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THADDEUS RADZILOWSKI
Review of FEAR
September 2006
 

Dr. Radzilowski is a co-founder and president of the Piast Institute, and he is the co-chairman of the National Polish-American - Jewish-American Council.  Among other awards, Dr. Radzilowski received the Cavaliers Cross of the Order of Merit from the President of Poland for his distinguished contributions to the dissemination of Polish culture in the world.

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In 2000, Jan T. Gross published in Poland a short history of a July 1941 incident in northwestern Poland in which, in his words, “half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1,600 men, women and children.”  Neighbors was a sensation in Poland, causing a major public soul-searching and a public apology from the president of the Republic and the Catholic primate.  The work, published in English in the United States in 2001, also attracted a wide audience, was reviewed in all key U.S. newspapers and provoked discussion in major journals of opinion.  Five years after its publication, Neighbors remains justly famous for exposing the little noted murders of Jews in Jedwabne and several other towns in the immediate region by their neighbors, and for provoking a wide-ranging debates on Polish history during the war and on the broad question of how ordinary people can turn, or be turned, into murderers.

In the narrower debate on the book by professional historians, the work has not fared as well.  It has been faulted for its heavy and uncritical dependence for the details of the Jedwabne affair on a single memoir testimony of a man who could not have actually witnessed the events described.  It has also been criticized for its superficial research and failure to exploit fully all available sources, its use of sources that are clearly unreliable and for its sensational and hyperbolic narrative style.  Critics have also noted that the Jedwabne massacre was treated by Professor Gross with insufficient reference to the context in which it occurred. 
 

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), an official agency established to investigate crimes against Polish citizens during the war, confirmed in a subsequent investigation that a serious crime against the Jewish population of Jedwabne had indeed taken place and that Polish Christians had been involved in its perpetration.  Its research estimated the number of those involved in the murders as less than 100 and probably closer to 60.  The IPN indicated that while it was impossible to set exactly the number of victims, its investigative forensic report on the two graves discovered gave the best estimate of the death toll as between 300 and 400 victims, rather than 1,600 figure used by Gross.  The graves were not fully exhumed because of Jewish religious sensibilities.

Those interested in the debate should consult Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic (eds) The Neighbors Respond (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). For a recent essay on the historiography of Neighbors see Marek Chodakiewicz, The Massacre in Jedwabne July 10, 1941. Before, During and After (Boulder CO: East European Monographs, 2005).  Professor Chodakiewicz’s work on Jedwabne is to date the most careful and thorough attempt at a reconstruction of the Jedwabne affair based on extensive archival research.

Professor Gross’ 2006 study Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz is clearly a continuation of his earlier work Neighbors, but on a more ambitious scale.  He is quite clear that the major motivation for the slaughter of the Jews of Jedwabne was the seizure of their property.  He writes that the effect of the action against the Jews was, “all of the owners were eliminated, while their property remained intact.  And thus, it must have been a very profitable ‘business’ indeed for those who managed to lay their hands on it”.  (p 109-110) 

Professor Gross goes on to explain;

Given our growing awareness of the importance of material expropriation as a motivating factor in the persecution of Jews all over Europe, I would think that it is very probable that the desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews once and for all – rather than, or alongside with, atavistic anti-Semitism – was the real motivating force that drove Karolak and his cohort to organize the killing.(p 110)

The probable “motivation” for the criminal actions of those who killed the Jews in Jedwabne in 1941 becomes in Fear the key to understanding the cause of anti-Semitism in post-war Poland.  Professor Gross avers that postwar anti-Semitism in Poland was different from that of the prewar period.  It was driven, in Professor Gross’ understanding, by Polish national guilt over having participated in the despoiling and murder of the Jews by Poles as accomplices of the Germans.  He writes, “We must seek the reasons for the virulent quality of post-war anti-Semitism not in collective hallucinations nor in prewar attitudes, but in actual experiences acquired during the war.”  (p 246 – italics in original)  He concludes;

I see no other plausible explanation of the virulent post-war anti-Semitism but that it was embedded in the society’s opportunistic wartime behavior.  Jews were perceived as a threat to the material status quo, security, peaceful conscience of their Christian fellow citizens after the war because they had been plundered and because what remained of Jewish property, as well as Jews’ social roles, had been assumed by Polish neighbors in tacit and often directly opportunistic complicity with Nazi instigated mass murder. (p 247)

The reason this story was not well known, he believes, is that it was “primarily the work of the lower classes in remote areas.  The ‘social elites’, especially in large cities, remained basically unaware of what happened between Jews and peasants or small town dwellers" (p 250).

What Professor Gross has set up as the key to the understanding of postwar anti-Semitism is a guilt complex that affects not only those who were actually involved in assisting Nazi extermination of Jews and/or taking their goods and property, but almost the entire society excepting only the intelligentsia.  The feeling of guilt was even generated by assumption of the social roles of prewar Polish Jewry or by learning the trades in which they specialized.  It is this latter point that perhaps caused this guilt that Professor Gross hypothesizes to spread so widely. This is, of course, a thesis almost impossible to prove, especially on a national scale, and except for occasional anecdotes, Professor Gross makes no real attempt to provide empirical proof of his thesis.  Instead, he just claims it.  He argues, “Unless someone offers an alternative explanation, we must consider that it was ordinary Poles widespread collusion with Nazi driven extermination which alone could produce such callousness”. (pp 247-248)

Professor Gross has constructed an essay built around a powerful narrative of the events at Kielce on July 4, 1946.  It is hard for a reader not to be horrified and emotionally moved by the description of the mob murder of innocent people.  The emotional reaction helps Jan Gross to sell an argument, which would ordinarily invite more skepticism from an average reader.  A clear example of this can be found in Joan Mellen’s review of Fear in the Baltimore Sun (see Reviews).  Ms Mellen, who seems to be deeply shocked by the description of the Kielce Pogrom, writes approvingly of Professor Gross’ book.  Yet her review affirms every explanation of Polish postwar anti-Semitism that Gross explicitly rejects.  His vivid description of the massacre has apparently prevented her from really comprehending the book’s thesis.

Although the Kielce pogrom is the centerpiece of his argument, Professor Gross does not bother to show that the Jews who were killed were seeking return of property (many were actually recent arrivals from the east) or that any of the perpetrators had profited from Jewish property or even moved into prewar Jewish occupations (many were soldiers, policemen or factory workers) or that the mob expressed anxiety or anger about such matters in any way.  Kielce, it should be noted, was a larger city.  It was neither a rural area nor a small town.  Other incidents of anti-Jewish violence took place in Rzeszów, Kraków, Tarnów, Kalisz, Lublin, Kolbuszowa and Miełic, all of them urban areas and most of significant size.1  These were, thus, not rural areas or small towns where, according to Professor Gross, the wartime despoiling and murder of Jews, which generated this postwar guilt, took place unnoticed by urbanites.

The last step of Professor Gross’ argument is to claim that as he has demonstrated, at least by assertion, the Kielce pogrom and other anti-Jewish violence are the result of guilt over wartime behavior, he has in fact, also demonstrated without the need of further evidence that the wartime behavior must indeed be true.  He writes: 

In the end, the post-war treatment of Jews in Poland . . . appears to be the smoking gun that reveals the true character of wartime Polish-Jewish relations.  If all evidence about what took place between the Poles and Jews had disappeared and if we knew only of Nazi crimes, we would still be able to tell that broad strata of Polish society took advantage of Nazi policies and joined in the spoliation of their Jewish neighbors.” (p 260 - italics added)

Professor Gross ends this undocumented accusation with another of the characteristic assertions that he uses in place of evidence: “I cannot think of any other explanation for the persistence of these attitudes among the Polish population.” (p 260)  Ironically enough, on the same page he cites an explanation by Professor Darius Stola, which accounts for the same phenomena without requiring an undocumented revision of the history of the Second World War in Poland.  (p 260)  I shall treat Professor Stola’s argument below.

One of the major problems with Professor Gross’s book is his failure to put the story of Kielce in the full context of Polish history.  Poland was the site of one of the great massacres of world history – the genocide of its Jewish population as well as of Jews from all over Europe and the murder, on a vast scale, of gentile Poles.  The war passed over Polish territory twice with great devastation and it suffered the cruelest occupation in Europe for five and a half years. The country was ruined and its people destitute in 1946.

The population of Poland fell by one-third from 34 million in 1938 to less than 24 million at war’s end and, as one historian noted, “Only a small proportion of the population inhabited the places they had lived in before the war.  Social structure had been transformed out of all recognition.  In all those localities where uprooted newcomers outnumbered the indigenous inhabitants, former social tradition survived with difficulty.” Much of the population depended for survival on food supplied by international relief agencies in 1945 and 1946.  The losses in Poland amounted to about fifty billion 1945 U.S. dollars.  During the course of 1946, UNRRA delivered 125,000 horses and 17,000 head of cattle to Poland to help begin the recovery.

Professor Mieczyslaw Biskupski summarizes the situation in Poland at the end of the war:

The per capita material destruction was unmatched anywhere in the world.  The cost of the devastation was a breathtaking thirteen times the national income for the last prewar year, 1938.  Almost 40 percent of the entire productive capacity of the country lay in ruins, and two-thirds of the industrial base was at least partially destroyed.  In agriculture, livestock numbers had fallen catastrophically: two-thirds of the cattle, half of the horses, and more than 80 percent of the swine were gone; vast farming areas lay in waste; and buildings and supplies were devastated.  The transportation system was virtually inoperable: 80 percent of the railroad cars and engines were gone, the vast majority of bridges and rail lines along with them.  Some cities had been virtually leveled; 44 percent of all the buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed, as well as nearly three-fourths of the city center.  Many other cities were not much better off, including Gdansk, Szczecin, Wroclaw (in the new western territories) and Poznan, to name only the major centers. 3

A Polish historian notes that more than 30,000 prewar industries were totally or mostly destroyed and more than 20% of farms were ruined.  In the new western territories, given to Poland in compensation for the Polish lands the Soviets had seized in the east, almost 30% of the farms were destroyed and less than 8% of the cattle and 4% of the horses remained. 4  To make matters worse, the Soviet Union systematically looted what remained of the valuable economic assets of the formerly German territories ceded to Poland to make up for its own losses. 5  It is difficult in this context to think of the use or occupation of prewar property, Jewish or Gentile, as “enrichment”.

The immediate postwar period also saw massive shifts of population.  The roads of Poland were crowded with prisoners of war, demobilized soldiers and individuals seeking lost family members.  More than half a million slave laborers returned from Germany in the first year after the war.  Two million people were transferred out of the territories annexed by the USSR to new western territories.  Jews who survived the war in the Soviet lands and some deportees of the 1939-1941 period also returned seeking new lives and homes.  “Accompanying this,” write British historians Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, “were malnutrition, acute shortages of housing, and the widespread incidences of tuberculosis and venereal diseases.  The war had left thousands and thousands of invalids and orphans.” 6

Almost every Polish Christian family had suffered loss of at least one member, but the most devastating for Polish society was the heavy loss of its leadership, its priests and its educated elite who had been systematically murdered by the Germans.  To add to the demoralization, the new communist-dominated regime had begun to persecute, jail and kill what remained of the leadership class and the remnants of the anti-Nazi resistance even before the war had ended.  The new Polish communist authorities were supported in their efforts by a Soviet occupation force that numbered over 300,000 soldiers by 1946.7  To most Poles, the Soviets and their agents represented not liberation but a new oppressive occupation.

To compound all of the other ills of Polish society, the immediate post-war period was a time of lawlessness, violence and even civil war.  Law and order had broken down in many areas of Poland and danger from bandits, deserters of several armies, avengers and armed men whom the terrible years of war had inured to death and violence could be found everywhere.  It was intensified by a state of war between the new government security forces and their Soviet backers and what remained of the underground now fighting for Polish independence against the new occupation.  Thousands of oppositionists were jailed and more than 50,000 were sent to the gulags.  Historians estimate that 25,000 to 50,000 Poles may have died as combatants and bystanders between 1944 and 1948.  By comparison, the latest and most careful research on the number of Jewish victims points to about 600 losses.  Earlier estimates had put these at about 1,500, a figure that Gross uses in his book.  Some of these Jewish deaths were the result of simple banditry, some were casualties of the civil War and some were killed as a result of what was clearly anti-Semitic violence such as the Kielce victims.  In many cases, the cause of death could not be clearly ascertained. 8

Even a cursory look at the condition of Polish society in 1946 shows it was a society utterly devastated and dispirited by the war and facing a cruel new occupier whose policies drained whatever joy and hope war’s end had brought to most Poles.  The violence against Jews was part of a wider pattern of violence faced by the entire society.  Professor Gross’s treatment of the issue, without the broader context, does not allow the reader to see the extent to which the attacks on Jews fit into this context.  The pogrom in Kielce, as terrible and ugly as it was, was only a small part of the overall disorder, murder, repression and civil war that marked this period in Polish history.  The reason that became the best known event of the period is that as it was committed against survivors of the Holocaust. It thus became eminently newsworthy in the world press in a way that the other violence at the time was not.  More importantly, perhaps, is that it became a weapon in the regime’s worldwide propaganda battle against its opponents.  Whatever its own involvement in the pogrom, the communist state blamed the the pogrom on the anti-communist underground, thus using the pogrom to tar its opponents as fascists and anti-Semites against whom it was defending democracy and tolerance.  To the very end of the regime, it refused to acknowledge that there was no evidence to prove any involvement by the anti-communist underground in the pogrom.  In fact, just before the fall of communism, the secret police archives dealing with the event were destroyed, suggesting a desire to hide some involvement and manipulation of the event.

The striking feature of the reactions to the Kielce pogrom from all sides is, in the words of Bozena Szaynok, “their inseparability from the contemporary political situation.” 9  Professor Gross notes that fact, but does not explore its implications fully, especially when they call into question or shade his conclusions.  He points out that workers at nearby factories refused to support resolutions condemning the pogrom, but fails to note that the resolutions also required them to condemn the anti-communist resistance as the perpetrators.  He also quotes at length from the statements by Polish bishops on the matter which, with the exception of the courageous and unequivocal denunciations by Bishop Kubing of Czestochowa, condemned anti-Semitism and the violence at Kielce while noting the role played by Jews in the support of the new regime or as its actual police or functionaries.  These episcopal statements, which separated from their context by time and sensibility, sound equivocating and even hypocritical to the modern reader, are characterized by Professor Gross with rhetorical exaggeration as establishing the notion that one could not be an anti-communist without being anti-Semitic.  In view of the regime’s propaganda he could have, with the same hyperbolic flourish, asked whether it was possible to be philo-Semitic without being pro-communist.  Jerzy Andrzejewski, artist, intellectual and author of Ashes and Diamonds, which brilliantly depicted the despair, cynicism and violence in immediate post-war Poland, condemned strongly the communist regime for its political exploitation of the Kielce pogrom in its campaign against those who opposed it and sought Poland’s independence in 1946.  The result was the failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the post-war period. 10

Whatever the cause, historians have noted, but unfortunately not explored in detail, a rise of anti-Jewish feeling and anti-Jewish violence in Europe in the postwar period.  They were clearly related to the war and the Holocaust.  There were, as we know, anti-Semitic outbreaks in Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and the rise of anti-Jewish feeling elsewhere in Europe, even in places such as Denmark where Jews were protected and saved by an otherwise collaborationist society and government.  They fled Denmark as Danes and returned marked as Jews. Thus most Danish Jews, like the remnant of Polish Jewry, emigrated after the war.  The primate studies of Jean Goodall, which Professor Gross cites, the studies we have of other genocides in the twentieth century and the history of relations between groups such as Polish and Ukrainian villagers during the war in Volhynia, all show how separation, threats, collapse of authority and order and an atmosphere of violence can easily turn neighbors against each other.  War, Nazi and Soviet occupations, terror, genocide and mass murder, displacement, devastation and hunger created these conditions writ large in Poland by 1946. 

It is against this background that historian Dariusz Stola develops his understanding of this period.  He writes:

For me one of the greatest mysteries of our twentieth-century history is Polish attitudes toward the Jews after  the Holocaust.  Specifically in the 1940s (1944-48) very few Jews remained, but manifestations of hatred toward them – both in verbal form and as actual deeds – were many.  This is when the medieval myth about Jews snatching Christian children, which seemed long dead, is resurrected.  True, Jews were overrepresented in the apparatus of power, there were conflicts concerning Jewish property taken over during the war, but this is not enough to explain the phenomenon . . A new approach enlightens us a bit concerning this mystery . . . the psychology of post-traumatic syndrome . . .What are the consequences of witnessing something horrible? . . .

Poland is the very European country where the largest number of people directly witnessed the Holocaust.  The German population saw Jews being taken away, as did the French, or the Dutch . . .but it was different in Poland (and also in Ukraine, in Lithuania, etc.).  Here hundreds of thousands, if not millions, saw the death of Jews, heard the dying, smelled the horrible sweetish smell of death . . .Psychological reaction to such an experience is complex and irrational . . .and it often evokes feelings which are not necessarily those of pity or sympathy. 11

Stola’s thesis explains the psychological element of the wartime situation more satisfactorily than does Gross’ thesis, which hinges on an unproved, sweeping and revisionist hypothesis about the entire war period.  The social science studies that Gross musters to underpin his thesis, support Professor Stola’s interpretation even better than his own.

In the end, I think we have to judge Jan T. Gross’s essay as an ambitious failure.  It is a failure, however, which can have a deleterious effect on Polish and Jewish relations in the United States and elsewhere as the early Jewish reactions to the book demonstrate.  As a result, it supports not a search for truth and unity but a basis for further division between Poles and Jews. 


1 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, After the Holocaust Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II (Boulder, CO, East European Monographs, 2003) p 172

2 Norman Davies, God’s Playground. Vol II. Revised edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005) p 360

3 M.B. Biskupski, The History of Poland.  (Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2000) p 123

 

4 Jozef Busko, Historia Polska 1864 – 1948. (Warsaw: PWN, 1985) P 413

5 Biskupski, p 124

6 Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p 250

7 Biskupski, p 127

8 David Engel, “Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland, 1944-1946 in Yad Vashem Studies.  Vol 26 (1998).  Chodakiewicz, pp 131-185

9 Bozena Szaynok, “Anti-Semitism in Post War Polish Jewish Relations” in Robert Blobaum, Anti-Semitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) p 277

10 Joanna Beata Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1876 to the Present.  (Lincoln University of Nebraska Press; 2004) p 225-226

11 Quoted in Gross, p 260.  Professor Stola’s article “”Wszyscy krawcy wyjechali” (“All The Tailors Have Left”) appeared in the IPN Bulletin, November 2005.

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