(Yid., Kielts), city in southeastern Poland. Until the end of the eighteenth century, Kielce belonged to the bishops of Kraków, who forbade Jews to settle there. The partitions of Poland brought the city under Russian rule. Although Kielce’s residents maintained contact with Jewish traders in neighboring towns, Jews were not allowed to settle. Nevertheless, beginning in 1833 Jews began to move into Kielce. By 1860, some 31 Jewish families, who formed a branch of the Jewish community of Chęciny, lived in the city. Two years later, Alexander II allowed Jews to settle freely in places previously closed to them, including Kielce. No large influx of Jews into Kielce occurred, however, until some decades later. In 1870, the Jewish population of Kielce numbered 992, though by 1897 it had risen to 6,137 (representing 30.2% of the city’s population).
Most of Kielce’s Jews worked in commerce or as artisans. In 1876, Jews operated five of the city’s 20 butcher shops, while four years later all of Kielce’s butchers and bakers were Jewish. In 1896, 40 Jewish shareholders established a cement factory, and the next year, the Heiman brothers founded a glass factory. By 1868, the number of Jewish residents justified the founding of an independent Jewish community, and in 1870, a cemetery was opened in the Pakosz neighborhood, followed in 1871 by the construction of a mikveh. In 1903 the community erected a synagogue near Nowowarszawska Street. Hasidic Jews—for the most part followers of the Ger, Kotsk, and Aleksander dynasties—dominated the community.
Kielce’s Jews were active in municipal self-government, obtaining one-third of the seats in the city council in 1916. The Bund was particularly forceful at the beginning of the twentieth century. On 11 November 1918, Kielce’s Jewish community suffered a pogrom, during which many Jewish-owned stores were destroyed and several Jews were maimed or killed. Despite continuing tensions during the interwar period, Kielce’s Jewish population grew as the city itself became the capital of the province.
Members of the administrative staff of the Judenrat of the Kielce ghetto, Poland, 1942. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy Rafal Imbro)
In 1921, there were 15,530 Jews living in Kielce (37.6% of the city’s total population). They continued to play a large part in commerce and crafts. Of the 2,674 workshops functioning in 1930, 51.7 percent were operated by Jews, and in 1938 Jews owned 61.8 percent of Kielce’s shops. Jewish political, social, and cultural life flourished in the interwar period; in addition to their participation in Jewish political parties, Kielce’s Jews issued their own periodicals and ran social organizations, sports clubs, schools, and libraries.
At the outbreak of World War II, approximately 18,000 Jews lived in Kielce. This Jewish population increased as the Germans forcibly resettled several thousand Jews from nearby towns, from the Łódź district and Poznań, and even from Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. In March 1942, the Germans established a ghetto, confining about 25,000 Jews. At the head of the Judenrat, or Jewish council, stood Moses Pelc, who was succeeded by Herman Levi. In September 1942, the Germans transported about 21,000 Jews to Treblinka; many others were murdered in the city itself. The 1,500–2,000 Jews selected to remain in the city as workers were subsequently moved to a labor camp. After the liquidation of this camp in the summer of 1943, they were transported to three other labor camps, which the Germans then liquidated in August 1944, sending their residents to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and a labor camp in Częstochowa.
Pallbearers carrying the coffins of the victims of the pogrom that occurred on 4 July 1946, Kielce. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Lahav)
At the war’s end, only about 200 Jews returned to Kielce. Most lived in the vicinity of a building at 7–9 Planty Street, which housed various Jewish institutions. These survivors created a religious congregation, a district and municipal Jewish committee (affiliated with the Central Committee of Jews in Poland), a kibbutz operated by the Iḥud Zionist party, and an orphanage. On 4 July 1946, rumors that Jews had abducted a Polish child sparked a pogrom. Police and army units in the city stood by as a mob gathered in front of the building on Planty Street and did nothing to prevent Poles from killing Jews and looting their possessions. Forty-two Jews were killed, either beaten to death or shot; more than 40 others suffered injuries. All those who survived left Kielce. The Kielce pogrom spurred mass Jewish emigration from Poland. The first formal contact between the city’s Christian residents and Jews after the 1946 pogrom occurred more than 40 years later, on 23 August 1987, when a group of about 200 Jews visited Kielce, including 45 who had ties to the city.
There are several theories about why the pogrom took place. Most popular in Poland is the (unsupported) thesis suggesting it was a provocation on the part of the Polish or Soviet security forces. The ruling Polish Workers Party and Polish Socialist Party utilized the pogrom against the Jews in Kielce for propaganda purposes in order to compromise the opposition Polish People’s Party and the armed anticommunist underground resistance still operating in Poland at that time.
Bożena Szaynok, Pogrom Żydów w Kielcach, 4 lipca 1946 r. (Warsaw, 1992); David Sztokfisz, ed., ‘Al betenu she-ḥarav / Fun der khorever heym (Tel Aviv, 1981); Pinḥas Tsitron, ed., Sefer Kilts: Toldot kehilat Kilts (Tel Aviv, 1956/57); Krzysztof Urbański, Leksykon dziejów ludności żydowskiej Kielc, 1789–2000 (Kraków, 2002).
Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec