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The Spectator
September 2nd, 2006

Theo Richmond is the author of Konin, in which he traces his own family history in a Jewish village in Poland. 

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When peace is a hawk not a dove

Researching the history of a destroyed Polish shtetl, I met some of its survivors, among them Julius, an assimilated Jew, a fearless horse-rider, who had served in the army. He went home to Konin in 1945, alone and hungry, his sole possession a torn blanket. A council official told him, 'The Jews wanted the war and deserved to be punished.'

A former neighbour, more sympathetic, presented Julius with a pistol, advising him to leave town. He heeded the warning, as did other returning survivors. Three Jews in a nearby village had just been murdered.

Julius's story could come from the pages of Jan Gross's Fear, a chilling, deeply researched study of the fate awaiting Holocaust survivors in Poland in the immediate post-war years.

Written by a Polish-born, part-Jewish professor of history at Princeton, it could provoke media attention, some praise and much hostility in Poland as did its predecessor, Neighbours. If anything, Fear is the greater indictment.

Neighbours revealed the events of a summer's day in 1941 when the Catholic townsfolk of rural Jedwabne drove hundreds of their Jewish neighbours into a barn and burned them alive. The atrocities documented in Fear took place after the war, when the Nazi annihilation of the Jews was known. Of a pre-war Jewish population of three-and-ahalf million, less than 10 per cent survived, in a total population of 50 million.

Both Poles and Jews had suffered grievously at the hands of a common foe; it should have forged a bond. Yet when survivors of the camps, physically and mentally scarred, returned to their towns and villages, they received what Gross calls an 'unwelcoming'.

Unable or too scared to reclaim their former homes taken over by neighbours or the state, they met with fierce anti-Semitism from all classes except the elite of the intelligentsia.

Rumours of ritual murders were rife: Jews killed Christian babies not only for making matzos but - a new twist to an old myth - for blood transfusions to boost enfeebled constitutions. A pogrom in Rzeszow in June 1945 was followed by another in Krakow.

The worst occurred in Kielce on 4 July 1946 after the drunken father of an eightyear-old boy falsely alleged that Jews had kidnapped the child and held him in a house from which, luckily, he had escaped. As rumour raced through the town, a mob gathered outside the house. Police, soldiers and local priests did nothing to halt the ensuing violence. 'People killed Jews with gusto, vast numbers of Kielce residents were involved, young and old, of both sexes and from all walks of life.' It was a day of mediaeval bestiality, and some will find the gruesome details hard to read. Forty-two Jews were murdered, including women and a newborn baby. Many others were seriously injured in the bloodiest peacetime pogrom in 20th-century Europe.

The number of racially motivated deaths during these years could be as high as 1,500 says Gross. He grapples with the question:

why? Why did the Catholic church (one bishop excepted) refuse to condemn antiSemitism or the blood libel? Why did the communist regime not rally the masses against the persecution of fellow citizens?

Because, claims Gross with supporting evidence, the leadership in both cases knew that defending the Jews could only alienate their overwhelmingly anti-Semitic followers.

Gross refutes, again with facts and figures, the charge of Zydokomuna, the accusation that Judeo-Communism was to blame for Poland's Soviet subjugation, that Jews controlled the country and persecuted Poles.

Jews, it seemed, were simultaneously communists, capitalists and Zionists.

One question above all: why this outburst of anti-Semitism after 90 per cent of Poland's Jews had been exterminated? The Nazi deportations had allowed people to betray Jews, to take over their homes and plunder their property. Returning survivors represented a threat, a standing reproach, arousing fear and shame in the culprits that could be assuaged only by self-justified aggression.

This, according to Gross's psychological theorising, lent anti-Semitism a new dimension.

Those who view the phenomenon as a continuation of pre-war attitudes will disagree.

Oddly, he leaves the history of Polish-Jewish relations unexamined. Jews and Poles, he constantly reminds us, had been neighbours, but never does he ask: what kind of neighbours? The Polish-Jewish writer Adolf Rudnicki once wrote, 'How was it possible to live together for a thousand years and know nothing about one another?' To which the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman added more recently, 'Poles and Jews did not live together. They lived side by side.'

Gross's book takes further the ongoing debate on a sensitive aspect of Poland's past.

Dismissing the racist slur that Poles are antiSemitic from birth, he pays tribute to the brave men and women who saved Jewish lives, especially those who were forced to flee their homes after the war, branded as Jewlovers. He dedicates Fear to the memory of his London friend Felek Scharf, decorated by the Polish state a few years ago for his services to Polish-Jewish relations.

I am sure that Felek, had he read this grim and devastating book, would still feel that the task of bridgebuilding must go on.

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