Myths and Truths

Historian Jan T. Gross is building a new history of the Holocaust, based on relations between Poles and Jews before, during and after World War II.

jan gross_311 (photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM / YOSSI BEN-DAVID)
jan gross_311
JAN T. GROSS BEGINS HIS keynote lecture by projecting an old photograph onto the screen behind him. He promises to talk about it at the end of the presentation, knowing that the picture, ostensibly a somewhat commonplace snapshot of Polish peasants resting on their tools behind their harvested crops, is disturbing. The picture is fuzzy, and the lunar-like landscape is too desolate, the harvest is too meager, the colors are too gray.
The overflow audience at Yad Vashem listens intently to Gross’s lecture, entitled “Opportunistic Killings and Plunder of Jews By Their Neighbors – A Norm or an Exception in German-Occupied Europe?” while distracted by the image.
At the end, as promised, he relates to the picture. “Is this not,” he challenges, “a familiar scene, a snapshot of summer vacations with distant relatives in the countryside?” But then he points to what is only vaguely visible in the enlarged image seen from a distance – “the crops scattered in front of the group are skulls and bones. In this photograph we see a bunch of peasants standing atop a mount of ashes. These are the human ashes of 800,000 Jews gassed and cremated in the Treblinka extermination camp between July 1942 and October 1943. The Europeans captured in the photograph have been digging through the remains of Holocaust victims, hoping to find gold and precious stones that Nazi executioners may have overlooked, despite carefully checking the body cavities of the murdered Jews… And while the scale of the Treblinka excavations was unique, the practice of digging up Jewish remains from the sites of mass murder to strip them of valuables was common.”
He continues, “Not only the Poles, many peoples across the continent have benefited from the Nazi policies of stripping Jews of civic and property rights and eliminating them from public life, and, ultimately, from life. [I present you with] a question and an answer to frame the photograph: What do a Swiss banker and a Polish peasant have in common? And the answer to this question would be, a golden tooth extracted from the jaws of a Jewish corpse.”
The exercise, like much of Gross’s work, is powerful and complex, the dramatic manipulation underlining the historical points he makes.
Gross, 63, a professor of history at Princeton University, was in Jerusalem, in early October, for an international conference entitled, “The Aftermath of the Holocaust: Poland 1944-2010,” which was sponsored by the Diana Zborowski Center for the Study of the Aftermath of the Shoah, a part of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.
In his lecture and in a subsequent extensive interview with The Jerusalem Report, Gross discusses his research, which focuses on the killings and plunder of Polish Jews by their fellow citizens. His research goals, he makes clear, are broad and ambitious: to create a new historiography and, through this, to rewrite the history of the Holocaust.
GROSS WAS BORN IN POLAND to an ethnic Polish mother, who had been a member of the Polish resistance, and a Polish-Jewish father. He came to the US with his family in 1968, at the age of 22, as an émigré escaping the rising anti-Semitic wave of repression in Poland. As a student of physics in Warsaw, he had been involved in the protest movement, expelled from the university and jailed for several months. Resettling in the US, he earned a PhD in sociology from Yale University, beginning his distinguished academic career.
Tall and professorial, dressed Ivy League-style in jeans and a sports jacket, Gross speaks animatedly, his Eastern European accent adding a sense of foreign distinction to his articulate English.
He came to international prominence with the publication of two books that forced Polish citizens to face painfully precise mirrors of Polish history. In “Neighbors,” first published in English in 2001 and in Polish in 2002, Gross describes in passionate, almost vulgarly brutal prose, the massacre of Polish Jews in the town of Jedwabne, in July 1941. Contrary to Polish common wisdom, the massacre, he shows, was committed by the Jews’ Polish neighbors and not by the German occupiers.
In 2006, he published “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz,” in which he argues that Poles attacked Jews who returned to Poland after the Holocaust and details the story of the Kielce pogrom in July 1946, when ethnic Poles murdered 37 Jews; “Fear” was published in Polish in 2008.
Gross’s basic thesis contends that these anti-Semitic acts stem from the fear of the Polish people that they would have to give back properties to the Holocaust survivors, but was also a reaction to their own sense of guilt and to the barbarization of Polish society inflicted by the Nazis.
The facts of the pogroms in Jedwabne and Kielce were known in Poland, but they had been obscured, both by the Soviet regime that created a “permissible” version of history and by Polish collective identity, which is based on a self-image as victims, not perpetrators. Poles’ reactions to the publications of “Neighbors” and “Fear” were intense and varied; some saw the revelations as Poland’s opportunity to come to terms with its murky past; others were incensed. Polish officials even investigated the facts of the case in order to consider prosecution of Gross for defamation of the Polish population, although no charges were ever brought.
“There are a lot of people with whom I am not popular,” he says dryly. “But ‘Fear’ sold over 80,000 copies in Poland. That is huge. And the number of beautiful statements I have received from people, thanking me for bringing out the truth, far exceeds the hate mail I’ve received.”
Gross says that he knows that the discussion is painful for Poles, but insists that it is necessary. “My identity as a Pole includes a profound sense of siding with the persecuted. And few have a better right than Poles to feel persecuted. But being Polish, whether we want to or not, carries a responsibility, a need to sort out what we have done. We cannot base our self-identity on lies or halftruths. We did these things. They happened in the streets and villages, where everybody could see. The anti-Semitism is incomprehensible, it is beyond the pale. It is a blemish on our humanity, a scandal to our minds,” he tells The Report.
The events that he describes, Gross says, cannot be dismissed as deviant or marginal behavior. “‘Regular’ members of the community took part in them, not miscreants or ‘marginal people.’ In fact, the participation by the local elites and by upstanding members of the community, who remained in good standing after the events, bestowed upon these crimes a kind of official imprimatur. These were quasi-normal events, and even remained a subject of conversation for years to come at local gatherings. The plunder was a widespread social practice, sanctioned by norms.”
After the war, he notes, Western nations were able to reflect on what had happened, but Stalinism crushed any public discussion in Poland about the war, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism or Polish culpability, enabling Poles to entrench their view of themselves as noble, heroic victims.
Throughout his writings, Gross emphasizes greed as a motivating factor for the anti-Semitism. But can greed alone provide the explanation? “The direct motive to commit the majority of murders and denunciations of Jews hiding in the countryside was the desire to plunder them, to take over their belongings, which were imagined to be considerable,” Gross answers. “This was a pernicious consequence of a stereotype of Jewish riches. People imagined that by killing these people, they would get hold of their riches.
“But the barbarism was released by the Nazis,” he says. “The war in the East was very different from the war in the West. In the East, it was a more brutalizing experience. The Nazis regarded the Poles with overt contempt, as if they were subhuman. Everyone was a witness to horrible violence. It was dehumanizing.”
Yet, he notes, there were some who helped and rescued Jews. “There were some who, even though they were anti-Semitic, helped Jews. One woman called on her fellow Poles, saying, ‘The Jews are our enemy, but in this situation, we, as Christians, cannot be passive observers of murder.’ A woman in Kielce hid Jews from the pogrom; she later told a journalist that she is a devout Catholic and that when she is not working, she is praying.
“But there were not enough people like this.”
Gross rejects the idea, however, of collective responsibility. “There is no such thing as collective responsibility. I do not bear responsibility for the actions of the Holocaust. But we do have a collective sense of identity, and, as a Pole, that identity must include not only Polish victimhood, but also Poles as perpetrators. It is possible to be both a noble hero and a villain, and we have been both. We must accept this.”
This, he says, is what drives the new generation of Polish scholars who research the Holocaust. “They accept no taboos. They are ruthless in their pursuit of historical and social truth.”
THE HOLOCAUST, SAYS GROSS, if studied at all, was not integrated into Polish national history. “For Poles, the history of World War II has not included the Holocaust, as if it were a separate part of history. Jewish historians also kept it separate, as if it were only their responsibility, and as if there were no interface between Poles and Jews.”
This foundation, he says, is simply wrong.
In rewriting the history of World War II in Poland, Gross is also introducing a new historiography, based on narratives and testimonies. He is learning, he says, from his own experience.
“I came across the testimony of Szmul Wassersztajn, who described the crime in Jedwabne, by chance. And yet, somehow, I was unable to accept that it wasn’t an exaggeration, but a pretty faithful description of what had happened. The events he was describing didn’t register in my mind. It took me years to comprehend and accept.”
Historians of the Holocaust have tended to rely on institutional documents, following the lead of one of the founders of the field of Holocaust studies, Raul Hilberg, who dismissed the importance of personal testimonies. Furthermore, says Gross, “Information provided by Jews about the fate they suffered during the war has been viewed with incredulity – this is a consequence of the unbelievable scope of the crimes the Nazis committed against the Jews. The survivors themselves often repeated that they could not believe what they had seen.”
The disbelief was also augmented by the memory of the allies’ propaganda hoaxes in the First World War and the pervasive demeaning stereotype of the Jews in Christian cultural tradition.
Yet gradually, historians have come to realize that these testimonies often provide the only information available. They were deliberately written, Gross contends, “in order to provide an exact account of the catastrophe. Since it appeared impossible to save the mass of Jewish people methodically annihilated in the Nazi-organized killing process, a sense of obligation grew among the Jewish recordkeepers to at least preserve the evidence of the very process of destruction, to produce an account of what had happened, without embellishing the story, even having to overcome their own incredulity at what was happening around them.”
Some historians have criticized Gross’s passionate style, which is sometimes almost cruel in its precise yet dramatic prose. “I am passionate because these are not subjects that lend themselves to detachment,” he responds. “It is scandalous that these victims have not yet been properly buried – that is, that the story of how they died has not been told. The lies and the anonymity that surround them is a burden on our generation. This is the task that historians must take upon themselves – the obligation to speak the truth. Reality is what it is, and you do your job and reveal it. My passion in no way detracts from my commitment to truth and history.”
Although his father was Jewish and relatives on both his father’s and mother’s side were murdered in the concentration camps, Gross does not consider himself Jewish. “Our family was very assimilated,” he explains. “It would be presumptuous of me to say I am Jewish. I don’t know about Jewish traditions or holidays.
“But when I come here to Israel, it’s a wonderful experience for me.”
He says that he has recently heard that some Israeli students, on their trips to Poland, also meet with Polish students and youth. “This is very good, very good,” he observes. “Poles and Israeli Jews should meet. They should start talking and getting to know each other. They should see that they all wear the same torn jeans and all have all that electronic gear. They should fall in love.”
Yet to this day, many Jews often repeat that “the Poles were worse than the Germans” in their treatment of the Jews. Gross sighs as he answers, “Everyone knows that it was the Germans who invented the Holocaust and built the camps. But I think that the sense of betrayal is much stronger with regard to the Poles. For Jews, relationships with the Poles are much more complicated than with the Germans. They were neighbors. There is a terrible sense of betrayal because these were murderous attacks, including torture and unspeakable barbarity, perpetrated by people they knew. And many Jews also felt a nostalgic love for Poland, which had been their homeland for so many generations.”