Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz
by Jan T. Gross
Random House, 320 pages, $25
At the center of the complex historical landscape of Polish–Jewish relations stand World War II and its aftermath. Jan T. Gross’ previous book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, published in Polish in 2000 and then a year later in the United States, revealed that the brutal murder of the Jewish residents of one town was committed by their Polish neighbors rather than by Germans. This revelation sparked an overdue debate in Poland about the ethnic violence at a local level that occurred in the years that followed its partitioning by the Nazis and Soviets in 1939.
Now, with his new book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, Gross sounds a similar note, focusing on what he sees as Polish anti-Semitism in what had become communist-controlled Poland following the Nazi occupation. Gross’ account highlights the July 4, 1946, pogrom in Kielce, a town in southern Poland, in which some forty Jews were slaughtered. It started on July 1, when a father reported to the police that his eight-year-old son had not come home. The boy returned after two days, having run away to meet a friend in a neighboring village. But the father told the police that the boy had been abducted and imprisoned by Jews in a house that served several of their organizations. The following day, the police sent a patrol to investigate, spreading the rumor along the way that Jews snatched Polish children. After a crowd of people gathered, a riot began, with civilians, policemen, and soldiers taking part. Jews hiding inside were pulled out into the street and beaten; others were thrown out of windows. The killings also spread throughout the city and onto passenger trains passing through Kielce.
What was the cause of this violence? Gross points to what he sees as the “widespread” and “virulent” anti-Semitism found in Poland. Ordinary Poles of all walks of life hated Jews and had no qualms about killing them. During the pogrom, for instance, Jewish-looking passengers were pulled off trains, their “skulls crushed.” In another example, a young mother and her child were driven off to a forest and shot dead, the murderers later going off to enjoy a fine dinner. Meanwhile, the communist security and administrative agencies were not eager to stand up for Jewish citizens.
If anti-Semitism was so pervasive in postwar Poland, what was the reason behind it? According to Gross’ historical interpretation, Poles hated Jews after the war because of what Poles had done to Jews during the war: They profited from the extermination of Jews by the Nazis by taking over their properties and jobs. Having benefited from the crimes, Poles hated those Jews that returned-in part because they wanted their property back but, more deeply, because they were a living testimony to the moral sickness to which the Poles had succumbed.
Had the Kielce rioters profited from the Jewish tragedy during the war, and did they feel fear afterward? As an explanation, it has an intuitive appeal. Gross, however, fails to establish any of these facts. Certainly there were Poles who behaved disgustingly during the war, but no factual connection between them and the pogrom is made in the book. Gross states: “I see no other plausible explanation of the virulent postwar anti-Semitism in Poland but that it was embedded in the society’s opportunistic wartime behavior.”
Had Gross paid closer attention to other relevant issues—as, for example, the degenerative effect on public morality caused by the Nazi occupation—the tensions generated by mass population movements after the war, mob psychology, and also how Poles perceived the political attitudes of Jews, then he might have come up with a more convincing interpretation.
To support his claim of widespread Polish anti-Semitism, Gross refers to historians’ estimates that between 600 and 1,500 Jews were killed in Poland in the years following the war. But he doesn’t take into consideration that many of these murders could have been of a criminal rather than of an ethnic nature, a phenomenon not uncommon for societies that are emerging from the chaos of war. Gross’ crime-followed-by-fear explanation is at best a hypothesis that warrants further examination, one which could eventually serve as part of a larger interpretative puzzle.
To understand Polish–Jewish relations, one needs as much clarity as possible, especially when examining the deeply engrained myth in Polish society of Jewish collaboration with communists. Gross rightly identifies this as a key issue and devotes an entire chapter to it. His focus, however, lies exclusively on prewar and postwar statistics that prove the number of Jewish communist supporters was in fact much smaller than commonly assumed by the public. Unfortunately, he doesn’t analyze another aspect of this commonly held myth, namely, that in 1939 people of Jewish background, most of them youths and the proletariat, greeted invading Soviet forces in eastern Poland, some of them publicly cheering to their country’s destruction. Regardless of the historical veracity of this myth, the image of collaborating Jews was widespread; coupled with an anti-Semitism already present in large parts of society, it deeply affected the Poles’ attitudes toward Jews. This alone makes it worthy of closer scrutiny.
Gross’ research does show that there was strong anti-Semitic feeling among many Poles during and following the war. On several occasions, he mentions the famous wartime report prepared by Jan Karski, the legendary Polish underground courier who was one of the first to inform the West about the German extermination of the Jews. Gross quotes those parts of Karski’s report that directly mention a growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland; that, for example, “Nazi policies towards Jews found support in broad segments of Polish society,” and that “this issue constituted a sort of narrow bridge where the Germans and a large part of Polish society met in harmony.” This is certainly poignant evidence of anti-Semitism in Poland during the war. For some reason, however, Gross doesn’t mention other key passages in that report that try to explain why the hatred toward Jews had suddenly increased.
The British historian Norman Davies, in an exchange with Abraham Brumberg in the New York Review of Books twenty years ago, pointed to those fragments. Karski wrote the following in 1940: “Polish opinion considers that Jewish attitudes to the Bolsheviks are favorable. It is universally believed that the Jews betrayed Poland and the Poles, that they are all communists at heart, and that they went over to the Bolsheviks with flags waving. Indeed, in most towns, the Jews did welcome the Bolsheviks with bouquets, with speeches and with declarations of allegiance and so on. . . . But what is worse, Jews are denouncing Poles [to the secret police], are directing the work of the [communist] militia from behind the scenes, and are unjustly denigrating conditions in Poland before the war. Unfortunately, one must say that these incidents are very frequent.” It is possible that Karski was ill-informed about those events, but he certainly was not an anti-Semite. It’s a pity that Gross does not make reference to these sections of the report in his analysis of Polish anti-Semitism, for how Poles perceived alleged Jewish reactions to the Soviet invasion of 1939 is clearly relevant to the topic.
At the outset of his book, Gross clearly states that “the nature of prejudice is to make unwarranted totalizing claims, whereas understanding advances through elucidation of careful distinctions.” In his analysis, he makes much needed and careful distinctions when writing about the behavior of people of Jewish origin. Gross indicates, for example, that highly placed Jews in communist security services were “second to none in cruelly abusing their prisoners.” He does not object to their being described as “instrumental in imposing communism on Polish society after the war—a fine proposition, provided that ‘they’ signifies ‘zealous Communist apparatchiks,’ not ‘Jews,’ and that ethnicity does not factor into the equation.” Gross is also careful not to confuse instances of violent behavior with some sort of obsessive hatred. When judging the cruel actions of these communist secret-police officials, who happened to be Jewish, Gross writes: “Frankly, there is not much to say in direct reply except that these were bad people.”
Gross unfortunately does not make the same analytical effort when examining the behavior of non-Jews. A small minority of Poles violently killed returning Jews is, in Gross’ eye, a warrant to write about all Poles being anti-Semitic. “What stands out on this gruesome occasion” of the Kielce pogrom “is the widely shared sense in Polish society that getting rid of Jews, by killing them if necessary, was permissible.” On the same page, Gross describes a casual conversation between a Polish policeman and a truck driver in which the latter agrees to transport a Jewish woman and her child to be murdered: “The only thing that matters is that [the conversation] could have taken place, indeed that it did take place, and that it was a completely comprehensible exchange between strangers in Poland in Anno Domini 1946.” To make such totalizing statements is simply unfair to the vast majority of Poles who did not participate in violence against Jews.
It is a pity that Gross was unable to keep to his methodological principles when writing about the behavior of Poles during and after the war but simply lumped them all together: the “bad people” together with the majority of the indifferent and the few noble ones. This is the biggest flaw of an otherwise important work, for it amounts to a failed chance to give a balanced account in an area of study where balanced scholarship is so badly needed.
Perhaps the most original and insightful part of the book is the chapter devoted to Poland’s intelligentsia: specifically, to the bizarre fact of amnesia in its ranks concerning the extermination of Jews and the violence perpetrated by Poles. Poland’s status-conscious society created an upper strata reserved for the intelligentsia, clearly separated from the common people. Most Jews, save for a few assimilated ones who were themselves part of the intelligentsia, were beyond the elites’ immediate interest. While being the “repository of supreme values,” they simultaneously felt a disdain for the commoners, whom they saw as material to educate. Indeed, during the war, the elites saw themselves as the main protagonists in the fight against the occupiers. “It should not come as a surprise,” writes Gross, “that what went on between Jews and peasants was noted by underground rapporteurs, but only as local episodes without larger significance. . . . By definition, what went on ‘downstairs,’ between the common people and the Jews, could not have had a larger significance.” It is certainly a credit to Gross’ books that these topics are regularly discussed in Poland today.
If we look at Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz as a book that will trigger a necessary debate in Poland about the abuse of minorities, it is certainly worth reading. Yet, in terms of seeking a better understanding of what is perhaps the most complicated set of problems in twentieth-century European history, the book is unsatisfying.
But then Gross is a sociologist by training, not a historian. Even his uncritical acceptance of the dubious estimate that “as much as a quarter of the adult population of Kielce was actively involved” in the pogrom should be seen as a well-intentioned effort to stir up interest. (The claim he made in his previous book, that 1,600 Jews were killed in Jedwabne, turned out, after an intensive investigation into the matter by Poland’s state Institute of National Remembrance, to be inflated by more than a thousand.)
Perhaps this is yet another truth about human nature, that our interest in important matters is more easily sparked by unbalanced accounts than by balanced ones
Andrzej Fister-Stoga is a journalist in Poland.