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Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitzby Jan T. Gross
"The human response to such reports is simply to howl, 'Why?' It is to Gross's credit that he manages to turn his own howl — his meticulously researched book is not devoid of emotion — into a serious investigation of how these brutalities could have occurred." Ruth Franklin, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 Review by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Rarely 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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In 1996, Poland's prime minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, invited a Jewish American writer to speak at a commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. The speaker reminded his listeners that if Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor were German initiatives, the killers this time on the ground were Polish, their language Polish and their hatred entirely Polish. He took advantage... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of the occasion to demand that the Polish government remove the crosses and other religious symbols that, by chance, he had seen a few years before strewn in the ashes at Birkenau, where almost all the burned dead had been Jews. The next day, virulent, deplorable — essentially anti-Semitic — attacks appeared throughout the Polish press. I was that speaker. Some time later, the great Israeli historian Israel Gutman spoke to me briefly about the Jedwabne pogrom, in which virtually all of that small Polish town's 1,600 Jewish residents were killed in a single day in July 1941, and a new and important book, 'Neighbors,' by Jan T. Gross, whose revelations about Jedwabne promised to embarrass Poland and jolt the conscience of the world. A professor at Princeton now, Gross is a Polish Jew who knows his subject. 'Neighbors' — a book of high moral quality — described the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne as not carried out by Germans but by native Poles. Published in English in 2001, it had formidable impact in America and elsewhere. One can easily predict a similar effect and success for his new work, 'Fear.' You read it breathlessly, all human reason telling you it can't be so — and the book culminates in so keen a shock that even a close student of the Jewish tragedy during World War II cannot fail to feel it. Bitterness, envy, murderous rage: Everything that is low, primitive, vile and ugly in the human animal is laid bare and analyzed on these pages. Reading this book — repugnant and revolting as it can be — one is seized by an impulse to close it and say: No. It is not possible for so many human beings to have loosed their savage hounds on fellow human beings — men, women, children, all of them innocent and defenseless in a place that was just waking from a long nightmare. Fear is a word we use often in reference to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes; it is, for want of a better term, employed inadequately to speak of the Holocaust. In a dark time, on a continent overcome by the din of triumphant Nazism, fear gripped the occupied countries and all nations in Germany's shadow; but, mostly, fear gripped the Polish people, whom Hitler wanted reduced to slavery, and the Jewish people, singularly destined for isolation, humiliation and total extermination. Had these last two communities acted logically, they might have understood that they faced a common enemy and worked to combine their strengths to help each other. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Gross describes how Warsaw's onlookers watched young Jewish fighters throw themselves from burning windows during the pathetic yet glorious ghetto uprising in 1943, then applauded when German soldiers set upon them below. But in this strongly sourced work, another fear emerges. It is that felt by Jews, not during Poland's occupation by the Nazis, but afterward, even as the country was being liberated by the Red Army. Based on official documents as well as numerous testimonies, 'Fear' recounts events as they unfolded in 1945-46. The most heinous and outrageous cruelties, it appears, were inflicted by civilians, soldiers and policemen on a benighted population of Jewish survivors from hells near and far, who were returning sick, poor, wounded — orphans beyond hope. To put it clearly: Like many of us, they had thought all too naively that anti-Semitism, discredited 6 million times over, had died at Auschwitz with its victims. They were wrong. Only the dead perished at Birkenau; anti-Semitism itself survived in most places, and mostly in Poland. This is, in sum, what Jan Gross reveals in a style that is at once sober and overwhelming in its very bluntness. There were manhunts, public humiliations, insane acts of brutality. The rare escapees who thought themselves fortunate to return home found their property occupied by strangers who chased them away with scornful cries: 'What, you're still in this world?' Eventually, they were made to regret their very survival. Trapping a Jew was reason enough to beat him senseless. Discover another, and pelt him with stones. This anti-Semitic blight, all too insidious and thorough, infected every level of the population. There were those who killed Jews in order to steal from them; others who coveted their stores and homes; others, to avenge the Jews' mythical power in communist secret circles; and then there were those who killed for the simple pleasure of it. There was the official version: Authorities minimized the tragedy's Jewishness. Even as they commemorated the dead, they forgot to mention that they were Jews. And the public version: Jews were barred from civic life — from schools as well as public office. Traditional anti-Semitism, too, lived on, fueled by ancient religious prejudices as well as individual and collective hatreds. Then there were the pogroms. First in tiny villages, followed by those in the big cities. Gross' reader is suddenly thrust into the Middle Ages. In Krakow and in Kielce, those thirsting for Jewish blood didn't hesitate to maim or murder. In these two towns, it began with that old canard claiming that Jews slaughtered Christian children to use their blood for the ritual preparation of Passover matzos. In Kielce, it was rumored, Jews had lured a Polish boy into a cave so that they could murder him. Little did it matter that there was no cave in the local Jewish Committee's building at 7 Planty Street. Little did it matter that, for centuries, the highest authorities of the Catholic Church had repudiated and condemned these accusations as stupid and malicious lies. The Polish population clung to such myths to feed their hatred and rage against the Jews, who were guilty of nothing more than having survived Treblinka and Auschwitz. And more: The Polish clergy in towns and provinces, almost to the last man, chose to guard its silence. As he has done for Jedwabne in 'Neighbors,' Gross here shows the horror of Kielce in all its aspects. Hatred for Jews seemed to render the whole world blind. Old and young, men and women, soldiers and police — even boy scouts — took part in the lynchings. And spectators either applauded or did not care. How to explain so much hate, at so many levels? It is a question for the intellectuals as well as the politicians; neither could have predicted it. Gross quotes Tacitus, who once said, 'It is indeed human nature to hate the man whom you have injured.' Taking it one step further, the author posits that Polish anti-Semites detested their Jewish victims for their suffering, which caused such shame: 'Jews were so frightening and dangerous, in other words, not because of what they had done or could do to the Poles, but because of what Poles had done to the Jews.' Does it follow that all of Poland was to blame? I do not believe in collective guilt. Only the guilty are guilty; their contemporaries are not. The children of killers are not killers but children. Today, a new generation will assume responsibility for its history. And yet there is this: The past lives on in the present, impossible to forget. Jan Gross forces Poland to confront that past. Just as he forces his readers. One of his saddest revelations? During the war, here and there, there were Polish citizens with generous and brave hearts who, risking life and liberty, hid and protected Jews. But rather than be proud of such acts, they preferred not to talk about them. They were afraid of the anger and the recriminations from their neighbors. Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is the author of more than 40 books, including 'Night' and, most recently, 'The Time of the Uprooted.' This review was written in French and translated by Marie Arana." Reviewed by Elie Wiesel, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"After all the millions dead, after the Nazi terror, a good many Poles still found it acceptable to hate the Jews among them....The sorrows of history multiply: a necessary book." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Gross illustrates with eloquence and shocking detail that the bloodletting did not cease when the war ended....This is a masterful work that sheds necessary light on a tragic and often-ignored aspect of postwar history." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Provocative...powerful and necessary....One can only hope that this important book will make a difference." Boston Globe
"[A]n astonishing book....Gross has done a great service to the historical discourse by exposing the realities of what is, was and has been racist cruelty in Poland." The Baltimore Sun
"Though gripping, the book is not a page turner. It's more like a literary exercise in wincing and squirming....It is illuminating and searing, a moral indictment delivered with cool, lawyerly efficiency that pounds away at the conscience with the sledgehammer of a verdict." Los Angeles Times
From the author of the acclaimed Neighbors comes a startling look at a tragic mystery, one fully revealed in this book for the first time. Gross questions: Why, after millions of Jews perished in Poland during the Holocaust, did anti-Semitism on the part of everyday Poles increase after the war's end?
About the Author
Jan T. Gross was a 2001 National Book Award nominee for his widely acclaimed Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. He teaches history at Princeton University, where he is a Norman B. Tomlinson '16 and '48 Professor of War and Society.
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