Yesterday, I immersed myself in an awe-inspiring documentary chronicling the transformative journey of teshuvah, a Hebrew term encapsulating repentance and redemption, undertaken by the entire community of Kielce. Bogdan Bialek, a non-Jewish prophet of Polish origin, spearheaded this remarkable narrative.
During our recent synagogue gathering, we delved into the chapters recounting Abraham’s profound encounters with the Divine. Among these narratives, one particularly compelling story unfolded as Abraham negotiated with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities, symbolic of evil in the eyes of God, faced imminent destruction, as depicted in the biblical account.
The nature of the transgressions committed by Sodom and Gomorrah has long been a subject of exploration within the rich tapestry of Jewish literature, particularly in the “midrash” – a collection of interpretative texts. In my exploration, I stumbled upon a thought-provoking interpretation presented in Tablet magazine.
“In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, read this Shabbat — the Bible addresses the question of ethics head-on. These towns represent a human society so thoroughly corrupt that it is beyond the possibility of repair. There are other stories in which God finds human behaviour abhorrent, but there is usually some redemption (as in the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), or a remnant remains that holds the potential to rebuild (like the living things in Noah’s ark). Only here does an entire place get annihilated with fire and brimstone.”
In the sixth century BCE, Ezekiel highlighted the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah in a warning to Judah, urging contemplation on the nature of their wrongdoing.
“Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity, yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
Many centuries after Ezekiel issued his charge, the ancient rabbis expounded upon it through a midrash—a brief but profound interpretation of the biblical text. One such understanding can be found in Genesis Rabbah, a compilation of commentaries dating back to the third century CE.
There was an incident concerning two young girls who went down to fill pitchers with water from the spring.
One of them said to her friend, “Why is your face so sickly?”
The other said to her, “Our food is all gone, and we are about to die.”
What did the first one do? She filled her pitcher with flour and switched the two, each girl taking what was in the hand of the other.
When [the people of Sodom] became aware of this, they took her and burned her.
The Holy Blessed One said, “Even if I wanted to keep silent, the judgment in the young girl’s case does not permit me to keep silent.”
This midrash vividly portrays a distressing scene: a young woman condemned to death by burning as punishment for an act of compassion. What makes this account even more chilling is the formal language employed by God, who refers to “judgment” and “case,” suggesting that the people of Sodom subjected the compassionate young woman to a legal trial for providing food to a starving neighbour. In the perverse legal framework of Sodom, offering assistance to a hungry person was deemed a criminal offence punishable by death. God’s intervention was triggered not by random violence but by a legal proceeding, highlighting the twisted nature of justice in Sodom.
Doesn’t this retelling of the midrash evoke memories of Nazi Germany’s regime, where extending compassionate help to Jews was legally classified as a criminal act, punishable by immediate death?
While the atrocities committed by the Nazis remain a raw wound for both Jews and non-Jews, this film presents a narrative of Bogdan and the town of Kielce grappling with the aftermath of a Jewish massacre on Polish soil in 1946. Despite widespread denial and resistance in Kielce, Bogdan Bialek, a resident, takes it upon himself to initiate and sustain a campaign urging the townspeople to confront and acknowledge the 1946 tragedy. Through Bogdan’s efforts, the film illustrates that a community can undergo repentance, voluntarily address historical atrocities, and evolve into a self-aware, compassionate, and empathetic entity.
For anyone connected to the Shoah or other profound collective traumas, “Bogdan’s Journey” is a compelling must-watch. Consider viewing the movie at an institutional or private screening by visiting Bogdan’s Journey.
Postscript: Following the screening, the producer, director, and several guests from Poland, including Bogdan, gathered at a Tel Aviv restaurant near the Sherman Oaks Laemmle movie theatre. I shared the link to this blog with him, and he responded with the following message:
Thank you very much for your beautiful and touching text on your blog. If you agree, I would like to use it on the Jan Karski Society site. The meeting in Sherman Oaks was fascinating. For the first time, I was in a great home and thus an excellent company. I hope that we will have other possibilities to meet each other. Of course, if you will be in Poland, remember about my warmest invitation to Kielce. I will try to buy a book which you recommend.