In 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Germans invaded Sierpc. Dorfman, who was 21 at the time, fled eastward. He never saw his parents and siblings again. “The Germans killed them all. Only I survived,” he said. “They likely died in the Warsaw Ghetto, probably of starvation,” he wrote in the pages of testimony he submitted to Yad Vashem in their memory.
He spent the war years in Russia, working as a woodchopper and as an apprentice barber. “I survived the war starving and cold, barefoot, naked and alone,” he later recounted, “but I came out of it okay physically,” he added emphatically. After the war he returned to Poland, hoping to find his family. “I came back to the shtetl. I knocked on the door of my home. Somebody asked what I wanted. I told him I just wanted to look at the walls of my family home,” he said. “I met other Jews like me who were searching for their families but found nothing.”
But bitter fate wasn’t done with him yet. On his way to another city, Dorfman decided to get off the train at Kielce and join a training kibbutz nearby. “Someone said that in two or three weeks we could immigrate to Palestine,” he explained. But just a week later, on July 4, 1946, Dorfman was caught up in a pogrom, carried out by a Polish mob in tandem with army and police forces, against a group of Holocaust survivors staying at 7 Planty Street in the city. Around 40 Jews were murdered and about 80 were injured in the violence.
“A crowd began to gather around the building, shouting that the Jews had kidnapped a Polish boy,” said Dorfman, describing the blood libel that was the pretext for the pogrom. “And then someone shouted, ‘Jew!,’ and the mob attacked me. They beat me and kicked me. Someone threw a rock at my face, I was beaten in the head, and I fell to the ground,” he added in an interview for the new Polish documentary about the Kielce pogrom, “Bogdan’s Journey.”
Dorfman’s attackers gouged out one of his eyes and seriously injured the other. “I didn’t lose consciousness. I heard one of the people loading his rifle and saying he wanted to shoot me. But someone else shouted that it was a shame to waste the bullet, since I was going to die anyway. I’d survived the war, but they broke me completely,” he later said.
This summer marked the 70th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom, one of the most traumatic events in the history of Polish Jewry. It spurred many Polish Holocaust survivors to leave the country, and remains a black spot for Poland to this day. Despite all the time that has passed, the question of responsibility for the pogrom continues to divide Polish society. In rightist circles, various conspiracy theories are touted, including one that says the Russian secret police, which operated in Soviet-occupied Poland, was behind the pogrom. Others assert that “the Jews did it to themselves.”
Respected historians, however, say that the pogrom was carried out by anti-Semitic Poles who feared that the Jews would come back to their homes and demand the return of their stolen property; they also accused the Jews of collaborating with the hated Soviet regime. “It was an era of anti-Semitism among some groups in Poland. Wherever you went, you could find people who would beat Jews. There was hysteria,” said Dorfman. “I’m sure that today, the man who hit me with a rock would be ashamed of his actions. I’m sure of it,” he said. Another survivor of the pogrom, Miriam Mechtinger Guterman, who died in 2014, once said: “I thanked God that my parents were killed in the gas chambers and not by this vicious mob.”