Cruelty and injustice in postwar Europe

The JC Essay

By Anne Applebaum, November 12, 2012

For the British, who came home to a country at peace, it has always been hard to understand what happened after the Second World War in Eastern Europe. In Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, there was no joyous liberation or triumphant parades: Soldiers, prisoners and refugees returned home to towns still consumed by ethnic, political and criminal violence. In parts of Poland, a civil war raged through 1947, as the remnants of the Polish Resistance fought the Red Army. In parts of Czechoslovakia, angry mobs dragged ethnic Germans out of their homes and hounded them across the border. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, launched a programme of mass arrest and mass deportation in every country the Red Army occupied.

Across the region, it could, at times, be dangerous to be a communist official, dangerous to be an anti-communist activist, dangerous to be German in a Polish village, to be Polish in a Ukrainian village, to be Hungarian in a Slovak village.

It could also be dangerous to be Jewish. Although there is both anecdotal and archival evidence of Jews being welcomed home after the war, there is also anecdotal and archival evidence of anti-Jewish violence, though not much agreement on the scale. Numbers for “Jewish deaths” in Poland in this period range widely, from 400 to 2,500, for example.

Many Jewish communists were ambivalent about Jews and about the Holocaust, even as it was unfolding

This statistical disagreement reflects a deeper set of uncertainties. Were Jews who returned to claim back their houses murdered for their property — or for being Jewish? Were Jews who joined the security services murdered for being communists — or for being Jewish? The same can be said for robberies and assaults, which affected everybody during this lawless period. One historian points out that many archival records are ambiguous:

“On the night of August 10 1945, according to a communist dispatch, ‘a Jewish tailor and shoemaker co-operative in Radom was attacked and 4 Jews and one Red Army officer were murdered.’ Was this a political assassination of a Soviet officer? Was it a common robbery? Or was it an antisemitic attack? We have no answers.”

But if Jews were among many victims of the generalised violence, they were also in a few concrete instances also victims of genuinely antisemitic riots that require some special explanation. In the two years following the war, outbursts of anti-Jewish violence exploded in several towns in southern Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. By far the two most notorious took place in Kielce, Poland, on July 4, 1946, and in the Hungarian city of Miskolc a few weeks later, between July 30 and August 1. Why?

In Kielce, the ostensible cause of the riot — hard though it is to believe such a thing was still possible in the 20th century — was a rumour of blood libel. To avoid punishment for not coming home on time, a Polish child told his parents he had been kidnapped by the Jews, who planned to kill him as a ritual sacrifice. He told them he’d been kept in the basement of the Jewish Committee building in Kielce, a kind of dormitory and community centre, where several dozen Jewish survivors in Kielce were then living. His drunken father reported this to the local police; the police solemnly set out to investigate. But even as the occupants of the building were explaining to the police that they had no basement and thus could not have kept the child there, rumours began to spread throughout the town.

A crowd began to gather outside the committee building. An army unit arrived — 40 soldiers from the Internal Security Corps. To the shock of Jewish leaders inside, the soldiers began to fire on the Jews. And instead of dispersing the crowd, they joined it, along with policemen and members of the citizens’ militia. By the end of the day, at least 42 people were dead and dozens wounded.

In Miskolc, events unfolded differently. Although there were blood libel rumours in the city in the days leading up the riots — and although stories about Jews and Christian children had sparked violence in Kunmadras and Teplicany — violence was sparked by the arrest of three black marketeers, of whom two were Jewish. The story of their arrest was quickly passed around the town. A crowd was waiting for the men on the morning of July 31, when they were to be escorted from local custody to an internment camp. The crowd was worked up, prepared and carrying signs: “Death to the Jews and Death to the Black Marketeers.” When the prisoners appeared, the mob flung itself at them, murdered one of the men and beat the other so badly he wound up in hospital. The third — who was not Jewish — managed to escape. That afternoon, the police, though notably absent during the earlier riot, arrested 16 people for the public lynching. On August 1, another angry crowd, outraged by these arrests, attacked and occupied the police station. This time, a Jewish police officer was murdered.

Genuine shock and outrage followed both of these events. Polish and Hungarian intellectuals and politicians of all stripes wrote anguished condemnations deploring these remnants of antisemitism, so repellent in countries where memories of the Holocaust were fresh. The Polish state conducted a judicial investigation and put some of the perpetrators on trial, eventually doling out nine death sentences. In Hungary, the central committee of the communist party — a body dominated by Jewish communists — openly discussed antisemitism for the first and last time after the Miskolc riot. But the results of the subsequent police investigations satisfied no one.

In both cases, elements of the regime were partly responsible. In Kielce, the police and security services had actually joined the mob, along with the army. In Miskolc, local police tipped off the crowds that the arrested speculators would be in the town centre, and melted away when the violence started. Matyas Rákosi, the Hungarian communist party leader, himself a Jew, had been in Miskolc only a week earlier, where he denounced “speculators” — “Those who speculate with the forint, who would undermine the economic foundations of our democracy, should be hung on the gallows.”

At the same time, the Hungarian communist party put up posters and distributed brochures featuring caricatures of “speculators” looking like Jews. Clearly, they hoped to focus popular anger about hyperinflation and poverty on “Jewish speculators” and thus to deflect it from themselves. And yet both sets of riots undeniably had some popular support. As if from the depths of the Middle Ages, rumours that the Jews were killing Christian children, or that Jewish speculators were robbing Christian peasants, suddenly took hold in a few provincial East European towns, even as their countrymen looked on in horror.

S ome think the explanation for this moment of madness is economic. The Polish historian Jan Gross had argued that the mass killings of Jews during the war created “a social vacuum which was promptly filled by the native Polish petit bourgeoisie.” Uncertain of their status, fearful of losing what they had so recently gained and above all threatened by the new communist regimes, Gross speculates that this social strata focused its ire on the returning Jews.

Others believe that something more profound than economic competition must have underlain the animosity. As Polish historian Dariusz Stola points out, Poles — like Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Lithuanians — had seen, heard and even smelled the Holocaust to a degree unimaginable in Western Europe, including Germany: “The psychological reaction to that kind of experience is complicated and completely irrational; the memory is a kind of convulsion, the feelings associated are intense and uncontrolled, and, most importantly, these aren’t necessarily feelings of pity or sympathy…”

Stola’s explanation, although voiced in 2005, isn’t so far from the views of many Polish intellectuals at the time. In 1947, Stanisław Ossowski, an esteemed philosopher and sociologist, came to the same conclusion. “Compassion,” he wrote, “is not the only imaginable response to misfortune suffered by other people… those whom fate has destined for annihilation easily can appear disgusting to others and be removed beyond the pale of human relations.” He also observed, as others have done since, that those who had benefitted in some material way from the destruction of the Jews were often uneasy or even guilt-ridden, and thus they sought to make their actions seem legitimate: “If one person’s disaster benefits somebody else, an urge appears to persuade oneself, and others, that the disaster was morally justified.”

The presence of Jews in leading positions in the East European communist parties did not ease the tension. Nor did it produce anywhere a set of policies which could reasonably be described as “pro-Jewish.” On the contrary, many Jewish communists were extraordinarily ambivalent about Jews and about the Holocaust, even as it was unfolding. While in Moscow in 1942, the Polish communist Jakub Berman began to hear horrible stories about what was happening to the Jews of Warsaw. But he steeled himself against pity. In a letter, he advised a friend not to be sidetracked or distracted by the unfolding tragedy. “The situation of Jews in Poland is terrible,” he wrote: “However, it seems to me that you can’t put too much effort into this… for although the question of mobilisation of Jewish masses in Poland into an active struggle against the occupier is important and valid… other things should be at the centre of our attention.”

After the war, this ambivalence increased. In 1945 and ’46, Rákosi worried that too many of the anti-fascist trials were focused on “people who did something to the Jews”. Notoriously, Rákosi threw antisemitic comments into his conversation, on one occasion offending the speaker of the parliament, Béla Varga, so much that Varga snapped at him, “your mother was a Jew and do not deny your mother.” Even East Germany, with its almost non-existent Jewish community, made distinctions early on in the honours bestowed upon former “Fighters Against Fascism” meaning mostly communists, and former “Victims of Fascism,” meaning mostly Gypsies and Jews.

Part of this queasy relationship between East European communists and East European Jews might be attributable to the antisemitism of individuals, even Jewish individuals. But at the deepest level, it reflected the communists’ insecurities. Knowing they were perceived as illegitimate by so many of their countrymen — perceived as Soviet agents, to be more precise — they deployed traditional national, religious and ethnic symbols in an effort to win support. In 1945, the Hungarian Communist Party brought back the annual celebration of the 1848 “bourgeois revolution” and insisted, to the consternation of some old Party members, that their followers carry Hungarian flags as well as red Party flags. As Rákosi explained, “We still have a problem with our patriotic character… It has to be underlined demonstratively that we chose the red banner and the national flag… the flag of Hungarian democracy.”

The German communists did the same, resurrecting the German Imperial flag even as the war was still being fought. In August 1944, Polish communists publicly celebrated a mass in honour of the “miracle on the Vistula,” the Polish defeat of the Bolsheviks outside Warsaw in 1920, a national holiday with distinctly anti-Russian overtones. That strange event was made even stranger by the presence of General Nikolai Bulganin, at the time the representative of the Soviet Council of People’s Commissars, and later the Soviet prime minister.

Communist indulgence of antisemitism was part of this way of thinking. Many hoped that, by ignoring or even flirting with antisemitism, their party would seem more “national,” more “patriotic,” less Soviet, less alien; perhaps more legitimate. Like anti-German feeling in the Sudetenland, anti-Ukrainian emotions in Poland, and anti-Hungarian sentiment in Slovakia, antisemitism became just another weapon in the party’s arsenal. In their quest for popularity, communist parties were willing to pump up ethnic hatred of Germans, hatred of Hungarians, hatred of Ukrainians, and, even in the region most devastated by the Holocaust, hatred of Jews.

Anne Applebaum's latest book is 'Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1044-1956' (Allen Lane, £25)

Last updated: 3:40pm, November 14 2012