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Waking a Polish demon

Jan Tomasz Gross has taken on the difficult task of removing blind spots in Polish history. His new book "Fear" has sparked an emotional debate in the country of his birth, where anti-Semitism is not a popular subject. By Jakub Kloc-Konkolowicz

In recent days a new chapter in the emotional debate over Polish anti-Semitism has opened in Poland. The occasion is the Polish edition of a new book by the Princeton historian of Polish origin Jan Tomasz Gross. The book with the punchy title "Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz" (New York 2006) revolves around a central question: "How was Polish anti-Semitism possible after Auschwitz?" According to the reports by Holocaust survivors cited by the author, rather than being welcomed with open arms, Polish Holocaust survivors were met in their hometowns by the cynical question "Are you still alive?!"

The Holocaust victims were confronted with more or less open hostility on the part of the Polish population, which ultimately ended in pogroms. Gross' book examines three of these in detail, in Rzeszow (1945), Krakow (1945) and the most notorious pogrom in Kielce (1946) in which 37 Jews were murdered.

For Gross, neither the allegedly widespread participation of Polish Jews in the slowly consolidating Communist regime nor the horror stories circulating about the ritual murder of Christian children were the real reasons for these occurrences. Ultimately, economic interests were behind the events. Many Poles had taken possession of Jewish property after the German occupiers fled, and the Holocaust survivors' return was perceived as a real threat. Regardless of the pretexts for the pogroms, Gross writes, their real purpose was to get rid of the inconvenient victims.

Although many Poles had heroically come to the aid of their fellow Jewish citizens by providing them with shelter at their own peril, most had looked on with indifference – sometimes even approval – at the crimes committed by the German occupiers on the Jews. Pangs of conscience can be very effective, destructive even, especially when they veil a clear interest.

Gross is particularly critical of the Polish Catholic Church, maintaining that with the exception of the Bishop of Czestochowa, clerics not only did nothing to protect Jewish survivors from assaults after the war, but even sought explicitly to justify these attacks to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, one must add, Gross' controversial book was printed in Poland by a respectable Catholic publisher.

This is not the first time that a book by Gross has created a stir in Poland. The publication in 2001 of his "Neighbors" had already kindled an emotional debate about the Polish population's involvement in the Holocaust. That book dealt with the murder of the Jewish residents of Jedwabne (a small town in Eastern Poland) in 1941. For decades under the Communist regime this crime was attributed to the German troops. It was only with Gross' assertion that Polish neighbours had carried out the crime that an investigation initiated by the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) confirmed direct Polish participation (leaving the role of the German occupiers open).

Even before the report was published, Alexander Kwasniewski, then Polish president, officially apologised for the Jedwabne murders "in the name of those Poles whose consciences are troubled by this crime."

Many people never forgave Kwasniewski for this apology. Most Yad Vashem trees (dedicated to the "Righteous Among the Nations" who risked their lives to save threatened Jews during WWII) bear Polish names. Poland was the sole occupied country where helping Jewish citizens was punishable by death. Under the occupation, the Polish underground Armia Krajowa initiated a structure unique in Europe (called Zegota) which offered aid – including military support – to the Jews.

Since the Poles staunchly resisted the Nazi aggression and were themselves victims of Hitler's policy of genocide, many saw – and continue to see – themselves exclusively in the role of war victims. For that reason they consider any allegation that casts Poles in the role of perpetrators a brazen effrontery, if not a direct attack on the Polish people. Accordingly, even events that took place after World War II, in particular the pogrom in Kielce, are seen by many historians as a provocation by the (Polish or even Soviet) secret service, which sought to damage Poland's image in Western Europe and secure its adhesion to the Russian sphere of influence.

It's no wonder, then, that Jan Tomasz Gross is such a controversial figure in Polish public life, although he has never questioned the merits of the Poles, nor their bravery in the fight against fascism. Hence it was predictable that his new book would set off a new wave of outrage even before it came out in Polish. Already after the original version was published in the US, some Polish senators alerted the Polish public prosecutor's office that the book could insult the Polish people and incite hatred, charges which the office is currently reviewing.

The radical Catholic League of Polish Families has officially demanded that the Polish Foreign Ministry deny Gross entry into Poland. Many commentators believe Gross' book reveals no previously unknown facts, brings nothing new into the debate and is more an essay "with a presupposed thesis" than a genuine historical study. Janusz Kurtyka, director of the Institute of National Remembrance, has accused Gross of historical incompetence and highly one-sided use of his sources.

But critical voices are also being heard among moderates, for example Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the secretary to Pope John Paul II, as well as the legendary Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, who maintained Gross' book would awaken dangerous demons and divide where it should reconcile. The Polish–Jewish dialogue must be carried out with a view to the future, not the past, Walesa argued. Very few people have come to the defence of this author, who has taken on the difficult task of making uncomfortable facts known to a wider audience and removing blind spots in Polish history. His supporters include Konstanty Gebert, chief editor of Midrasz a Jewish-interest magazine.

However the widespread Polish indignation is also explained by the fact that many feel the book paints an outdated portrait of Poland. Many believe the old mantra of Polish anti-Semitism no longer rings true, because much has changed since the 1990s. The policy of reconciliation and dialogue between Poles and Jews begun by President Walesa and carried through by his successor Kwasniewski – as well as current President Lech Kaczynski – has been highly successful. Jewish life in Poland has reawakened, and interest in Jewish culture, history and religion has grown enormously, especially among young Poles. Many Jewish festivals have been established and exhibitions and theatre performances focussing on Jewish issues are on the rise. Just a few weeks ago, the postal workers' union spontaneously and successfully refused to distribute anti-Semitic brochures put out by an extreme right-wing politician.

Jan Tomasz Gross by no means denies these tremendous changes in Polish society. He simply believes that uncomfortable topics of the past must be discussed openly. Controversy over a book is always welcomed by its author, people say. The only thing Gross would find scandalous would be if this debate had to be continued in the courtroom.

You only need to look at the development of the democratic public sphere in Poland since the 1990s, however, to see that this debate, emotional as it is, is far more likely to be carried out in a more appropriate forum. And in all probability it will lead Poles to regard their history with more critical distance. Regardless of people's fears, it is unlikely that the book and the discussion around it could harm Jewish–Polish dialogue.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on January 18, 2008.

Jakub Kloc-Konkolowicz teaches philosophy at the University of Warsaw. He is currently holder of a Humboldt Foundation research grant at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.

Translation: lp

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