Poland suffered an exceedingly brutal Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Close to five million Polish citizens lost their lives as a result. More than half the casualties were Polish Jews. Thus, the second largest Jewish community in the world only American Jewry numbered more than the three and a half million Polish Jews at the time was wiped out. Over 90 percent of its members were killed in the Holocaust. And yet, despite this unprecedented calamity that affected both Jews and non-Jews, Jewish Holocaust survivors returning to their hometowns in Poland after the war experienced widespread hostility, including murder, at the hands of their neighbors. The bloodiest peacetime pogrom in twentieth-century Europe took place in the Polish town of Kielce one year after the war ended, on July 4, 1946.Jan Gross's Fear attempts to answer a perplexing question: How was anti-Semitism possible in Poland after the war? At the center of his investigation is a detailed reconstruction of the Kielce pogrom and the reactions it evoked in various milieus of Polish society. How did the Polish Catholic Church, Communist party workers, and intellectuals respond to the spectacle of Jews being murdered by their fellow citizens in a country that had just been liberated from a five-year Nazi occupation?Gross argues that the anti-Semitism displayed in Poland in the war's aftermath cannot be understood simply as a continuation of prewar attitudes. Rather, it developed in the context of the Holocaust and the Communist takeover: Anti-Semitism eventually became a common currency between the Communist regime and a society in which many had joined in the Nazi campaign of plunder and murder and for whom the Jewish survivors were a standing reproach.Jews did not bring communism to Poland as some believe; in fact, they were finally driven out of Poland under the Communist regime as a matter of political expediency. In the words of the Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, Poland's Communist rulers fulfilled the dream of Polish nationalists by bringing into existence an ethnically pure state.For more than half a century, what happened to the Jewish Holocaust survivors in Poland has been cloaked in guilt and shame. Writing with passion, brilliance, and fierce clarity, Jan T. Gross at last brings the truth to light.
[Signature]Reviewed by Deborah E. LipstadtRarely does a small book force a country to confront some of the more sordid aspects of its history. Jan T. Gross's Neighbors did precisely that. Gross exposed how in 1941 half the Polish inhabitants of the town of Jedwabne brutally clubbed, burned and dismembered the town's 1,600 Jews, killing all but seven.The book was greeted with a terrible outcry in Poland. A government commission determined that not only did Gross get the story right but that many other cities had done precisely the same thing. Now Gross has written Fear, an even more substantial study of postwar Polish anti-Semitism. This book tells a wartime horror story that should force Poles to confront an untold--and profoundly terrifying--aspect of their history. Fear relates, in compelling detail, how Poles from virtually all segments of society persecuted the poor, emaciated and traumatized Holocaust survivors. Those who did not actually participate in the persecution, e.g., Church leaders and Communist officials, refused to use their influence to stop the pogroms, massacres and plundering of the Jews. The Communists used the anti-Semitism to consolidate their rule. Church leaders justified the blood libel charges. Even Polish historians have either ignored or tried to justify this anti-Semitism. Gross builds a meticulous case. He argues that this postwar persecution is "a smoking gun," which proves that during the war Poles not only acquiesced but, in many cases, actively assisted the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. Had they been appalled by Germany's policies toward the Jews or tried to help the victims, Poles could never have engaged in such virulent anti-Semitism in the postwar period. Gross notes that when the Germans were trying to put down the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Poles--including children--not only cheered as Jewish snipers were spotted and killed but gleefully showed the Germans where Jews were hiding. Those Poles who helped Jews were often persecuted or even killed by their neighbors.I am troubled by references to "Polish death camps." They were not Polish death camps but camps the Germans placed in Poland. I have taken even stronger issue with the opinion voiced by many Jews that the "Poles were as bad as--and maybe worse than--the Germans." I argue that while there was a strong tradition of anti-Semitism in Poland, Poles never tried to murder Jews in a systematic fashion. After reading Fear, the next time I hear someone say the Poles were as bad as the Germans, I will probably still challenge that charge --after all the damage wrought by the Germans cannot be compared to what the Poles did--but my challenge will be far less forceful. I may even keep silent. 8 pages of photos. (July 4)Lipstadt is director of the Rabbi Donald Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University and the author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.
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August 13, 2007
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Excerpt from Fear by Jan T. Gross
Wars in Europe have simultaneously been periods of social revolutions, and the Second World War is a good case in point.1 Indeed, one could argue that in Eastern Europe the entire decade from 1939 to 1948--despite the clear divide of 1945, which saw the defeat of the Third Reich--was one continuous epoch of radical transformation toward a totalitarian model of society, imposed first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets.2
While the war, it is true, had an enormous impact on every European society, producing both a new map of Europe and a new paradigm of European politics, Poland's case was unique among the belligerent countries because of the scale of devastation and upheaval under the impact of Nazi occupation from 1939 until 1945 (supplemented by the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland from September 1939 until June 1941).* As a
*On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a treaty of nonaggression, known in historiography as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact after the names of the foreign ministers who signed the document in Moscow. A week later, on September 1, 1939, World War II began. As agreed between the signatories, the Red Army marched into Poland soon after the German attack. In the secret protocols attached to the August treaty, the Soviet Union reserved for itself a "sphere of interests" including Bessarabia, Estonia, Latvia, and the better part of Poland. The original demarcation line between the Nazi and Soviet zones of occupation--splitting the capital city, Warsaw, in half along the Vistula River--appeared in the September 25, 1939, issue of the main Soviet newspaper, Pravda.
On September 28 in Moscow, the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty was signed and a somewhat modified territorial division of recent conquests was agreed upon. Stalin settled for only half of Poland's territory and drew the frontier eastward,
result of the war, the country suffered an unprecedented demographic catastrophe. It lost its minorities--Jews in the Holocaust, and Ukrainians and Germans following border shifts and population movements after the war. A third of its urban residents were missing at war's end. Poland's elites in all walks of life were wiped out. More than half of its lawyers were no more, along with two fifths of its medical doctors and one third of its university professors and Roman Catholic clergy. It lost its choice civil servants, army officers, and sportsmen. Several million people were displaced, either because they were deported, or because their domiciles were destroyed, or because the frontiers were changed. Somewhere between 41?2 million and 5 million Polish citizens lost their lives during the war (including 3 million Polish Jews), and several million more experienced imprisonment, slave labor, or forced resettlement.* The scale of material devastation matched the volume of population loss and trauma. Virtually every family in Poland was victimized in one way or another, and many catastrophically.
Particular devastation was suffered by Poland's Jews, an ancient community that was physically destroyed as a result of the war. No more than 10 percent survived the Nazi onslaught--some in German camps, some hiding among Gentile neighbors, most in the Soviet interior, where they fled or had been deported earlier by the Soviet secret police. While half of Poland's prewar territory was under Soviet control from mid-September 1939 through June 1941, a direct result of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin at the time, more than one million Polish Jews (out of the total of approximately 3.5 million) lived in the Soviet zone.