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Review of Fear
September 2006

Maciej Kozlowski is Poland's former ambassador to Israel.

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Habent sua fata libelli

For the past month, Jan T. Gross’s FEAR Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz has been one of the most widely reviewed and talked about scholarly works on the US publishing scene. From its first review, by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, which appeared in the Washington Post on June 25, to the latest, front page review by David Margolick in The New York Times Book Review, there have been over a dozen reviews. Is this success? For Gross’s book, undoubtedly it is. But what about other important questions – like historical truth, or mutual Polish-Jewish understanding? Here deep reservations arise.

At one point in his book the author argues that wherever stereotypes appear, great caution is needed. I fear the tremendous response to Gross’s work derives precisely from its appeal to a widely disseminated stereotype. Unfortunately, it will only strengthen that stereotype.

The intellectual history of the past few decades can, without risk of great error, be described as a constant struggle against different types of categorical generalizations applied en bloc to one or another group of people. Known as "political correctness" and sometimes also ridiculed when zealous champions have pushed a cause beyond absurdity, this attitude has nonetheless produced a marvelously wholesome harvest in the way we think and express ourselves.

Sadly though, as happens when peoples take great strides forward, not everywhere do these advances come with equal speed. Stereotypes regarding some groups or communities are inadmissible. But for others the criteria are much more elastic. Consider the case of the Poles. When the collective charge of anti-Semitism is levied against the Poles, then all political correctness goes out of the window. I’m convinced that none of the many critics reviewing Gross’s book would have dared to use the same kind of language and style of writing about any other nationality or ethnic group.

To what extent has the author of Fear made possible or at least facilitated this sort of treatment? Of course no author can be responsible for what will be said about his book. But in the case of Jan T. Gross, the matter is more complex. The subject of his book is postwar anti-Semitism in Poland. More precisely between 1945 and 1947. And had the author, who is a historian, limited himself to describing that painful yet unquestionably real phenomenon, then it would be hard to find fault with him, or with the conclusions that other observers would draw from his array of facts. Gross, however. is not exclusively a historian but also a sociologist endowed with the passion of a publicist. As a result he does not limit himself to the presentation of facts, he also builds his own social theory to interpret the events that he has presented. This is where the trouble starts.

Gross’s theory–which was taken up, and magnified in condensed form by all but a few of his reviewers – goes like this:

The phenomenon of postwar anti-Semitism in Poland was the direct result of guilty feelings, along with the titular "fear" that the Poles had of the Jews, owing to crimes and abuses that the Poles had committed during the five-year German occupation of Poland. But here lies an intellectual fault because I believe Gross draws weighty conclusions without sufficient support in facts. There is simply a lack of concrete evidence that the postwar pogroms were due solely to the reasons he postulates. The author presents – in the severest terms – disgraceful attitudes; to be sure, such attitudes existed and, sad to say, were not at all uncommon. Yet if one aims to draw general conclusions, one must examine the full spectrum of attitudes. Gross, though, leaves out everything that would contradict his thesis. When it is written that there were Poles who watched the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto with indifference or even with delight, then it must not be ignored that at the same time other Poles were laying down their lives to come to the aid of beleaguered Jews.

Gross treats the crime of Jedwabne as a general example of Polish wartime attitudes about the Jews. He writes that anti-Jewish acts took place over a long period of time and across a large part of the country. But in fact what happened in Jedwabne, Radzilow and several other locations in Podlasie was, within the context of Poland as a whole, a unique phenomenon. It pertained to a very small region, not much over a hundred square kilometers. This is not to say by any means that there were no anti-Semitic attitudes in wartime Poland. Only that nowhere else, beyond this limited region, did they lead to wholesale outbursts against Jewish fellow citizens. The Polish government in exile and the Polish underground state opposed the genocide with every means at their disposal. Gross draws abundantly on reports that document anti-Semitic attitudes. He omits completely, however numerous, all of the appeals, the proclamations, and the specific actions taken by Polish authorities to condemn such attitudes. Zegota - the Council of Aid to Jews – an underground organization created by the Polish government and funded with public money, which had no parallel in all of Europe, is scarcely touched upon by Gross – chiefly in a single footnote. His reviewers never mention it at all.

And I repeat: this is not some kind of a bid to purchase absolution of crimes from a fund of noble deeds. No one’s noble deeds absolve somebody else’s crimes, but when one speaks of the Poles in general it is unacceptable to paint their conduct with just one color – black. One third of the trees planted in Yad Vashem are named after the 6000 Poles who saved Jews, risking their own and their families’ lives.

Gross’s basic theme is postwar anti-Semitism. So of course the largest place in his book is given to the pogrom in Kielce. Again, the crime is generalized as just one example of widespread occurrences; furthermore, it is characterized as "the largest peacetime pogrom in all of Europe during the twentieth century." But here once more I have to disagree. Not to engage in relativism nor to make excuses. A crime is a crime. And that one was especially repugnant. I’d disagree only with the word "peacetime." I’d question whether Poland in 1946 – occupied by a hostile foreign army that was conducting mass arrests and deportations, where partisans were still active and where everyday people were getting killed – was really a country at peace.

If however, on the basis of even such a tragic event an indictment is drawn up against an entire people and a public verdict is also rendered, then it is essential to consider the attitudes of Polish society as a whole. The fact remains – and Gross documents this abundantly – that in postwar Poland, which was the great cemetery of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, there emerged anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors of exceptional brutality toward Jews who had escaped annihilation. But these attitudes were not universal. For many, for very many Poles, they were a cause of shame and condemnation. Jan T. Gross, unlike his reviewers, noticed these reactions. He even devotes a whole chapter to them: "Blinded Through Social Distance," where he writes  about the response of intellectual circles to the Kielce pogrom. I personally regret that he mentions the very sharp voices from circles connected to the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, published in Krakow, only in a footnote. Twenty-two years later it was in the same circles that an opposition coalesced against the Communist-inspired, anti-Jewish smear campaign of 1968. And when Poland finally won her independence in 1989 – it was precisely the same people who proved most capable of looking critically at their own past and who unequivocally spoke out against every anti-Jewish act or attitude.

This is the place to mention the clear stand taken by the Polish-born Pope against anti-Jewish teachings of the Catholic Church. John Paul II was Polish to the very core and deeply revered in his country. His actions should therefore also be taken as an expression of attitudes of large sections of Polish society. Free Poland was reborn as a country in which anti-Semitism is resolutely and unconditionally condemned. The designation of Poland as an anti-Semitic country by David Margolick is defamatory.

Writing about the Kielce crime of sixty years ago, he fails to add that today on Planty Street, where the crime was perpetrated, there stands an imposing monument in memory of the victims. Or that when it was unveiled, the president of Poland directed unequivocal condemnation not only at the authors of that crime but also everyone who still harbors anti-Semitic prejudice. Five years ago the former president of Poland took a similar stance in Jedwabne.

Finally, something very sad indeed. The enormous awakening of interest, especially among Polish youth, in Jewish culture and in our common past is insultingly characterized by David Margolick as "Necronostalgia." This consciousness of Jewish culture and our common history has no parallel in all of Europe. It is full of meaning. It is thanks to this awareness that there have grown, especially among young people, the ranks of those who don’t just passively condemn anti-Semitism but every other manifestation of intolerance or xenophobia.

It is those milieus and those viewpoints, which constitute the standard of attitudes and behavior in today’s Poland. And I’m deeply convinced that this very standard and these attitudes are going to prevail. Regrettably, the often-difficult struggle for the hearts and minds of Polish people is not made easier by commentary prompted by Jan T. Gross’s book.
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