Periphery of the Holocaust

New revelations of horrors of the Holocaust still have the power to stagger.

JR pepe book cartoon 521 (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
JR pepe book cartoon 521
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Even as we think we know about the Holocaust, even as we believe we comprehend the horrors – as well as we might from second-hand knowledge and at a remove of some three generations – new revelations still have the power to stagger us. Such is precisely what occurs on reading Jan Gross’s Golden Harvest.
Gross is the Warsaw-born history professor at Princeton who rose to both acclaim and notoriety with the publication in 2001 of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.” That study argued that the massacre of the village’s Jews was not the work of the Nazis but of the Polish townspeople themselves. That thesis was vociferously denied by many Polish readers. A second study, “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz,” published five years later, engendered similar denunciations.
Like those two books, Golden Harvest – which was written with the author’s ex-wife – does not deal with topics that were heretofore entirely unreported. Gross however brings his subjects into stark relief via the expedients of scholarship, research, testimony and documentation.
Before reading Golden Harvest, I had been dimly aware of reports concerning post-war Polish peasants ghoulishly digging about in the ashes of Treblinka and other death camps in search of murdered Jews’ valuables overlooked by the Nazis. What I didn’t know – and probably didn’t want to know – was how widespread the practice was – and how perfectly acceptable it evidently was. The Polish authorities apparently even employed explosives to facilitate the treasure hunts.
Gross bases such assertions, and indeed his entire book, on a recently discovered photograph, which is reproduced as a twopage spread even before his title page. The grainy photo shows several dozen peasants posing in a field for the camera in neat ranks, but informally and at ease. A few figures in paramilitary outfits stand to one side, but they too are relaxed and in the main gazing at the camera. At first glance the photo seems to show nothing other than a cadre of farm workers gathered at the end of the day’s harvesting of hops or grain. Then one notices neatly arrayed in front of the group a collection of skulls and bones.
Gross acknowledges that it is impossible to document how common such grave-robbing was, but he does his best to demonstrate that it was far from uncommon. Indeed, he argues that such treasure-seeking was only the final stage of a seemingly endless variety of efforts to exploit doomed Jews.
These efforts included snapping up Jewish-owned property (businesses, apartments, furniture, jewelry, clothing) at bargain prices; to charging fees for hiding places or food; to bartering for Jews’ possessions from concentration camps guards; to collecting bounties for identifying Jews to the Gestapo; to simple extortion (schmaltzowanye) and the practice of demanding payment from Jews who ventured outside of restricted areas in return for the blackmailers’ silence. Such extortionists, for example, circled and kept constant watch on the Warsaw Ghetto as thoroughly as did the Nazis. Some Poles apparently even impersonated Gestapo agents to extract money from Jews.
All of this exploitation, Gross postulates, was based on the belief that wherever there were Jews, even dead ones, there was wealth. And since this notion was virtually universal, who would condemn it? Indeed, such depraved thinking was easily justified. “In her memoirs,” Gross writes, “a prosperous miller’s wife from Radzilow, Chaja Finkelsztajn, describes a scene at the same moment the mass killing of Jews was unfolding in her native village on July 7, 1941. Someone approached her with a suggestion that she turn over what she owned, since she would certainly be killed with her family. And it was only right, Chaja’s interlocutor argued without malice, for the good people who knew the Finkelsztajns to get their possessions, or else the killers would be rewarded.”
And what about the “good Poles” who helped Jews? They certainly existed, Gross allows, although their number is impossible to determine. What is known is that there were Poles who hid Jews during the war only on the promise “from those they saved never to speak about it to anyone, as they feared their neighbors’ reaction.” One recipient of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among Nations medal made no complaint when her daughter threw out the award, since the mother “had no one to show it to anyway.”
Gross’s latest dissection of what he blandly calls “events at the periphery of the Holocaust” has infuriated upholders of Polish honor as much as his previous books have done. So be it. (Former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, for example, condemned Gross as a moneygrubbing Jew.)
I for one am with this intrepid historian, who writes at the end of this exceptional little book: “So many incidents from the epoch seem in hindsight like bad dreams, or deeply disturbing hallucinations, or inventions of a sickened mind.”
If only they had indeed been mere nightmares, hallucinations, inventions.