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Cleveland Plain Dealer
August 6th, 2006

Karen Long is book editor for the "Cleveland Plain Dealer".

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Anti-Semitism: a wound that never healed for Poles
Scholar explores 'why' behind suffering

One night, nearly six years ago, I witnessed the wages of history on local Jews and Poles who gathered to hear a Polish intellectual and Jesuit priest named Stanislaus Obirek speak of anti-Semitism in contemporary Poland.

It was one of the starkest experiences in my professional life. Elderly Jews and elderly Catholics, all of Polish stock, stood to speak in searing voices of their suffering some 60 years earlier. Between 4.5 million to 5 million Poles died during World War II; about 3 million of these were Jews.

Mostly, the Christians were incredulous that a Catholic priest had come all the way from Krakow to probe Polish anti-Semitism, repeatedly asking why their own torments didn't receive equal billing. In the same moment, Jews ached openly for acknowledgment of their collective annihilation in Poland. Each voice was raw with conviction; and each ear -- it seemed to me -- nearly deaf to the other side's story.

I understand the burdens of that night better now, thanks to the lucid scholarship in "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz," a new book from Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross.

His earlier work, the 2001 "Neighbors," caused an international sensation by carefully documenting a single day in 1941 when all but seven of the 1,600 Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne were tortured, butchered and burned alive, not by Nazis, but by their Christian neighbors. The most quoted sentence from that book is:

"One day in July, 1941, half of the population of a small Eastern European town murdered the other half --some 1,600 men, women and children." Before the year was out, the president of Poland apologized formally and the Catholic prelate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, called Gross' narrative "incontestable."

In "Fear," Gross picks up the trail of anti-Semitism in Poland in the years after the Nazis cleared out. It ranges much more broadly than "Neighbors," addressing the "why" component in what Gross labels "an essay in historical interpretation."

"Fear" also focuses intently on a 1946 pogrom in Kielce, where an 8-year-old boy's false accusations of being kidnapped by Jews set off a radiating wave of murder. (Little Henryk Blaszczyk had actually hitchhiked to his old village to eat cherries there.)

A mob tore Jews to pieces; others clubbed Jewish travelers to death at the Kielce train station. Boy Scouts played a sickeningly integral role in the hunt. Some of the severely wounded who made it to the Catholic hospital were set upon again -- by emergency staff and other patients. A picnic atmosphere, a mom-andpop death-dealing, filled the day.

Gross tells of a gravely injured young man, his head hanging low, standing in a creek as a group on the bank leisurely stoned him. The assailants chatted, a little bored and tired from their exertions, distracted as they recounted other fresh kills.

"I want readers turning the pages to experience from time to time a sense of discomfort," Gross writes. He grounds his facts meticulously in historical records, official documents, court testimony, letters, memoirs and interviews. Each page is dense with footnotes, which Gross uses "sometimes closing off and sometimes opening up alternative interpretive vistas."

This book is not an exercise in bashing Poles. Its tone is measured, its moral calculations nuanced, and it begins with the righteous Christians who hid Jews from the Germans. While Gross slips occasionally, such as with his universal assertion that "Jews were always loyal citizens," this traumatic book doesn't just establish the particulars of atrocity, it deepens our grasp of the causes.

"Poland's anti-Semitism was the standard brand," Gross writes, but its post-war circumstances were not. There were more Jews in Poland before the war than anywhere else, and they were murdered "in situ," not carted across borders and slain. With each pogrom on Polish soil, "the experience was intimate, violent and profitable." Many Christians felt entitled to plundered goods and property and put out if Jews returned, postwar, to claim them.

Instead of feeling pity, "It is, indeed, human nature to hate the man you have injured," Gross quotes the Roman historian Tacitus. And Gross emphasizes this psychological insight: "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."

It is this core idea that gave Gross his title.

As the 1985 documentary "Shoah" did of postwar Germany, "Fear" helps us connect the dots in postwar Poland. The pain it engenders is the price of enhanced understanding, of becoming a little less deaf.

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