Poland debates its post-Holocaust history and anti-Semitism

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In Poland, a heated debate is under way in most of the country's media following the publication of a book on Polish-Jewish relations after World War Two. It is by a Polish-born US sociologist who claims that anti-Semitism found fertile ground in Poland after the Holocaust.

Jan Tomasz Gross, who left Poland four decades ago, is a former professor at Princeton University. Eight years ago his ‘Neighbours’, a book about the 1941 massacre of Jews by the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne, provoked a debate which led to a re-appraisal of history written under Poland’s communist regime. It showed that the image of Poles being only the heroes and victims of the war was not true. Gross’s new book - ‘Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz’ - focuses on the 1946 Kielce pogrom in which 40 Jews were killed.

‘A Jew [in post-war Poland] was looked upon as a threat, for various reasons. He could claim the right to someone’s property. He also brought back the memories of various terrible things and crimes in which many people were involved during the occupation. Anti-Semitic actions enjoyed acceptance of broad sections of Polish society. Those responsible for them have not been condemned by the local communities until today.’

In ‘Fear’ Gross writes about what he describes as Polish ‘society’s violently expressed desire to render the country free of Jews’. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Dean at the Institute of World Politics in Washington whose book ‘After the Holocaust. Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II’ was also brought out in Poland a few weeks ago, claims that most Jews who were killed in post-war Poland were not the victims of anti-Semitism. He stresses that Polish-Jewish relations in the 1940s should be examined in the context of the Soviet-imposed communist dictatorship for which private property meant nothing.

‘The communists entirely destroyed the machinery of the Polish state. When the communists pushed the Nazis out of Poland they started shooting, arresting and deporting functionaries of free Poland. That also means the police and the judiciary of the underground. That means that there was no law and order. When there’s no law and order banditry is rampant’.

Polish-Jewish relations in post-war years is one of the most complex chapters in Poland’s modern history. Small wonder that emotions ran high at book launch events with the author. Among Polish historians and analysts, too, Gross’s book stirred much controversy. For Marcin Zaremba of Warsaw University, ‘Fear’ is a very important publication.

‘I agree with his argument that Poles had their share in the Holocaust and that Polish peasants took part in the murder of Jews in Jedwabne, Radziłów, the regions of Łomża, Zamość and Kielce. I agree that anti-Semitism was a kind of cultural code which Poles used at that time, and that Jews were not responsible for the introduction of communist rule in Poland.’

While recognizing the positive aspects of the book, many people argue that the author’s strong language and its accusatory tone make serious debate extremely difficult. Some took Gross to task for claiming that after the war Poles finished ethnic cleansing against Jews. Political analyst Lukasz Warzecha says that Gross is guilty of generalisations.

‘It’s like writing about motorization as a phenomenon, presenting only the most serious accidents with the highest number of fatalities caused by drunk drivers, and saying that this describes the phenomenon of motorization so motorization is bad in general. This is exactly what Jan Tomas Gross does with Polish-Jewish relations. He takes out of context some events, painful events and facts but he claims that these facts describe the whole issue of Polish-Jewish relations which is completely untrue.’

The debate on Polish-Jewish relations which followed the publication of Gross’s ‘Neighbours’ demonstrated the Polish nation’s readiness to confront some of the most difficult facts in its history. According to journalist Mariusz Ziomecki Poles shouldn’t be wasting time on trying to diminish their discomfort.

‘It’s much better to simply accept co-responsibility and accept the news that there were some heroic attitudes but also some acts of exploitation of the victims. That’s it. This is part of the luggage that we have to carry.’

Polish prosecutors launched a probe whether to bring charges against Gross for ‘slandering the Polish nation’. Both the admirers and critics of the book agree that this is absurd. A prominent Polish bishop said: ‘books should be read and discussed, and those of poor quality – simply ignored.’