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The News & Observer
July 30th, 2006

John Murawski is a staff writer for "The News & Observer".  As he notes in his article, he was born in Poland and his family became eligible to emigrate to the United States as a result of its Jewish roots.

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Anti-Semitism After the Holocaust

In 1988, I visited Poland for the first time since emigrating nearly two decades earlier, at age 8. While reconnecting with family and friends I thought I'd never see again, I made a disturbing discovery. I met two people -- one an elderly Holocaust survivor -- who were concealing their Jewish backgrounds. They had assumed gentile identities and attended church. They confided in me only because they accepted me as one of their own.

It staggers the imagination that four decades after the Holocaust, there were still people living in psychological hiding. Especially so in Poland -- a nation that fiercely resisted the Nazi occupation and still prides itself for saving Jews from Nazi persecution. 

A bombshell book that is sure to generate bitter debate, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz," documents the sometimes brutal mistreatment of Jews -- by Poles -- even after the Nazis were defeated. Written by Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross, a Polish Jew, "Fear" argues that the wartime and post-war persecution of Jews is a direct result of many Poles' complicity in the Holocaust.

"Poland's anti-Semitism was the standard brand, widespread in the countries of Christian Europe and the United States at the time," Gross writes. "The only difference was that three and a half million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the war ... and the Nazis proceeded to murder them right there. In the process, 'bystanders' were incrementally drawn into complicity."

Gross' narrative picks up in the war's immediate aftermath, on July 4, 1946, in the small town of Kielce (pronounced Kell-tseh). An 8-year-old boy, who had stayed out all night with friends, made up a story that he had been kidnapped by Jews. Before long, the town was gripped by the medieval rumor that local Jews had murdered a Christian child. Aided by soldiers, police and Boy Scouts, residents dragged Jews from buildings, pulled Jews from trains and even assaulted people mistaken for Jews. When the violence ended, 42 were dead and upwards of 80 wounded in the orgy of skull-crushing, disembowelment and ritualistic stoning.

The Kielce pogrom was Poland's largest peacetime Jewish massacre, one of a number of flare-ups that resulted in the murder of up to 1,500 Jews, Gross estimates. In addition to ancient Jewish stereotypes as Christ-killers, mobs were aroused by a new canard: the Jew as Communist collaborator. The anti-Jewish violence in post-war Poland in some ways mirrors the rise of the Ku Klux Klan out of the smoldering ruins of the Confederacy after the Civil War.

The persecution reached its apotheosis in the "anti-Zionist" purge of 1968 that pushed out the last major wave of Jewish emigrants from Poland. At a time when it was nearly impossible to cross the Iron Curtain, Gross's family, as well as mine, were among the 20,000-some people of Jewish descent expelled, exiled or otherwise encouraged to leave the country.

The campaign was nakedly racial. My family qualified for Jewish exit visas even though my mother's parents were non-religious Jews who converted to Christianity as young adults, some five decades before our departure. My mother was brought up Christian, but she was designated a Jew under Nazi race law. She and her family survived the Holocaust in hiding. My father, a gentile, could never have achieved his lifelong dream of emigrating to America if not for my mother's ethnic background.

Gross writes that the anti-Semitic campaign succeeded in achieving the dream of Polish nationalists: creating an ethnically cleansed Poland, rid of Jews once and for all. "What began as the proudly advertised 'national road to socialism' ended twenty years later, in 1968 ... in a variation of National Socialism plain and simple," Gross concludes.

The Holocaust demands an honest intellectual reckoning, but equating anyone to a Nazi is dangerous sport. In linking the Polish Communists' opportunistic post-war policies to the devastated country's wartime sins, Gross struggles to explain the unfathomable: How could anyone continue persecuting Jews after bearing witness to the moral depravity of the Holocaust?

Poland had been the center of Jewish civilization in Europe, and Jews made up 10 percent of the Polish population. Only 250,000 survived the Holocaust, mostly in the Soviet Union. Alone and destitute, the surviving Jews came out of concentration camps, attics and sewers to reclaim their property. As Gross documents, the haggard, emaciated, traumatized survivors were sometimes greeted with incredulity when they staggered back to their hometowns: What are you doing still alive?

Gross contends that during and after the war, Polish towns and villages were turned into Jewish graveyards where ordinary Poles zealously aided the Nazis and afterward sought to cover up the crime and erase their shame by eliminating the Jewish victims and witnesses.

"Jews were so frightening and dangerous, in other words, not because of what they had done or could do to the Poles, but because of what Poles had done to the Jews," Gross concludes. "Each village in Poland has its own contentious micro-economic history of the redistribution of Jewish wealth."

But in debunking one myth -- that of Polish saintliness under Nazi occupation -- Gross stumbles into another.

A key component of totalitarianism is the co-opting of the victims to carry out the conqueror's murderous work. No group wants to admit complicity, and for many the subject is forever taboo. But Gross succumbs to mythologizing when he writes in "Fear" that "no Jews in the occupied territories collaborated with the Nazis."

One of the leaders of the Jewish underground resistance movement in Warsaw, Yitzhak Zuckerman, survived the Holocaust and helped organize aid to the survivors of the Kielce pogrom. He saw the carnage with his own eyes and was well-acquainted with Polish anti-Semitism. But he also never forgot about the Poles who risked their lives to hide and feed Jews who fled the Nazis.

Among Zuckerman's great sorrows was the extent of Jewish collaboration during the Holocaust. It was the Jewish police that rounded up Jews to meet quotas set by the Nazis for train deliveries to the gas chambers and crematoria.

"Fear" has already caused a major stir. Some have reacted with outrage against Poles, saying the book proves that the Poles were as evil as the Nazis. Zuckerman stands as a reminder for us to resist the temptation to condemn an entire nation: "Whoever professes hatred toward the Polish nation is committing a great sin."

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