It was July 3, 1946, and nine year old Henryk Blaszczyk was in deep trouble.
Two days earlier, he’d slipped out his parents’ home in the small Central Polish town of Kielce and caught a ride back to the village he’d been in born in.
There, he’d spent two blissful summer’s days wandering the fields with friends, playing soldiers and stuffing his pockets with wild-growing cherries.
It was now almost a year since the war had ended. A year since the Nazi war machine had crumbled, the concentration camps been liberated, and the Holocaust ended.
Despite an ongoing struggle against Poland’s Communist takeover, you could almost taste the optimism in the air. The sense that the bad days were over.
Perhaps this feeling was why Henryk never bothered to tell his parents where he was going. Never said he might be gone for two whole days.
Now, as he slunk back to their working class home in Kielce, the boy made a fateful decision.
He was going to lie. To invent a story about his absence so convincing, his father wouldn’t dream of hitting him.
Little could the people of Kielce have known it that hot July evening, but young Henryk’s story was destined to shatter their peaceful town.
By the time the sun set the next day, 42 local Jews would’ve been murdered…
…and the hands of the city’s citizens would be drenched with blood.
Before WWII swept through Europe, Kielce had been home to a vibrant Jewish population.
In 1939, almost a third of its 72,000 citizens had identified as Jewish, part of a 3.5 million-strong community living in Poland.
But then the Holocaust came. By 1945, only 200 of Kielce’s Jews were still alive – among them survivors of the Treblinka death camp.
One by one, they filtered back to their old home, some hoping to resettle, others just looking for missing relatives.
In this postwar era, the town’s new center of Jewish life became 7 Planty Street, a nondescript building with a large central courtyard.
But if the Jews of Kielce expected to be welcomed back, they would soon discover the bitter reality.
Ethnic Poles who had stolen Jewish property in the war now refused to give it back. In the churches, priests ominously warned of local children being stolen for their blood.
Schoolkids even joked that classmates who’d missed a day had been taken for matzo – an unleavened bread eaten on Passover.
In short, anti-Semitism was alive and well in postwar Poland. And it was having real consequences.
Exactly a year earlier, the death of a Polish girl falsely blamed on Jews had triggered riots in Rzeszow.
A month after that, a boy had run out the synagogue in Krakow, screaming:
“Help! They want to murder me!”
The resulting violence had seen the synagogue destroyed and a Holocaust survivor murdered.
But it would be in Kielce that this wave of racist violence reached its awful highwater mark.
By the time young Henryk Blaszczyk got home on July 3, 1946, he’d settled on his story.
He told his parents and two visiting neighbors that a man had asked him to deliver a package, only to then take him and lock him in a cellar. There, Henryk and another boy had been held for two whole days before escaping – how, he couldn’t say.
As excuses go, it was up there with “the dog ate my homework”. In any other time, it would’ve resulted in nothing more than Henryk being sent to bed without supper.
But, this wasn’t “any other time”. This was Poland, 1946, at the height of anti-Jewish tensions.
As soon as Henryk finished his story, one of the neighbors – a guy named Antoni Pasowski – asked if the man who’d locked him up had been a gypsy or a Jew.
Henryk replied that he didn’t speak Polish, so must’ve been a Jew.
With those words, the fates of 42 people were sealed.
July 4 dawned with Henryk’s father Walenty and the neighbor Pasowski walking him to the police station.
As they passed 7 Planty Street, Pasowski nudged Henryk and asked him if this was where he was held.
Not only did the boy say yes, he pointed at a random man who just happened to be standing outside.
“That’s him,” he declared.
It was all the evidence the adults needed.
When the police heard Henryk’s story, they immediately dispatched officers to investigate. As the men walked to Platny Street, they told passersby the Jews had been kidnapping children.
Incredibly, no-one questioned this claim. Even when the man Henryk had identified – Kalman Singer – pointed out that the building didn’t have a cellar, he was still arrested.
By now, the boy’s lie had taken on a terrible life of its own.
At 10am, the local head of the secret police got wind of a mob assembling on Platny Street and sent 100 soldiers.
Not told why they were going, the soldiers assumed they were meant to find the missing children. So they forced their way into house number 7.
It was at this point that the pogrom officially began.
With the door open, the angry mob surged in, shouting that the Jews would pay.
In the chaos of those first muddled minutes, someone yelled that they’d found four dead children. Then someone fired a shot – to this day, we’re not sure who.
It was the starting gun on a massacre.
The first victim was Berel Frydman, thrown from a third floor window.
Seconds later, a soldier opened fire a floor below, killing one Jewish man and wounding five others.
But the real horror began when the first arrests were made.
Rather than taking anyone into custody, the soldiers turned their Jewish prisoners over to the mob. Teenage boys were beaten with rocks; one man was stoned to death.
As blood flowed over the cobblestones, local officials simply stood by and watched.
By 11:30am, the violence had spilled into the rest of the town.
A Jewish man walking nearby was run down by a gang of youths and beaten unconscious.
At the station, rioters boarded trains and dragged out Jewish travelers randomly passing through. Seven were beaten to death on the platform, their skulls split apart with pieces of railroad track.
Over on Leonarda Street, young mother Regina Fisz was visited by a policemen who told her she needed to come with him.
Taking her baby, Fisz and a male visitor – Abram Moszkowicz – obediently followed the cop into the street, unaware a pogrom was underway.
The cop hailed a passing truck and offered the driver money for use of his vehicle. Then he drove Fisz, Abram, and the baby deep into the nearby woods, where he shot Regina and her child dead.
Abram escaped, but was chased down by some thugs and beaten unconscious.
Yet the worst was still to come.
At noon, Henryk’s uncle reached the steel mill where he worked. There, he whipped the workers into a frenzy.
Up to 600 men grabbed metal bars and charged into the town, heading for Platny Street.
Ironically, the Jewish survivors saw the mob approaching, and thought they were the cavalry.
No such luck.
Over the next three hours, survivors of the first attack were dragged into the building’s courtyard and hit with steel until the stones were slick with blood.
It was only at 3pm that the violence at last abated – when a regular army contingent sent by Warsaw swooped on the town to arrest the rioters and restore order.
In one of the grimmest scenes, the cop who’d murdered Regina Fisz and her child was found in a restaurant alongside the truck driver, the pair celebrating the murders with vodka toasts.
In the end, the toll of Henryk Blaszczyk’s childish lie was 42 Jews dead, and another 40 injured.
Two Poles had also died in the rioting; one killed in self defense, and another – Estera Proszowska – murdered for trying to help a wounded Jewish man.
In the coming days, another 9 would join them: rioters chosen at random and executed to set an example.
But perhaps the biggest toll would be on Poland itself.
A decade earlier, the country had been home to one of the most-vibrant Jewish communities on Earth. Even after the War, enough remnants remained to maybe rebuild.
But the Kielce massacre put an end to that. Over the next three months, over 50,000 Polish Jews would flee – for Israel, for the US, for Canada.
The community would never recover.
Today, there are estimated to be around 30,000 Jewish people living in Poland, the highest number since the aftermath of the pogrom.
The current government also points out that there are more Poles honored as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel than any other nationality.
All of which has led some to wonder how? How could something like the Kielce Pogrom happen?
Go looking online, and you’ll find articles claiming that it was a false flag attack incited by the Soviets to distract from the Communist takeover of Poland.
Others – such as the former bishop of Kielce – have falsely-claimed it was staged by Zionists to increase their support; while scholars have suggested it was tied to property rights.
The neighbor Pasowski who encouraged Henryk to identify 7 Platny Street as his prison was later revealed to have taken over Jewish properties in WWII, giving him a financial motive to see the rightful owners murdered.
But perhaps the real truth is even darker.
As humans, it’s in our nature to look for patterns. To try and puzzle out the deeper meaning behind shocking events – like those who believe 9/11 was an inside job.
The idea that something as simple as a childish lie could’ve caused the deaths of 44 people is so monstrous that we instinctively look for other explanations.
But what if there is nothing else? What if what happened at Kielce in 1946 was nothing more than an unhappy accident? An explosion of violence built on dumb racist rumors and one kid scared of getting in trouble.
The Kielce Pogrom challenges many of the narratives we like to tell ourselves. That the end of the Holocaust really did mean “never again”. That collaborators in occupied countries were forced into violence by the Nazis, rather than harboring anti-Semitic sentiments themselves.
But real life is never so straightforward. What happened at Kielce may shock us, even disturb us.
But that is precisely why we need to remember it.
Yad Vashem, anti-Jewish violence in Poland after liberation: https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/anti-jewish-violence-in-poland-after-liberation.html
Smithsonian, the post-Holocaust pogrom: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/kielce-post-holocaust-pogrom-poland-still-fighting-over-180967681/
USHMM, a blood libel massacre: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-kielce-pogrom-a-blood-libel-massacre-of-holocaust-survivors
Museum of the History of the Polish Jews: https://www.polin.pl/en/The-Pogrom-of-Jews-in-Kielce
Jewish Virtual Library, the Kielce Pogrom: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-kielce-pogrom
1968 Poland Purge: https://www.dw.com/en/poland-marks-50-years-since-1968-anti-semitic-purge/a-42877652 Jewish culture thriving in Poland today: https://time.com/5534494/poland-jews-rebirth-anti-semitism/