Friday, February 8, 2008

Jan Gross' Fear: excellent summary and analysis of Polish reactions to Gross' book

An excellent summary of the issues ignited by the publication of Jan Gross' book, Fear, about which I have blogged and which I reviewed, has appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on January 18, 2008. It can be read here in English.

Here is my review from Publishers Weekly which appeared when the hardback was published. I have commented on this blog that I may have overstated the case a bit, in condemning Poland as a "nation" in this review:
Starred Review. [Signature]Reviewed 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.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Roman Werpachowski said...

The FR review says: "For Gross, neither the allegedly widespread participation of Polish Jews in the slowly consolidating Communist regime nor the horror stories circulating about the ritual murder of Christian children were the real reasons for these occurrences."

IMHO Gross does not claim that the blood libel was not a real reason behind the Kielce pogrom. In fact, he claims the opposite - that it was an important and real reason for the pogrom.

From_Poland said...

Here ia a comment to your review:

Here comes my comment:
"an untold—and profoundly terrifying—aspect of their history" - obviously told, in a number of books and articles, partially quoted by J. T. Gross in 'Fear'".

"Even Polish historians have either ignored or tried to justify this anti-Semitism" - what does the phrase mean? 'Some Polish historians' or 'all Polish historians'? If 'some' - no nation is faultless, if 'all' - you aren't right.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

On point 2: you are right, it should have said "some Polish historians." Mea culpa.

Went to the link you posted. There is some debate about the number killed in Jedwabne... So let's say it was not 1600 but only 1000 [there is question about the 400 figure] or even 800... that's ok?

And I am well aware of the context.

Roman Werpachowski said...


The review of the review, to which you have posted the link, contains a statement:

"Aside from some speculation by an elderly auxiliary bishop living far from Kielce about the possibility of the truth of the blood libel, no Church leader of any stature asserted a belief in the blood libel in the wake of the Kielce incident. No matter how they explained the reasons for the pogrom, all condemned the blood libel charge and anti-Jewish violence."

However, here is a different view by an IPN (Institute for National Remembrance, which in the eye of the Piast Institute is a "respected" source) historian, Wojciech Muszyński:
Muszyński defends Wyszyński, later primate of Poland, from Gross's accusation that Wyszyński refused to condemn the blood libel when asked for it by a delegation of Polish Jews. However, Mr Muszyński does it in an "interesting" way. He states that Wyszyński did not want to condemn the blood libel because he was afraid that his words will be "twisted by the Communists". An interesting defence indeed. Nonetheless, the IPN historian admits that he knows about Wyszyński's answer, as reported by other Catholic priest, Roman Zelek(Zelk?): "The trial of Bejlis, during which many old and new Jewish books have been gathered, does not answer the blood libel question definitely". He accepts as a fact that Wyszyński indeed spoken so in response to the Jewish Delegation.

To summarize, even an apologist Polish historian (NB, at the end of the interview, he says that he "doesn't know whether the [Jewish] ritual killings really happened or not") doesn't claim that Wyszyński condemned the blood libel, contrary to what point 3. of the Piast Institute "review of a review" claims.

Coming to back to the book "Fear" itself, Polish state attorney office in Krakow refused to accuse Gross of libel against Polish nation. The controversial law will probably be struck down by the Polish Constitutional Court soon.

Unknown said...

« I am troubled by references to "Polish death camps." »

In May 2008, the deputy polish ambassador to the Netherlands, Artur Habant, complained after a Dutch newspaper had used the expression "polish concentration camp" in a report on Irena Sendler's funerals (1).

In June 2008, the press attache of the Polish Embassy in London filed an official complaint to the editors of the Daily Telegraph because the had used the expression "the Polish concentration camp in Majdanek" (2).