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JOHN RADZILOWSKI
Bulletin of Poland's Institute of National Remembrance
July 2006

John Radzilowski is a professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.  The Institute of National Remembrance was formed by the Polish Parliament in 1998 and one of its primary missions is to study and preserve the memory of Poland's involvement in World War II.

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This work is a sequel to the author’s contested book Neighbors (1999). As such, Jan T. Gross’ Fear has already garnered uncritically favorable reviews in the American popular press and the back cover is filled with advance praise from celebrity academics in the U.S., such as Tony Judt.

Violence against Jews in postwar Poland is the theme of this book and the author advances the thesis that such violence was primarily the result of guilt over and/or conflicts regarding Jewish property taken by Polish gentiles during the war, rather than the result of wartime or postwar conditions or of pre-war social conditions and pre-war anti-Semitism.

The subtitle of the book “An Essay in Historical Interpretation” peculiarly suggests some engagement with historical methodology. Those looking for such engagement—especially in the aftermath of the author’s previous proclamation of his “new approach to sources”—will, however, be disappointed. The use of the term “essay” suggests a literary piece rather than a work of research and in-depth scholarship. This certainly fits the tone of Fear much better and by describing the book as an essay, the author may be able to avoid criticism for selective research and poor scholarship as happened with Neighbors. At the same time, Gross claims the present work is “comprehensively documented” (xiv).

The broad conclusions about post-war Polish behavior and attitudes are based on a thin set of selected Jewish memoirs, and an even more select set of secondary sources, supplemented with various literary works, occasional references to Rwanda, and Jane Goodall’s research on the causes of violence among chimpanzees in Africa . The thin base of evidence begs the question of whether these sources have been selected to fit the thesis rather than the thesis being based on a representative body of evidence. For example, although there are copious references to Neighbors in Fear, the author neither engages nor acknowledges the serious criticisms of his previous book.

As a result, Fear comes across as merely a set of sweeping and simplistic generalizations with little supporting evidence. What evidence the author does present is often questionable and/or contradictory. For example, the author states that “In the Polish-Catholic imagination, Jews are God-killers, they use Christian children for matzo” (xiii). Needless to say, Gross presents no evidence for such, no discussion of the history, theology, or philosophy of Polish Catholicism, and his view of Catholicism is largely informed by the anti-Catholic polemics of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.


In reflecting on the horrific Kielce pogrom, Gross states that “What stands out on this gruesome occasion is the widely shared sense in Polish society that getting rid of the Jews, by killing them if necessary, was permissible” (108). Once again, there is no attempt to present evidence that “Polish society” felt this way. It is simply asserted as such and backed with selected examples of horrific violence and photographs of small Jewish children playing and attending school. (N.B. About half of the photos in the book have little to do with the ostensible subject matter and begs the question of the author’s decision to include them.)

Those seeking evidence for the author’s thesis about wartime property theft as the cause of post-war violence against Jews will find Fear frustrating. Although on one hand, the author simply dismisses alternative explanations (246–47), he himself offers at least one alternative in his generalizations about “the Polish-Catholic imagination” and “Polish society.” Indeed, the evidence for the claim seems to be largely the author’s own assertion backed by selected quotes from memoirs. 

To be sure, the issue of post-war property claims is a matter that deserves serious attention. But this is not such a study. Indeed, there is little engagement with the issue of how such claims, when made, were handled within the legal system. Sources dealing with such claims are overlooked. For example, the Kielce city archive contains some 279 volumes of documents concerning post-war Jewish efforts to regain property. A preliminary study of such cases indicates that non-communist judges were highly sympathetic to Jewish claims and granted 90 percent of them, although many Jewish claimants sold their property soon after because they either planned to leave the country or wanted to avoid possible confiscation by communist authorities (see Krzysztof Urbański, Kielcecy Żydzi [Kraków: Małopolska Oficyna Wydawniczna, 1993], 183–91). Moreover, clearly and accurately establishing property restitution as the cause of post-war violence requires an overall examination of the issue, not merely a discussion of Jewish claims. After all, millions of non-Jews also lost property or had it stolen as a result of the massive dislocations of Polish society. What was their situation and how does it compare with Polish Jews? Gross provides no such information, making it impossible to properly contextualize and judge his claims.

As was the case with Neighbors, the present work contains numerous logical incongruities. For example, Jews who joined the communist party are portrayed as non-Jewish (195) and thus their actions are not representative of Polish Jewry but of communists, while at the same time communist functionaries who are Polish gentiles are treated as representative of all non-Jewish Poles but not representative of communists. Anti-Semitic acts by Polish Catholics are treated as representative of “the Polish-Catholic imagination” but anti-Semitic acts by communists are not seen as representative of the leftist imagination.

The treatment of communism and the role of the Soviet Union is one of the most troubling aspects of this book. Although the author presents a relatively detailed account of the occupation of Poland, there is no mention whatsoever of the mass deportation and murder of Polish Catholics by the Soviets in the 1939–41, which is merely described as “Sovietization.” Indeed, the only mention of deportations by the Soviets are of Polish Jews, leaving the misimpression that only the latter were so victimized when in fact the former made up the overwhelming majority of victims of Soviet terror. More serious is Gross’ astonishing endorsement of communism as a legitimate political alternative: “The motivation of youthful converts to Communism in this period was selfless and altruistic … [communism offered] the promise of a bright, happy future for generations to come.” This is written about a system whose “selfless and altruistic” followers murdered millions. Moreover, the author describes the Soviets as “liberating” Poland (7), mourns communist functionaries killed by anti-communist forces (21), and describes post-war Stalinist terror and repression as making Poles “tired and irritated” (156), as if mass arrests and killings were something that could be treated with aspirin and a nap.

The author’s discussion of the Kielce pogrom and other examples of post-war violence is at best tendentious and is used largely to illustrate his main points. For example, he rejects the careful scholarship of David Engel, and ignores that of Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, who have established that commonly accepted death tolls for Jews in post-war Poland were much inflated. Yet, he offers no reason behind his acceptance of the older, discredited figure. It is simply asserted. Because the issue of violence in post-war Poland in general is never broached, Gross again gives the reader no context in which to judge how violent Polish society was at this point in time and thus to what extent, if any, violence toward Jews was exceptional. The involvement of communist officials in the killings of Jews is completely ignored even though most of the perpetrators in the Kielce pogrom were members of the police or security forces. The strangeness of this fact is simply ignored. Finally, because the author also ignores the mass terror visited on members of the resistance by the new communist authorities, he repeats the old canard about how Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and later hid that fact did so from fear of an anti-Semitic backlash rather than out of fear of being persecuted by the communist authorities for being perceived as members of the resistance (and likewise being vulnerable to denunciation on such grounds by neighbors). Because the author is unable or unwilling to establish the context of life in Stalinist Poland much of his discussion about the situation of the Jewish community appears irrelevant and disconnected.

<;span style="FONT-FAMILY: Arial">Jan. T. Gross’ Fear thus stands as a kind of monument to the state of post-modern scholarship in which careful research and establishment of a solid basis of fact are pushed aside in favor of an historical “essay” in which the author’s assertions substitute for sources. Fear appeals to a certain audience of scholars and public intellectuals whose knowledge of Poland and Polish history is superficial or exists as kind of stereotypic caricature. This is amply demonstrated by recent reviews in the American press which have universally drawn the “correct” conclusion about the intrinsic nature of Poles. As such Fear represents a further setback to a clearer understanding of this period and should be treated largely as polemical editorial rather than a work of scholarship.  

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