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July 8th, 2006

Bożena Szaynok is a historian at the University of Wroclaw specializing in the Modern History of Poland and International Relations. Among other works, she is the author of "The Pogrom of Jews in Kielce Poland. 4 July 1946." She is the recipient of grants from the Batory Foundation, Polish Research Foundation, Yoram Schnitzer Foundation (Tel Aviv University) and Kosciuszko Foundation. She is a visiting professor at the University of Illinois - Chicago.

Bozena Szaynok's review of J.T. Gross’ book will appear in the September issue of “Zagłada Żydów” (The Jewish Holocaust), an annual journal of the Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów Instytutu Filozofii i Socjologii PAN (Center for Research on Jewish Holocaust at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences).

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A CONVERSATION with Bożena Szaynok

The mistake J.T. Gross makes is his attempt to explain Polish-Jewish relations using a single model: anti-Semitism.

You are one of the few people in Poland who have read the latest book by Prof. J. T. Gross “Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz.” What do you think about it?

This is a book about anti-Semitism in Poland after the war, and not about the Kielce Pogrom as it was presented in some press articles. “Fear” consists of two parts. The first presents a picture of anti-Semitism and its many aspects: aversion, hostility, aggression directed against the Jewish population in Poland after the war. The second is an explanation of what caused this situation.

Prof. Gross has done a very good job of describing the Jewish experience of the time. He has reconstructed not only facts, but also the atmosphere of many events in which Jews were victims. Unfortunately, he writes only about anti-Semitism, which leaves the readers under the impression that this was the only basis for postwar Polish-Jewish relations. However, it’s not possible to describe these relations exclusively in such terms. It cannot be denied that anti-Semitism was present in postwar Poland, but only a part of Polish society was influenced by it, while the reasons for it were manifold.

Can Polish postwar anti-Semitism be explained, as Prof. Gross does, exclusively by the feeling of guilt due to Poles’ collaboration with the Germans?

The message of the book is clear: anti-Semitism dominated Polish-Jewish relations in Poland after the war. However, the main aspect of these relations was first of all indifference. Poles and Jews lived in their own separate circles with the same painful experience. The distance between them was even greater due to unprecedented displacement of the population. Poles and Jews were divided not only by the past, but also by the difficult political situation and an extraordinarily dramatic period in Polish history. Power was being taken over by a group not accepted by the society. Poles lived with that in mind while Jews brooded over the Holocaust experience and wondered what their future was going to be in Poland. Most of them saw Poland as a cemetery. Some tried to rebuild their lives after the Holocaust, but it wasn’t easy.

Once I talked to a woman in Israel who decided to remain in her hometown after the war. However, it turned out to be too difficult for her. Everything reminded her of her family that had been murdered during the war. She told me about strangers looking out the windows of the apartments where her next of kin used to live before the war. After a few months, she decided to leave. I don’t agree with Prof. Gross that the reason why Jews left Poland was anti-Semitism. That was the case somewhat later, after the Kielce Pogrom. Neither do I agree with his explanation of the postwar anti-Semitism due to the taking over of Jewish property and, as he put it, “opportunistic conduct of the population during the war.”

The collaboration of some Poles with the Germans during the war was undoubtedly only marginal in Polish-Jewish relations. Noticeable, but still marginal. Historians took a close look at that subject when “Wokol Jedwabnego” (About Jedwabne) appeared. We know that in the areas of Lomza and Białystok there were about 20 anti-Jewish incidents during the first weeks of the German-Soviet war, but these incidents were not uniform. They were sometimes results of German instigation. Sometimes the kind of instigation that forced Poles to act in this way; at other times, it was enough for the Germans to condone the kind of behavior that made some Poles murder with impunity. These are different cases, and they cannot be treated as examples of one kind of attitude.

Likewise, the plundering of Jewish property can only partially explain the causes of postwar attacks against Jewish population. This can be seen in the reports of the Ministry of Public Administration at that time, which listed about 30 assaults on Jewish population in the course of a few months of 1945. Out of these, 11 were associated with robbery, related only in part to the seizure of Jewish property by Poles.

Of course, these are just estimates, not complete data, but they show it was not only the matter of the property that explains the problem of postwar Polish anti-Semitism. Most of the assaults were qualified as remnants of “Nazi propaganda which had injected the poison of racial hatred into Poles.” In this context, it is necessary to recall that the core of the propaganda was the condoning of the killing of Jews with impunity. Prof. Gross mistakenly tries to explain the extremely complicated and difficult Polish-Jewish relations after the war using just one model.

Where should one look for an explanation? In the postwar situation in Poland, which suddenly found itself in the Communist Block? In the stereotype of Jewish Communism?

Aversion to the Jewish population after the war had various causes, psychological and political, among others. In the former case, it’s worth recalling Prof. Krystyna Kersten’s opinion. According to her, Poles as a society were searching for the guilty who could be blamed for their defeat, for what had become of their country. We were the victims of the war, but even though we had been a part of the victorious anti-Nazi coalition, we ended the war as an object rather than an independent actor. Poland was no longer able to make decisions regarding its own borders or its own government. This brought about frustration. The search for those responsible for this situation was on. Prof. Kersten thinks the aggression was very often not directed against the real enemy: the Soviet Union. That enemy was too powerful, so a substitute enemy was sought. Jews became “it”, also because they were regarded as alien in spite of many centuries of their presence on Polish territory.

Prof. Gross rejects the premise that explains the Poles’ aversion to Jews due to the Jewish population’s association with the new authorities, the Communists. Of course, the stereotype of Jewish Communists is an oversimplification. Jews are not responsible for establishing Communism in Poland. Nevertheless, it is a crucial issue. The problem is not only the Jewish involvement in the mechanism of repression or the new authorities. It is the fact that the Jewish population did not present itself as being in sync with the Polish reaction to the postwar reality. Jews did not speak badly about Communism. On the contrary, Jewish organizations and various political factions openly supported the Communist authorities. As if this was not enough, they showed Polish figures and symbols in a very bad light, e.g. Chairman of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Gen. Anders, the Home Army (AK) or the freedom fighters. Helena Datner called this situation totally tragic.

On the other hand, some Poles did not comprehend what the Holocaust meant for the Jewish population. Oftentimes, Jewish memoirs describe returning to their pre-war dwelling places and remembering neighbors who instead of rejoicing, asked in disbelief, “So you’re still alive?”

The problem was also in that the postwar reality had no meeting place for Poles and Jews. Neither was there any willingness for such meetings. It was still too soon after the war and tragic events in the history of both nations to show compassion or empathy for others. During the war, 90 per cent of Polish Jews were murdered. At the same time, 15 per cent of the pre-war Polish population was killed. These numbers can hardly be compared, but for each of these populations, they represent the most painful experience they were ever subjected to.

What was the role of Nazi propaganda? Did it demoralize some Poles to the extent it can be used to explain Polish attacks against Jews?

I don’t agree with Prof. Gross’ claim that Nazi propaganda had no influence on anti-Semitic events. He claims Poles were not infected with the poison administered by the Germans. In his opinion, Poles rejected that propaganda because it came from their enemy.

That’s not completely true. The explanation given by Prof. Feliks Tych of the Zydowski Instytut Historyczny (ZIH - Jewish Historical Institute) seems to be closer to reality. He uses the term “demoralized imagination” when referring to postwar society. One could not come out unscathed after having witnessed for many years the monstrous, gigantic crime against the Jewish people. This is essential to understand postwar problems. The question is not whether one accepted or rejected such propaganda. It is the question of the climate one lived in. It allowed the murder of Jews with impunity.

Without keeping this in mind, it is impossible to explain why there were cases of Jews being killed by some Poles even after the war. In spite of the Holocaust. Jan Jozef Szczepanski referred to the post-war generation as being “plagued by death, infected with death.” This came about not only as a result of the Second World War, the opportunity to kill, but also out of the brutalization of moral life. One can’t neglect the role of the new system introduced in Poland after the war. In addition to that fact that the postwar authorities did nothing to promote moral behavior, they allowed immoral people to rule. Let us not forget that authorities used Jewish issues in political intrigues in order to gain support from various circles. On the other hand, the groups they attacked, took up discussion from the standpoint of a besieged fortress.

Was the Kielce Pogrom described in the book, where over 40 people were killed, provoked by the Communists?

My reservations about Prof. Gross’ description of the Pogrom refer, most of all, to his underestimation of the role the authorities of the time played in the matter. He claims there was no provocation. At the same time, he places the behavior of the authorities on the same level as that of an average citizen. Elements of a provocation that can be seen in the events are related to a surprising incompetence of the authorities. Neither the army nor the security services, especially Wladyslaw Sobczynski, head of the Kielce UB (Security Office), did anything or hardly anything to stop the Pogrom. In my opinion, there is an element of instigation here meaning an action taken to cause a specific reaction.

The authorities did take advantage of what had happened in Kielce by accusing the anti-Communist opposition of causing the Pogrom. Before the investigation was over, Gomułka and Cyrankiewicz were already saying that Mikolajczyk, Anders, the Government-in-Exile in London and the AK did it. Based on the documents we have access to, we can’t say beyond a doubt what made the authorities act in this way. Part of the documents was destroyed in 1989. Some things we will never find out.

Nevertheless, I do not negate the role anti-Semitism played in the Kielce events. There were people who showed up on Planty Street, who pillaged, killed, and shouted anti-Semitic slogans. Some believed in the gossip about a ritual murder. After the events in Kielce, „Tygodnik Powszechny” published an article by Stefania Skwarczyńska, who asked about the moral condition of the society. She wrote, “What good will it do to say someone provoked those people when we allowed ourselves to be provoked.”

Critics of J. T. Gross’ books say they are not objective; they are closer to emotions than to historical truth; they strengthen the stereotype of our anti-Semitism in the US.

I will leave it up to the readers to judge the book. One should ask Prof. Gross, not me, why he describes Polish-Jewish relations in such a one-sided fashion. It’s a pity he did not publish his book simultaneously in the States and in Poland. This would make the discussion of these controversial and painful topics easier. After 1989, historians in Poland are ready to talk about them. Before 1989, the discussion was very limited as we did not have access to the archives. Many new, very important works have been published on these issues. For example, “Polacy i Żydzi 1939-1945" (Poles and Jews 1939-1945) published recently by the Instytut Pamieci Narodowej (IPN - Institute of National Remembrance), shows what happened when Poles and Jews were confronted with a reality larger than themselves and everything around them. There is also the recent “Wokół Pogromu kieleckiego”(About the Kielce Pogrom).

Hardly anyone will read those books on the other side of the Ocean.

The Polish Government should promote publications fighting anti-Polish stereotypes. Researchers will not be able to afford translation of their books appearing in Poland. However, some effort has been made; it’s worth recalling here the visit of Prof. Leon Kieres, the former head of IPN, after Gross’ “Neighbors” came out. It’s good to see this type of discussions in the media.

For a long time Polish-Jewish relations were a subject of limited historical research. Now we are able to talk, to argue. That was the case with the book on the Jedwabne murder. It may also be the case now.

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