'When something evil happens, you have to do something about it'

On the site of a 1946 massacre, a Catholic Pole works to heal his home

'Bogdan's Journey' is about one man's mission to preserve the memory of Kielce's Jewish victims -- while building bridges for the future

A screenshot of Bogdan Bialek meditating, from the movie 'Bogdan's Journey.' (Courtesy)

SARASOTA, Florida — It was a “moral reflex” that inspired Bogdan Bialek to speak out about the Kielce pogrom, he told the audience after a Southwest Florida-screening of the new documentary “Bogdan’s Journey.” The film chronicles his mission to heal his home of Kielce, Poland, through education and acceptance.

A Catholic Pole, Bialek may not be the most likely advocate for victims and survivors of the 1946 pogrom. The outbreak of violence in the small city of Kielce killed more than 40 Jews, most of them Holocaust survivors. He has, however, been the most dedicated one.

Directors Michal Jaskulski and Lawrence Loewinger spent more than 10 years creating their film about Bialek and his work, which received a standing ovation from the opening night crowd at the 2017 Jewish Film Festival of Sarasota-Manatee on March 12.

“When something evil happens, you have to do something about it,” Bialek said after the screening.

Bialek, a magazine publisher, moved to Kielce from a city near the Belarussian border in 1978. He was aware of the pogrom when he arrived, but he was met with resistance when he discussed it. That is why, for decades, Bialek has dedicated his life to encouraging the people of Kielce to acknowledge the atrocity that took place there, and to admit that the Polish public played a role in it.

A family member of Kielce pogrom victims embracing a family member of one of the Polish perpetrators. (Screenshot, courtesy)

Jaskulski and Loewinger’s admiration for Bialek is apparent throughout the film. They collected over 200 hours of footage to create the carefully constructed 90-minute documentary. The finished work includes moving interactions between Bialek and pogrom survivors, as well as footage of town hall meetings and memorial events that Bialek organized to help unite the Kielce community.

“Bogdan has showed us that memory is important to building empathetic communities,” Jaskulski said. “That it’s even possible to build a community between those who suffered and the descendants of the perpetrators.”

Bogdan Bialek in front of a movie poster for the documentary ‘Bogdan’s Journey.’ (Courtesy)

In addition to highlighting Bialek’s work, “Bogdan’s Journey” also recounts the brutality that took place in Kielce just after World War II. Most of Kielce’s Jewish residents, which numbered more than 20,000 in 1939, were killed during the war.

Only about 180 returned to Kielce to seek shelter at Przy Planty 7/9, home of the local Jewish Committee. That is where the Kielce pogrom took place on July 4, 1946. Today, it is the headquarters of the Jan Karski Society, an anti-discrimination organization that Bialek chairs.

For many years, information about the Kielce pogrom was difficult to find. Still, there are residents who refuse to accept that Polish civilians played a role in the massacre despite confirmation from historians that they did, in fact, take part. This is in step with the Polish government’s move to make it a crime to connect Poland with the Nazi death camps that were located throughout the country during German occupation.

The Polish government has taken a different stance, however, when it comes to the Kielce pogrom. Last year, Andrzej Duda became the first Polish president to attend a memorial service for pogrom victims in Kielce.

The long shadow of WWII

World War II continues to cast a shadow on Poland, both politically and socially. In fact, Jaskulski became interested in making a documentary about the pogrom after working as the cinematographer on a film by two Jewish Americans about the Jewish District in Krakow.

The Jan Karski Society, an anti-discrimination organization that Bogdan Bialek chairs, helped restore this memorial to the victims of the Kielce pogrom. (Screeshot, courtesy)

“I was surprised that their film came with the thesis that all Poles are anti-Semites,” Jaskulski said. “This was the moment when I wanted to know what the entire story between the Poles and the Jews was about.”

‘I was surprised that their film came with the thesis that all Poles are anti-Semites’

Though Bialek’s work is still met with some opposition, he is optimistic about the relationship between the Polish and the Jewish people of Kielce. In the film, he contends that Kielce is one of the few Polish towns that is free of anti-Semitic graffiti and that it was one of the first Polish communities to ban racist chants in its soccer stadium.

In fact, these positive changes signaled to Jaskulski and Loewinger that their work on “Bogdan’s Journey” was complete.

A screenshot of Bogdan Bialek from the movie ‘Bogdan’s Journey.’ (Courtesy)

“It was becoming clear that there was a change that was happening in this town and you’ll see it in the events that we were filming,” Loewinger said. “We realized at that time that it was time to bring the production part of the film to an end.”

Although Bialek has dedicated much of his life to highlighting the events of the Kielce pogrom, he said becoming the subject of the story in “Bogdan’s Journey” has not been all too different for him.

“It’s natural because in all these conversations about the pogrom and what happened in the past, I was always talking from the heart and it was always very personal,” Bialek said.

Director Michal Jaskulski, left, with Bogdan Bialek. (Courtesy)

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