WARSAW, Poland – Historians call it Europe's last pogrom — neighbors and police setting upon Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Polish town of Kielce with guns, clubs and metal bars in a murderous rampage little more than a year after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Even as officials prepared to mark its 60th anniversary Tuesday with wailing sirens and Hebrew prayers in the town's Jewish cemetery, the Kielce massacre still darkens relations between Jews and Poles.
"How a normal population could indulge in such massive criminal behavior — this was and is the most important question that Kielce raises," said Jan T. Gross, the author of "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz."
On July 4, 1946, townspeople and security officers, spurred by a false rumor that Jews living at 7 Planty St., had kidnapped a Christian boy, attacked Jewish Holocaust survivors living in the building. They killed 42 people, almost all Jews, over several hours, and about 30 more were killed in a violent frenzy that spread across the area.
Kielce still looms as a symbol of a double tragedy suffered by some European Jews: to survive the years of the Nazi terror in concentration camps or in hiding, only to be massacred as they tried to rebuild their lives in their prewar hometowns. An estimated 1,500 Jews were killed in such violence in Poland, and there were other such cases on a smaller scale in countries such as Hungary and Romania, according to Gross, a Princeton University professor.
Gross' previous book, "Neighbors," about the collective murder of Jews in the village of Jedwabne on one day in 1941 by their Polish neighbors, forced Poles to re-examine their long-held view of themselves as solely victims — and almost never perpetrators — of the brutality that engulfed the nation during the war and occupation by Nazi Germany.
Gross, who was born in Poland, said he hopes "Fear" — which devotes two out of its six chapters to the Kielce pogrom — will force more such soul-searching on the issue of Polish anti-Semitism.
"The tragic death of [Poland's Jews] is something that has never been properly mourned here," Gross said during an interview in Warsaw. "And this absence of mourning is something that has to be remedied because it weighs heavily on the collective consciousness of the society."
The pogrom set off a mass emigration of many of Poland's estimated 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors — what was left of the prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million — and pushed other Polish Jews to hide their identities. About 60,000 Jews fled Poland in the three months after the Kielce pogrom.
"For Jews, Kielce showed them the killing hadn't stopped," said Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich. "The tragedy, the result of Kielce is that Jews felt that they were no longer safe in Poland."
Poland's post-communist government apologized for the killings on the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom, but many Jewish groups and other critics say Polish society at large has still largely failed to come to acknowledge the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in Poland during the war era.
It touches a sore spot for many Poles, who feel it is unfair to equate pogroms such as Kielce as the moral equivalent of the evil of the Holocaust. Schudrich, a New Yorker, also said that as horrific as Kielce was, it shouldn't be equated with the Nazi killings.
"Some people want to make Kielce into the continuation of the Holocaust," Schudrich said. "It was a postwar pogrom that was horrible and unacceptable, but it wasn't the continuation of the Holocaust."
The Kielce anniversary comes at a sensitive time politically for Poland — two months after the governing Law and Justice formed a coalition with two small parties, including the League of Polish Families, a right-wing group rooted in a prewar anti-Semitic party.
That coalition deal with the party, which also has a far-right youth movement, sparked concerns within the European Union, Israel and Poland's Jewish community that it could encourage anti-Semitism. Those concerns took on greater urgency after Schudrich was attacked, though not injured, in Warsaw in late May.
President Lech Kaczynski condemned the attack and said there was no place in Poland for anti-Semitism. Police arrested the attacker last week.
Schudrich is to lead Jewish prayers during the ceremonies Tuesday. Kaczynski was originally scheduled to deliver a speech, but he was sick Monday and his office said it was unlikely he would be able to join Poland's foreign and interior ministers at the ceremonies.