header image

ADAM KIRSCH
New York Sun
June 28th, 2006

Adam Kirsch is a book critic on staff at the "New York Sun."

Link to Article
Link to PDF of Article


In his published article, Adam Kirsch reviewed FEAR and one other book.  The following includes his remarks on FEAR only.

Storms of Brutality

"Fear" is is sure to start historical debates. That was certainly the effect of Mr. Gross's 2001 book, "Neighbors," which recounted the 1941 massacre of Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne - a massacre committed, not by Germans, but by Poles themselves, against people they had known their whole lives. "Fear," too, centers on a single episode, historically well attested, but little known and long ignored in Poland. This was the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, the worst in Europe after the end of World War II, in which more than 40 Jews were murdered. Mr. Gross, a historian at Princeton University, uses the events of the day, and the way they were interpreted afterward, to explore the complex and taboo subject of Polish anti-Semitism after the Holocaust.

The very fact that it took place after the Holocaust is what makes the Kielce pogrom so hard to comprehend. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, its Jewish population was three million, the largest in Europe; by the time the war ended, in 1945, there were 200,000 Jews left. Yet even this remnant quickly abandoned Poland in the years after the war, driven out by anti-Semitism of the kind that exploded at Kielce, and took the lives of up to 1,500 Jews across the country in 1945-46. Why, Mr. Gross asks, didn't the shared suffering of Poles and Jews at the hands of the German occupiers, and the near annihilation of the Jewish population, serve to diminish the age-old hatred?

That the hatred hadn't diminished, or even changed form, is obvious from Mr. Gross's meticulous reconstruction of the events of July 4, 1946. Incredible as it may seem, the pogrom that day began with a blood libel of the kind that, Mr. Gross points out, had been condemned by the Papacy more than 700 years earlier. On July 1, an 8-year-old boy named Henryk Blaszczyk was reported missing by his father. The boy showed up two days later, explaining that he had hitchhiked to his old hometown a few miles away to see friends.

Undeterred by the facts, his father went to the police station and insisted that the boy had been held captive in the basement of Kielce's Jewish community center (which, it transpired, didn't even have a basement). Word quickly spread in the town that "the Jews had killed a Christian child," and a detachment of police, backed by a mob, broke down the door of the building. When soldiers arrived with instructions to quell the riot, they instead joined in, turning their guns on the Jews barricaded inside.

Dozens were murdered at the community center - shot, beaten, thrown out of windows. One man was stoned to death in a nearby creek. A new mother named Regina Fisz was taken from her apartment by four men, brought to a nearby forest, and shot in the back; her baby was shot in the head. Trains passing through the town were also attacked, in an especially bizarre fashion. Groups of boy scouts would board the carriages and locate Jewish passengers, then point them out to waiting mobs, who dragged them out of the train and killed them.

The Kielce pogrom was not an affair of SS troops and death camps, but a spontaneous massacre carried out in peacetime by ordinary men, women, and even children. Admittedly, the Communist government of Poland did not encourage the murders, the way the Nazi occupiers would have. There was a semblance of legality in the way the crime was subsequently investigated, and a handful (but only a handful) of perpetrators were punished. But for Mr. Gross, the real question is how it could have happened in the first place. "Why were the people of Poland so threatened by their fellow citizens, the Jews?" he asks. "Was it really because Jews were sucking their children's blood?"

In his imaginative, urgent, and unorthodox analysis, Mr. Gross concludes that, in fact, the reason was the precise opposite. It was because the Poles had figuratively sucked the blood of the Jews, during the war years, that they feared and loathed the few who survived. Mr. Gross emphasizes that, in Poland more than any other country, the Holocaust was carried out in full view of the population, with the active or passive complicity of millions. More, there was a vast class of lower- and middle-class Poles who profited from the Jews' disappearance, either by stealing their property or by taking over their economic function.

Mr. Gross cites many reports written during the war by Polish and foreign observers that emphasized how popular the genocide of the Jews was in Poland. To give just one example: During the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the poet Mieczyslaw Jastrun remembered, young girls working in office buildings went out on the terraces to watch the ghetto go up in flames,"and called out cheerfully in the spring air, shaking with detonations and reeking of smoke, 'Come, look how cutlets from Jews are frying.'"

The "fear" of Mr. Gross's title, then, is not just the fear suffered by Jews in a Poland that wished they had never come back alive. It is also the fear of the Poles themselves, who saw in those survivors a reminder of their own wartime crimes. Even beyond Mr. Gross's exemplary historical research and analysis, it is this lesson that makes "Fear" such an important book. As Germany and Poland showed, and as Bosnia and Rwanda have confirmed, nothing makes people more willing to commit evil than consciousness of their own guilt.

Print E-mail