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Summary of the Essay

Professor Jan T. Gross, a sociologist who teaches history at Princeton University, has written a socio-historical essay that attempts to explain the existence of postwar anti-Semitism in Poland.  At the heart of FEAR is a description of the Kielce Pogrom.   This infamous 1946 incident serves as the prism through which Professor Gross attempts to interpret all of anti-Semitism in Poland during the postwar period.  This interpretation is then refracted back to try to explain Polish-Jewish relations during the Nazi occupation.

The first chapter, “Poland Abandoned,” is a brief but competent description of the politics and diplomacy of the war years in light of the events in Poland itself.  It includes an account of the communist takeover of Poland at the conclusion of the war.  This chapter does not discuss, by and large, the general social, political and economic situation in Poland in the immediate postwar era, nor does it cover the first Soviet occupation 1939 – 41, even though the Essay would probably be better served if it did. Professor Gross did explore the topic of the first Soviet occupation in an earlier work, Revolution from Abroad (1988).

In the next chapter, “The Unwelcoming of the Jews," Professor Gross discusses the hostile atmosphere and even violence experienced by Jews returning from hiding, the camps or the Soviet Union to their home towns or other areas of Poland. Professor Gross cites the conduct of the 1949 trial of those accused of murder in Jedwabne in 1941 as an example of the reluctance of the courts to try Poles accused of crimes against Jews. A key section of this chapter, in light of his thesis, is a section titled “The Takeover of Jewish Property by Polish Neighbors.”  In this section, Professor Gross looks not only at the Christians who took over homes and shops left by deported Jews, but also at those Poles who moved into the social strata (lower middle class) and took on occupations that before the war had been largely Jewish.  The acquisition of formerly Jewish properties and even the social position of Polish Jews, he argues, caused deep feelings of guilt in Catholic Poles.

The third and fourth chapters discuss the events of the Kielce pogrom and the reactions to it.  Professor Gross constructs the narrative of the event from standard sources, including the two-volume documentary collection published by Poland’s IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) and the definitive work on the Kielce pogrom by historian Bożena Szaynok.  As such, Professor Gross offers little that is new to historians and other scholars who are familiar with the Polish history of this period.  The chapter on “Reactions” deals with the reactions of various strata and institutions of society to the Kielce pogrom, including the Church and the intelligentsia.

The next chapter, titled “Blinded by Social Distance,” continues the discussion of what Professor Gross sees as the failure of Polish elites to properly note or understand wartime violence against Jews, and how this caused them to be surprised by the Kielce pogrom.  This chapter and its predecessor thus create the context in which the wartime experience sets the stage for understanding the Kielce pogrom and all of postwar anti-Semitism. This chapter also provides another opportunity for Professor Gross to return to a discussion of his 2001 work on the Jedwabne massacre, Neighbors, and other events in the northwestern corner of five years before the Kielce pogrom.  It is worth noting that Professor Gross does not anywhere mention his original estimate of 1,600 victims, although he also does not acknowledge that the IPN has reduced the figure to 300-400 victims.  Other parts of this chapter also focus briefly on the period of wartime Polish-Jewish relations, and on Professor Gross’s analysis of the increasing tendency throughout the course of the war by Catholic Poles to view their Jewish fellow citizens as “other.”

The main question that Professor Gross addresses in the last chapter, “Zydokomuna,” is whether or not Jews are responsible for saddling communism on Poland.  He concludes that given the small number of Jews in the new Soviet administration and security services (while acknowledging the prominence of a number of them), and the anti-Semitism that pervaded segments of the party, there is no basis for the belief in “Zydokomuna.”  This chapter offers a solid discussion of the reasons for the difference between Polish Catholic and Jewish responses to the Soviet occupation and to the new Polish administrative and security agencies created in support of it.  It does not, however, offer any persuasive evidence that Polish society truly believed it was primarily Jews, rather than Stalin and the “Russians,” who were responsible for actually imposing communism on Poland. 

The narrower question of whether or not the perceived prominence of Jews in the apparatus of Soviet repression fed or reinforced the impression held widely by Catholic Poles that Jews were disproportionately attracted to communism, and disproportionately acted as Stalin’s agents, is not seriously addressed in this chapter.  Professor Gross’s rhetorical question, that “if Berman, Mietkowski, Romkowski, Swiatlo, Fejgin, Rozanski, Humer, Brystygierowa and a few dozen others who played the most nefarious roles during the Stalin period had never existed, would the national Catholic public believe any less strongly that the introduction of communism into Poland was the result of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy?” (p 236 – 237) is his very brief response to this key historiographical question.

The book ends with the conclusion that the cause of postwar anti-Semitism was the wartime participation of Poles, especially in rural areas and small towns, in the Nazi effort to annihilate and despoil the Jews.  The story was “obscured by the stratification of Polish society as a result of which social elites, especially in larger cities, remained basically unaware of what happened. . .” (p 250).  “In the end,” Professor Gross writes in his sweeping conclusion to the Essay, the postwar treatment of Jews in Poland “. . . . appears as the smoking gun that reveals the true character of wartime Polish – Jewish relations . . . Given the character of the Holocaust which had been witnessed by the surrounding population and the human misery it inflicted, I cannot think of any other explanation for the persistence of these attitudes among the Polish population” (p 260).  It should be noted that, ironically, on the same page, Professor Gross cites a very plausible alternative interpretation by the well-known and respected historian Dariusz Stola, one that does not include guilt over any alleged mass participation of the Polish population in Nazi atrocities to explain postwar anti-Semitism.

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