rising aggressions between pitchers and batters had resulted in the serious injury and hospitalization of Joe Medwick, Billy Jurges, and others. Although the thin liners were hardly noticeable, many players around the league criticized them as a distraction.

Thirty-seven year-old New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, also known as "The Iron Horse" died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (later renamed Lou Gehrig's Disease) on June 2 nd . His legacy on the field included a lifetime batting average of .340, fifteenth all-time highest, and he amassed more than four-hundred total bases on five occasions. A player with few peers, Gehrig is still one of only seven players with more than one-hundred extra-base hits in one season. During his career he averaged one-hundred forty-seven RBIs a year and his one-hundred eighty-four RBIs in 1931 still remains the second highest single season total in American League history. Always at the top of his game, Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, forty-nine home runs, and one-hundred sixty-five RBIs, and was chosen Most Valuable player in both 1927 and 1936. Unbelievable for a man of his size, #4 stole home fifteen times, and he batted .361 in thirty-four World Series games with ten home runs, eight doubles, and thirty-five RBIs. He also holds the record for career grand slams with twenty-three. Gehrig hit seventy-three, three-run home runs, as well as one-hundred sixty-six two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBIs (per homer) of any player with more than three-hundred home runs.

"Baseball is mourning the passing of Dizzy Dean from the major league scene, and it does well to mourn. There will never be another Dizzy. The broke the mold when he was born." - Roy Stockton of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The SS (Schutzstaffel): Heydrich's Guidelines for Higher SS and Police Leaders in Nazi Occupied Territories

a) To the Higher SS and Police Leader ( Hoeherer SS- und Polizeifuehrer)
SS Obergruppenfuehrer Jeckeln.
b) To the Higher SS and Police Leader
SS Gruppenfuehrer von dem Bach.
c) To the Higher SS and Police Leader
SS Gruppenfuehrer Pruetzmann.
d) To the Higher SS and Police Leader
SS Oberfuehrer Korsemann.

Owing to the fact that the Chief of the Order Police invited to Berlin the Higher SS and Police Leaders and commissioned them to take part in Operation Barbarossa without informing me of this in time, I was unfortunately not in a position also to provide them with basic instructions for the sphere of jurisdiction of the Security Police and SD.

In the following I make known briefly the most important instructions given by me to the Einsatzgruppen and Kommandos of the Security Police and the SD, with the request to take note of them.

. 4) Executions

All the following are to be executed:

Officials of the Comintern (together with professional Communist politicians in general)

top- and medium-level officials and radical lower-level officials of the Party, Central Committee and district and sub-district committees

people's Commissars

Jews in Party and State employment, and other radical elements (saboteurs, propagandists, snipers, assassins, inciters, etc.)

insofar as they are, in any particular case, required or no longer required, to supply information on political or economic matters which are of special importance for the further operations of the Security Police, or for the economic reconstruction of the Occupied Territories.

Sources: Yad Vashem Yad Vashem Archives 0-4/53-1.

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Aftermath of Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was a failure. The anticipated quick victory, which would destroy the Soviet Union and force England to surrender, never happened. And Hitler's ambition only drew the Nazi war machine into a long and very costly struggle in the East.

Russian military leaders expected another German offensive to target Moscow. But Hitler decided to strike a Soviet city to the south, the industrial powerhouse of Stalingrad. The Germans attacked Stalingrad (present day Volgograd) in August 1942. The assault began with a massive air raid by the Luftwaffe, which reduced much of the city to rubble.

The struggle for Stalingrad then turned into one of the most costly confrontations in military history. The carnage in the battle, which raged from August 1942 to February 1943, was massive, with estimates of as many as two million dead, including tens of thousands of Russian civilians. A large number of Russian civilians were also captured and sent to Nazi slave labor camps.

Hitler had proclaimed that his forces would execute the male defenders of Stalingrad, so the fighting turned into an intensely bitter battle to the death. Conditions in the devastated city deteriorated, and the Russian people still fought on. Men were pressed into service, often with hardly any weapons, while women were tasked with digging defensive trenches.

Stalin sent reinforcements to the city in late 1942, and began encircling German troops who had entered the city. By the spring of 1943, the Red Army was on the attack, and eventually about 100,000 German troops were taken prisoner.

The defeat at Stalingrad was a huge blow to Germany and to Hitler's plans for future conquest. The Nazi war machine had been stopped short of Moscow, and, a year later, at Stalingrad. In a sense, the defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad would be a turning point in the war. The Germans would generally be fighting a defensive battle from that point onward.

Hitler's invasion of Russia would prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Instead of bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the surrender of Britain before the United States would enter the war, it led directly to the eventual defeat of Germany.

The United States and Britain began to supply the Soviet Union with war material, and the fighting resolve of the Russian people helped build morale in the allied nations. When the British, Americans, and Canadians invaded France in June 1944, the Germans were faced with fighting in Western Europe and Eastern Europe simultaneously. By April 1945 the Red Army was closing in on Berlin, and the defeat of Nazi Germany was assured.

Was the attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 really a surprise?

“How secret is secret in a country where years of censorship have trained an inquisitive, alert population in the discreet whisper and the fine art of putting two and two together? And how secret is secret when one’s ideas are no longer exclusively one’s own? ” (At Dawn We Slept, Prange 30) The tragic attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 has many events connected to it that lead people to believe that it was no surprise to the United States government.

“The attack marked the entrance of Japan into World War II on the side of Germany and Italy, and the entrance of the United States on the allied side. Microsoft Encyclopedia) President Roosevelt set up investigations to find out whether or not there was any warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor before it happened. One report found that the navy and army commanders of the Hawaiian area, Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, and Major General Walter C. Short, were guilty of “dereliction of duty and errors of judgement. ” (Microsoft Encyclopedia) The reports showed that the commanders had received warnings weeks prior to the attack and just overlooked them.

A member of the operations section also reported that the ideas of an attack on Pearl Harbor came up very often. These stories could all be very possible, but there is also the possibility that the President only used them to cover up the fact that he himself knew about the attack. (Schlesinger 247) “FDR blinded the commanders at Pearl Harbor and set them up. ” (Willey 10) The Americans were decoding large amounts of Japanese military telegrams.

“We now know that they contained important details concerning the existence, organization, objective, and even the whereabouts of the Pearl Harbor Strike Force. (Willey 37) The United States was able to read Japan’s diplomatic traffic at consular and ambassadorial levels alike, with little delay and almost as if it were an open book. The US code word for the resulting intelligence was “Magic. ” The Americans had also made great progress in penetrating Japan’s military codes and ciphers by 1941 (code word “Ultra,” also used by the British for military signals intelligence, which they exchanged with the Americans. ) Sometimes information from one source filled out, clarified, or confirmed interceptions from another.

It is hardly surprising that for some people the question has become, not “Did we know? but “How could we not have known? ” But is that fair? ” (Van der Vat 94) “Since the early 1920’s America had been eavesdropping on Japanese government communications. Roosevelt’s military leaders called it a “spledid arrangement”” (Stinnett 60) Now if that is true and the United States knew all about what the Japanese were doing then why wouldn’t they have known about the attack on Pearl Harbor? And not only that, but why would the President of the United States not want to warn his own country of an attack that would harm his nation and kill thousands?

Even though Roosevelt tried to deny it, the radio taps America had on Japan were flawless. “Altogether it was an exceptional effort of extraordinary scope of achievement, and for years it had kept American officials aware of every intention and activity of the Japanese government. ” (Stinnett 60) Roosevelt is not the only one to blame, even though he was the President, and knew about the attack, and did not fulfill his duties at President to protect the country.

“The army was responsible for the inshore air patrol and the installation of a radar net, and the Navy for inshore ship patrols and distant reconnaissance. Wohlstetter 5) “On December 7 the Army Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) consisted of an information center at Fort Shafter on Oahu, which had just been built, and several mobile radars mounted on trucks and located at Kawailoa, Kahuku Point, Kaaawa, Koko Head, the rear of Fort Shafter, and perhaps Waianae. These radars were operated by motor generator sets that broke down under frequent use, and they were effective only for high altitudes at ranges between 30 and 130 miles. They could now detect low-altitude flights nor those within 30 miles of the radar.

There was also one totally blank sector of 20 degrees north of Molokai which was discovered after December 7, when the sets were finally calibrated. ” (Wohlstetter 8) “On Oahu, communication between the radar operations and the information center was by commercial telephone from the outlying island communication was by radio and was unsatisfactory. ” (Wohlstetter 9) So when the attack happened even if it was detected soon enough, which it wasn’t because they weren’t patrolling at the time, there wouldn’t have been a fast enough way to alert everyone on the island since it was set up so poorly.

As it turned out, the radar station was operation on the morning of December 7, albeit only by radar operators who were being trained and who picked up signals of the approaching Japanese planes some one hundred miles away from their designated target. At approximately the same time, however, a flight of Army B-17 bombers was suposed to be arriving from the West Coast. ” (Clausen and Lee 72) Therefore when the radar operators got the signals they figured that they were friendly, they never expected for them to be attacking Japanese fighter planes.

They did not have professionals in the stations, and the people they had in them had been trying but didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Also the stations were not open twenty-four hours a day, they were only open during designated times. If the commanders were doing their jobs to the best of their ability they would have known that the Japanese were coming. And they wouldn’t have needed the government to tell them. Now with all of that being said it doesn’t say at all that what the government did was right.

The government definitely knew that the Japanese were coming and the fact that they did not tell their own people what was going on is like stabbing their country in the back. “On December 1, an Imperial Conference was held in Tokyo. The next day the task force moving across the northern Pacific received this message: “X day will be 8 December. ” December 8, Japanese time, was Sunday, December 7, at Pearl Harbor. ” (Baker 296) “On Saturday morning, December 6, 1941, one of the translators at Op-20-G, the Security Intelligence Section of U. S. Naval Communications, in Washington, D. C. , began skimming through a pile of intercepted Japanese messages in the consular code.

She came across one sent three days earlier from Consul General Kita in Honolulu to Tokyo, transmitting a scheme of signals regarding the movement and exact position of warships and carriers in Pearl Harbor. ” (Toland 3) “Despite the long series of warnings from Washington and the general knowledge about the deteriorating relations between Japan and the United States, no further defensive measures were taken at Pearl Harbor. Baker 297) “For the information that came in from the outlying radar stations was useless unless it was evaluated. There was no way to do this, however.

The radar equipment could not distinguish friend from foe. And as yet neither the Navy, or the bomber command, nor the local civil defense organization had assigned a liaison officer to the Information Center. ” (Dec. 7, 1941, Prange 80) The people stationed at Pearl Harbor had no way of knowing that someone was approaching them to attack. If they had a signal of approaching ships or planes they could not tell whether the approaching ship or plane was friend or foe. A secret “war warning” had been received from Washington—Japan was expected to hit “the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo”—and the carrier Enterprise was ferrying a squadron of Marine fighters to reinforce Wake Island. Battleships would slow the task force’s speed from 30-17 knots.

Yet they were too vulnerable to maneuver alone without carrier protection. The only other carrier, the Lexington, was off ferrying planes to the Midway, so the battleships stayed at Pearl Harbor, where it was safe. (Lord 3-4) Little did they know Pearl Harbor was not the safe place for the battleships to stay. “On December 2, 1941 Admiral H. E. Kimmel’s intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, informed him that there had been no Japanese radio communications regarding the whereabouts of the Imperial Navy’s Carrier Divisions One and Two. Kimmel smiled and said, jokingly, “You don’t know where they are? Do you mean to say that they could be rounding Diamond Head and you wouldn’t know it? ” Layton answered abjectly, “I hope they would be sighted by now sir. ” (Arroyo 19)

Amazingly enough the joke that Admiral Kimmel made was coming true as they spoke the Japanese were rounding Diamond Head preparing to attack, and they had no idea what would take place only five days later. “But no one in Hawaii seriously considered an attack on Pearl Harbor the Japs weren’t that stupid. Marshall and Stark agreed. So did their staffs. ” (Toland 8) “As the “day of wrath” drew nearer, increasingly the isolationists in Congress appeared to oppose Roosevelt himself rather than just his foreign policy. Nobody is worrying about Japan coming over here and attacking us,” asserted Representative William P. Lambertson of Kansas on December 4, 1941. “No man is getting more fun out of dictatorship than Franklin Roosevelt. He shows from way back that he likes war. ”” (Pearl Harbor the Verdict of History, Prange 19)

On the morning of December 7, the nets were opened to allow a navy cargo ship, the USS Antares, to enter the harbor as the attack began, a Japanese midget sub managed to sneak through. (Arroyo 21) “As the first wave of (Japanese) planes neared Barber’s Point on Oahu, Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, chosen to lead the first wave of the attack, radioed back to the carriers: “Tora! Tora! Tora! ” (“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! ”) The now famous code words meant the Japanese had caught the U. S. fleet completely by surprise. Incredibly, the signal was heard on Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship, the Nagato, at anchor in Japan’s Inland Sea. ”

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Anti-Jewish Policy Escalates

After the September 1939 German invasion of Poland (the beginning of World War II), anti-Jewish policy escalated to the imprisonment and eventual murder of European Jewry. The Nazis first established ghettos (enclosed areas designed to isolate and control the Jews) in the Generalgouvernement (a territory in central and eastern Poland overseen by a German civilian government) and the Warthegau (an area of western Poland annexed to Germany). Polish and western European Jews were deported to these ghettos where they lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with inadequate food.

Kielce: The Post-Holocaust Pogrom That Poland Is Still Fighting Over

The massacre started with a blood libel. That wouldn’t be unusual, except this wasn’t the Middle Ages or even Nazi Germany—it was 1946, a year after the end of World War II.

A few days earlier, an 8-year-old Polish boy named Henryk Błaszczyk had gone missing from his home in Kielce, Poland, a city of 50,000 in southeastern Poland. When Henryk reappeared two days later, he told his family he had been held by a man in a basement. As his father walked him to the police station to recount his story, the boy pointed at a man who was walking near the large corner building at 7 Planty Street.

The building, which was owned by the Jewish Committee and housed many Jewish institutions, was home to up to 180 Jews. It did not have a basement. Most of the residents were refugees, having survived the horrors of the death camps that decimated more than 90 percent of the Polish Jewish population. After the war, they had returned to their homeland with the hope that they could leave the past behind them. They had no idea they were about to become the target of anti-Semitic aggression once again—this time from the Polish neighbors they lived alongside. 

On the morning of July 4, a small group of state militia and local police approached the building to investigate the alleged kidnapping. As rumors of misdeeds spread, a version of the centuries-old “blood libel” that Jews were kidnapping Christian children for ritual sacrifice, a mob began to assemble. But it was the police and military who started the violence, recounts Polish historian Jan T. Gross in his 2006 book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Though they were ostensibly there to protect civilians and keep the peace, officers instead opened fire and began dragging Jews into the courtyard, where the townspeople savagely attacked the Jewish residents.

That day, Jewish men and women were stoned, robbed, beaten with rifles, stabbed with bayonets, and hurled into a river that flowed nearby. Yet while other Kielce residents walked by, none did anything to stop it. It wasn’t until noon that another group of soldiers was sent in to break up the crowd and evacuate the wounded and dead. In the afternoon, a group of metal workers ran toward the building, armed with iron bars and other weapons. The residents of 7 Planty were relieved they thought these men had come to help. Instead, the metal workers began brutally attacking and killing those still alive inside the building.

The violence went on for hours. As Miriam Guterman, one of the last remaining survivors of the pogrom, put it in the 2016 documentary film Bogdan’s Journey: “I couldn’t believe that these were humans.” (Guterman died in 2014.)

Archival image of 7 Planty. (Ghetto Fighter's House Museum)

All told, 42 Jews were killed that day at 7 Planty and around the city, including a newborn baby and a woman who was six months pregnant. Another 40 were injured. Yet beyond the horror of those physical facts, the event would take on a larger historical significance. After the Holocaust, many Jews had dreamed of returning to their native lands. Kielce shattered that dream f or Jews, Poland could never again be home.

“[Kielce] really is a symbol of the exodus of Jewish survivors from Poland, and a symbol sometimes that there is no future in Poland for Jews,” says Joanna Sliwa, a historian with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany who focuses on modern Polish Jewish history and the Holocaust. “That despite what Jews had endured during the Holocaust, and despite the fact that the local Polish population had observed all that, had witnessed all of that … Jews cannot feel safe in Poland.”

Sliwa points out that Kielce was not the first post-war pogrom against Jews in Poland smaller outbursts of violence took place the previous year in Krakow and the town of Rzeszow.

In the years that followed, the Kielce pogrom—like so many atrocities committed or abetted by Poles during the war—became taboo. There were no memorials. When Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic Pole from Białystok, moved to Kielce in 1970, he sensed immediately that something was wrong. In Bogdan’s Journey, which was recently screened at an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York organized by the Claims Conference, Bialek remembers sensing a deep guilt or shame among residents when it came to talking about the pogrom. He calls this oppression of silence a “disease.”

Bialek became drawn to the abscess—what Jewish historian Michael Birnbaum referred to at the event as “the looming presence of absence”—that seemed to be haunting the town. Over the past 30 years, he made it his mission to bring this memory back to life and engage today’s residents of Kielce in dialogue through town meetings, memorials and conversations with survivors. 

Unsurprisingly, he encountered pushback. The story of the Kielce massacre—which the film pieces together using the testimony of some of the last living victims and their descendants—is inconvenient. It challenges Poles. It opens old wounds. But for Bialek, bringing dialogue to this moment isn’t just about reopening old wounds—it is about lancing a boil. “Each of us has a tough moment in his past,” he says in the film, which was funded in part by the Claims Conference. “Either we were harmed, or we harmed someone. Until we name it, we drag the past behind us.”

Group portrait of Polish Jewish survivors in Kielce taken in 1945. Many were killed one year later, in the 1946 pogrom. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy Eva Reis)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has gone through a soul-searching process that has progressed in bursts, with moments of clarity but also worrisome backsliding. Polish Jews have come out of the shadows, establishing new communities and reincorporating Jews back into the country’s fabric. In the mid-2000s, reports began to emerge documenting a curious trend: a “Jewish revival” of sorts sweeping Poland and beyond. Polish Jews reclaimed their roots Polish-Jewish book publishers and museums sprung up once-decimated Jewish quarters began to thrive again.

Part of that shift has been a reexamination of Poland’s history, Bialek said in an interview with Smithsonian.com. “We began with no understanding at all, with a kind of denial, and over time it’s been changing,” Bialek said in Polish, translated by Michał Jaskulski, one of the film’s directors. “These days it’s also easier for [Poles] to see from the perspective of the victims, which didn’t happen before. And we truly can notice how the pogrom strongly impacted Polish-Jewish relations.”

But there is still work to be done, he readily admits. While Poles today don’t deny that the pogrom actually happened, they do debate who deserves responsibility for the atrocity. Conspiracy theories ran rampant when Bialek first moved to Kielce, and he reports that they are still common today. In the film, co-director Larry Loewinger interviews several older residents who claim that the riot was instigated by Soviet intelligence, or even that Jews themselves staged a massacre by dragging bodies to the scene. 

Unlike the better-known massacre at Jedwabne, when Poles living under Nazi control herded several hundred of their Jewish neighbors into a barn—and burned them alive—the tragedy in Kielce was borne out of post-war tensions. Poland was on the brink of civil war, its citizens were impoverished, and at the time many believed Jews were communists or spies. “You have to understand, Poland was a pretty miserable place in 1946,” says Loewinger. “It was poverty stricken. There were Jews floating around … There was a lot of anger all over.”

Yet there are clear parallels. Jedwabne happened in 1941, directly after the Nazi conquest of Poland the accepted narrative is that the killing was carried out by Poles under pressure by Nazi Germans. In Kielce, the Polish people are equally “blameless.” Both of these narratives allow Poles to cling to a national mythology of victimhood and heroism. As Polish journalist and dissident Konstanty Gebert wrote in Moment, “Raised for generations with the (legitimate) belief that theirs was a martyred nation, many Poles found it increasingly hard to accept that their victimhood did not automatically grant them the moral high ground when it came to their behavior toward Jews during the Holocaust.”

Moreover, says Silwa, “Both of these events show how dangerous these conspiracy theories are, and how these myths about the so-called other, the blood libel, and … equating Jews with Communism, can turn into mob-like violence.”

Funeral procession for the victims of the Kielce pogrom. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy Leah Lahav)

In a 2016 television interview, Poland’s education minister Anna Zalewska appeared to deny Polish responsibility for any involvement in both of these historical events. When asked directly, “Who murdered Kielce’s Jews during the town pogrom?” she was unable to answer the question. She demurred, before finally answering: “Anti-Semites.” She did not admit that these anti-Semites were Poles. When controversy erupted, Zalewska received support from Foreign Minister Witold Wszczykowski, who said her comments had been “misunderstood.”

“It has to do with the Polish government, the effort to in a way rewrite history,” says Sliwa. “To put more emphasis on heroism and patriotism of the Polish nation during the war and after the war. It seems like it is an attempt to take hold over, to control, how the past is narrated.”

The concern that Poland is rewriting its history feels more relevant now than ever. Ever since the 2015 victory of the Law and Justice ( Prawo i Sprawiedliwość ) party, the right-wing populist party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the government has pursued what is openly referred to as  polityka historyczna,  or “history policy.” Journalists and historians like Sliwa, however, call it “politicized history.” Of course, she adds, “there was discussion about this even before Law and Justice came to rule Poland. But now that taken over, it’s become so public and acceptable. And official, really official.”

You can see traces of this “history policy” in how the Kielce story has evolved over time. Despite the facts Gross and others have detailed, a 2004 report by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN)—a state research institute that examines crimes committed by the Nazi and communist regimes and routinely minimizes Poland’s role in the Holocaust—concluded that the Kielce pogrom was the result of a “mishap.” This year, the Polish government backed legislation that would criminalize the use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” stating that the phrase wrongly implicated Poles as the orchestrators of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

At the same time, Poland’s far right groups have grown emboldened. The largest demonstration of anti-immigrant and fascist attitudes coalesced in November of last year, on the country’s official Independence Day. The celebration, which has become an annual rallying point for Poland’s far-right groups, saw more than㺼,000 demonstrators march through Warsaw calling for “White Europe.” Some threw red smoke bombs or carried banners with white supremacist symbols or phrases like “Clean blood.” Others chanted “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees get out!”

The ruling party has long stoked fear of Muslim refugees, with Kaczyński  saying in 2015  that migrants brought “dangerous diseases” including “all sorts of parasites and protozoa.” In 2017, Poland  refused  to take in refugees despite the European Union's threats to sue. Poland has also seen an  upswing in racially motivated violence  toward foreigners, with Muslims and Africans the most frequent targets of attacks. In 2016, Polish  police investigated ف,631 hate crimes fueled by racism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia.

The building at 7 Planty Street in Kielce, Poland, site of a little known post-World War II pogrom that claimed the lives of 42 Jews. (Two Points Films & Metro Films)

To Bialek, these attitudes are a scary echo of what happened in 1946, and 1945. Worse, he fears they are a harbinger of things to come. “I keep on saying that for the last couple of years that these things may come back,” says Bialek. “When there are these examples of hostility of people in Poland toward foreigners, because they speak in different language, because they have darker skin, when these things happen—to me the most terrifying thing is the indifference. It is to have people who see these things do nothing about it.”

He continues: “When you’re referring to this ‘Independence’ march, the authorities would say that people who carry these wrong texts on their banners were a minority. Even if this was true, no one did anything about it. The authorities allow these things.” 

With Bogdan’s Journey, the filmmakers strive to keep the memory of another time the authorities did nothing—and in fact aided in an atrocity—fresh in Poles’ minds. The film premiered in summer 2016 at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw last month it began screening nationally for the first time. While it has been generating positive interest in Polish media, there have also been accusations online that resurface the Soviet conspiracy theories and claim the film is deliberately misleading.  

The film anticipates just such a response. “The disgrace of the pogrom will never disappear. It is a historical fact,” Bialek says in it. He only hopes that, “With time, the world will remember not only the pogrom in Kielce, but also that Kielce has tried to do something about it."

About Rachel E. Gross

Rachel is the Science Editor, covering stories behind new discoveries and the debates that shape our understanding of the world. Before coming to Smithsonian, she covered science for Slate, Wired, and The New York Times.

Watch the video: Советская кинохроника, 14 июля 1941 (January 2022).