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CHARLES CHOTKOWSKI
Review of FEAR

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

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The announcement that Jan T. Gross would publish a book on anti-Semitism in postwar Poland prompted Polish Americans to ask: would the new book be as bad a book, and as bad for Poland and the Poles, as his earlier book “Neighbors” on the Jedwabne massacre?

“Fear” has now been published, and turns out to be better than “Neighbors” in its presentation of the facts, but worse in the conclusions it draws. The book has an additional subtitle, “An Essay in Historical Interpretation,” and Gross, more sociologist than historian, creates an interpretation that is bizarre.

As stated in the introduction, Gross believes “it was widespread collusion in the Nazi-driven plunder, spoliation, and eventual murder of the Jews that generated Polish anti-Semitism after the war.” His case in point is the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946.

But Gross begins, in Chapter 1 ‘Poland Abandoned,’ with an account of how the Poles resisted Nazi domination during World War II, only to fall under Communist domination afterwards.

Here one can read of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets; the failure of the Red Army to aid the Warsaw uprising of 1944; and the Yalta agreement, which left Poland to the Communists, once Soviet power had overwhelmed the non-Communist opposition.

Chapter 2 ‘The Unwelcoming of Jewish Survivors’ is a collection of anecdotes of discrimination and violence from Jews who left postwar Poland. Missing are stories of those who stayed, like Marek Edelman, a surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or the musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story was told in the film “Pianist.”

Chapters 3 and 4, on the Kielce pogrom, are based on generally accepted accounts from Polish sources: the historian Bozena Szaynok; Stanislaw Meducki and Zenon Wrona, editors of a two volume collection of documents; and a 1997 report by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Polish government agency.

The Kielce pogrom began with a false allegation of kidnapping. An eight year old boy, Henryk Blaszczyk, left home on July 1, 1946 without informing his parents. When he returned on July 3, he lied that he had been seized by Jews and later escaped.

The next morning his father took Henryk to the police station; on the way the boy pointed out a building at 7 Planty street, where Jews lived, as the place where he supposedly was held. A group of policemen went to the building, relaying the boy’s accusations to bystanders, who echoed the accusations as fact.

As people gathered in front of the building, soldiers sent to preserve order learned of the accusations from the crowd. These soldiers were the first to enter the building and the first to start killing Jews, a massacre that policemen and civilians from the crowd soon joined. Some 42 Jews were murdered.

As Gross notes, there was a “breakdown of law enforcement.” Commanders of the Communist regime’s army, regular police and security office (i.e., secret police) failed to stop the violence.

An attempt by the government to blame the pogrom on the non-Communist opposition failed for lack of evidence, but led to the suspicion that Communist authorities had themselves instigated the pogrom to discredit their opponents.

Jan Zaryn, an IPN official who edited “About the Kielce Pogrom,” a recently published collective work, says about the inspiration of the pogrom, “the most comprehensive and logical is the concept of Soviet or Security Office provocation,” but fears the full truth will never be known.

Gross goes astray when he accuses the Catholic Church in Poland of silence, and calls the efforts of the clergy in Kielce to quell the pogrom “insignificant.” He omits that the bishop of Kielce, Czeslaw Kaczmarek, was absent from the diocese, and fails to properly emphasize government measures to impede any response by the church.

When two priests tried to reach Planty street to calm the crowd, they were blocked by security officers. When the vicar general of the diocese drafted with the provincial governor a statement condemning the violence, higher officials blocked its publication.

The diocese did issue two pastoral letters on the pogrom that were read in the churches. Contrary to Gross’s supposition, the second letter was not issued because the first was inadequate. The first letter was sent only to churches in the city of Kielce, the second to all the churches of the diocese.

Gross also misses the significance of the refusal by workers summoned by the government to approve resolutions condemning the pogrom. These resolutions had titles like “Pogrom of the Jews in Kielce: Provocation of the Reactionaries.” The “reactionaries” were the non-Communist opposition which the workers supported.

The final section ‘Conclusions’ reveals the great flaw in the book. Gross explains the pogrom by asserting that postwar Polish anti-Semitism was different from the less virulent prewar anti-Semitism. After the war Poles hated Jews, Gross writes, because ordinary Poles had plundered Jewish property in “widespread collusion” with the Nazis.

When the Jews returned, he argues, Poles feared the Jews as claimants for confiscated possessions, and as a living reproach to Polish complicity: “Jews were so frightening and dangerous ... because of what Poles had done to the Jews.”

To validate his argument for Kielce, Gross should show that the victims had returned to Kielce to reclaim their properties, and that the perpetrators held formerly Jewish possessions. He has not done so, nor could he. It appears that the Jews of Planty street had arrived from the Soviet Union, and originally lived not in Kielce, but in the eastern Polish borderlands.

Gross prefaces his theory with “Until someone offers an alternative explanation, we must consider that ..." That is bald assertion, not proof. It is also a way to hold Poland and the Poles collectively responsible for Kielce without saying so.

The basic fact behind the Kielce pogrom is that following over five years of Nazi occupation, Poland was in the midst of a civil war as Communist rule was imposed on an unwilling people by force, at a cost of 25,000 to 50,000 lives.

Where neither the government, nor the press, nor the police could be trusted, a population may be susceptible to suspicion and rumor. When the authorities are unwilling or unable to maintain order, and indeed contribute to disorder, lynching is possible. So it happened in Kielce, so it has happened in the United States.

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