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July 17th, 2006

Charles Chotkowski is director of research for the Holocaust Documentation Committee at the Polish American Congress.

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In Fear of the Past

Jan Tomasz Gross, the Polish-born American academic who made the Jedwabne massacre a notoriety in Poland and abroad with his book Neighbors, has now done the same for the Kielce pogrom of 1946 with his latest book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz (Random House).

In both his books, Gross, more a sociologist than historian, attributes guilt for the crime not only to the perpetrators, but to Poles generally.

The Kielce pogrom, whose 60th anniversary was observed on July 4 of this year, was a horrific event in which 42 Jews were murdered by an uncontrolled mob of soldiers, policemen and civilians. The massacre was sparked by the false accusation of an eight year-old boy that he had been kidnapped by Jews.

Gross cites Kielce as a case in point for his proposition that "it was widespread collusion in the Nazi-driven plunder, spoliation, and eventual murder of the Jews that generated Polish anti-Semitism after the war."

A deafening silence

The novel argument that Poles feared the return of Jews from Nazi camps, hiding or exile, and wanted to eliminate them because they had witnessed Polish betrayal of Jews, could be expected to ignite debate. But after reading the initial reviews in the Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, and Los Angeles papers, I can only ask: "Where's the debate?"

These reviews, all written from a Jewish perspective, praise both Neighbors and Fear, and uncritically accept Gross' proposition on Polish collusion with the Nazis. Some go further to see in the Poles "pure, unregenerate evil" that separates them from civilization. The reviewers then exhort Poland to face up to its history and come to terms with its past.

The narrative in Fear of events in Kielce relies on the work of Polish historians such as Bożena Szaynok of Wrocław, Polish historiography, the 50th and 60th anniversary commemorations at Kielce, and a recent publication by the Institute of National Remembrance show that Poland has not forgotten the Kielce pogrom or neglected its duty to preserve its history.

Further reading

While Fear is solidly based in the facts of the pogrom as developed by Polish historians, Gross offers little historical data to support his theory on the source of postwar anti-Semitism. If Gross is correct, he could show that the victims were former residents returning to Kielce to reclaim their properties, and the murderers were those retaining formerly Jewish possessions. No such showing is made.

Such a showing is unlikely. The Kielce victims had arrived from the Soviet Union, and probably came originally from the eastern Polish borderlands, not Kielce. Since Jews were 10 percent of the prewar population, only a small minority of Poles would have acquired formerly Jewish property.

Gross ignores a recent scholarly work on the same subject, After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (East European Monographs, 2003). Chodakiewicz estimates fewer Jews murdered in postwar Poland than Gross, and notes that Kielce Jews who returned were able to reclaim their properties in the city court.

The state of the nation

Often neglected in discussions of Kielce is Poland's dire state in 1946. The land was in the midst of a civil war, as Communist rule was imposed by force majeure on an unwilling population, at a cost of 25,000 to 50,000 lives.

Gross recognizes the conflict, but fails to appreciate its effects on civil society, particularly the non-Communist opposition and the Catholic Church. He describes the Church's response in Kielce as "insignificant," barely noting the government's hostile interference.

The way Gross and his reviewers treat the acquisition of formerly Jewish property is troubling for the future of Polish-Jewish relations. The word they use is "plunder," which denotes a wrongful taking. Given the devastation the war inflicted on Poland, any intact property had to be put to immediate use, without waiting for the owner to return. There would be no guilt in holding formerly Jewish property unless and until the owner or an heir returned to reclaim the property and was refused.

This assumes that those acquiring Jewish property had no role in the deportation or death of its owner, which was generally true in Poland, except for instances such as Jedwabne. Gross is unwilling to make that assumption.

Silent witness

Some reviewers assert that simply observing the genocide of the Jews made one guilty of "passive complicity." In wartime Poland, it seems, there was no such thing as an innocent bystander. Ignoring wartime destruction, one reviewer suggested that Poland "profited from the Jews' disappearance."

Gross himself asserts that even Poles who acquired no property, but assumed the social role or economic function of Jews, were guilty of "opportunistic wartime behavior" in complicity with the Nazis. Given the apparently widespread presumption that the Poles must have been guilty of something, it's little wonder Gross' arguments receive unquestioned acceptance.

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