Poland fuming over American historian's book

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz sparks debate about Polish-Jewish relations.

fear book 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
fear book 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The newly released Polish edition of a book by a Princeton University professor has dredged up painful memories in Poland, forcing the country to confront a difficult chapter in its history: the deaths of Jews at the hands of Poles in the aftermath of World War II. Jan T. Gross' "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz" hit bookstores in Poland earlier this month, and has sparked a debate about anti-Semitism in this Eastern European country, which saw its Jewish population - once Europe's largest - nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. The book was first released in the United States in 2006, where it was greeted with warm reviews. In Poland, however, the book has been sharply criticized in newspaper editorials, book reviews and by historians accusing Gross of using inflammatory language and unfairly labeling all of postwar Polish society as anti-Semitic. This week, Gross has headlined a pair of debates in front of news cameras and standing-room only crowds in Kielce and Warsaw, highlighting the nerve he has struck in Poland with "Fear." The discussion Monday in Kielce was even broadcast live on national television and local radio. Gross, who was born in Poland to a Jewish father and a gentile mother and left the country in 1968 during an anti-Semitic wave sponsored by Poland's then-communist regime, has said he wrote "Fear" as a Pole. "I would like for my book to show people what an incredibly strong toxic poison anti-Semitism is in the general psychology of Poles, because it made us incapable of withstanding temptation," Gross told a crowd of some 250 people who crammed into a cultural center in Kielce, a town of 200,000 inhabitants, some 180 kilometers south of Warsaw. Gross' previous book, "Neighbors," caused a sensation in Poland when it was published in 2001. That book revealed how Poles burned their Jewish neighbors alive in a barn in northeastern Poland in July 1941, and spurred a lively national debate on Poland's relations with Jews. In "Fear," Gross describes how many Jews who survived the Holocaust returned to their prewar homes only to face further persecution at the hands of their Polish neighbors. He argues that Polish postwar anti-Semitism was driven by guilt over collusion with the Nazi-plunder and murder of Jews during the Holocaust, which largely played out in Nazi-run death camps in occupied Poland. Few in Poland argue with the facts Gross presents in the book, but many dispute his interpretation - even some Polish Jews who lived through the trauma of the war and postwar years. Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, has said the postwar violence against Jews was "not about anti-Semitism." "Murdering Jews was pure banditry, and I wouldn't explain it as anti-Semitism," Edelman said in an interview with the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. "It was contempt for man, for human life, plain meanness. A bandit doesn't attack someone who is stronger, like military troops, but where he sees weakness." Gross' accusations are especially painful for a country that suffered a brutal five-year Nazi occupation that saw some six million Polish citizens - half of them Jews - killed. Some who attended the discussions complained that the suffering and death of some three million non-Jewish Poles, as well as the efforts of gentiles who tried to save Jews, receive only scant international attention. "People only talk about the bad side, but not about the good," said Piotr Koperski, a 37-year-old businessman who attended the Warsaw debate on Tuesday night. "This seems unfair to me, this lack of proportions." Thousands of Poles risked their lives and those of their families to save Jews, and more than 6,000 Poles - the most of any country - have been named as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial. But violent incidents of anti-Semitism did tarnish Poland's postwar history. In Kielce, a frenzied mob brutally murdered 42 people, most of them Jews, on July 4, 1946, in an event that historians call Europe's last pogrom. And Gross' appearance in Kielce, in front of an emotionally charged public, provoked mixed reactions from the crowd. Shouts of "Lies! Lies!" from an older man in the audience occasionally interrupted the discussion. Robert Huta, an economist and Kielce native who attended the debate, said that "nobody is denying the crimes he (Gross) describes - we know they happened." But, he added, "Among the victims that he names, a lot of them were Jews, sure, but maybe wearing the uniforms of the NKVD, the Soviet secret security force." Mariusz Jedruszczak, a 44-year-old computer technician from Kielce, on the other hand, commended Gross for forcing Poles to confront their killing of Jews after the war. "I would like for us Poles to say 'we're sorry' so we can finally close this chapter and let it be a part of history and not the present," he said. "The book, I think, signals the start of a long road, with us standing next to each other as brothers," Jedruszczak added. "Jews need Christians, and Christians need Jews."