MAHWAH Historian Jan Tomasz Gross understands garden variety anti-Semitism the way he understands his native tongue, Polish: perfectly.
What he had trouble comprehending was how, once 90 percent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis during a five-year occupation, the remaining quarter million or so who attempted to return to their hometowns could be treated so barbarically by people who had been their neighbors and acquaintances and even, in some cases, close friends.
His bafflement, which was shared by Polish intelligentsia immediately following the war and by colleagues today studying the period of Nazi occupation of European states, led Gross to investigate what may have led to the hostility and violence against Poland’s ragtag Jewish survivors. He published the results of his study in his new book, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz," which was the subject of his talk on Monday at Ramapo College. The midday presentation, which packed a room at the college’s Robert A. Scott Student Center, was jointly sponsored by the college’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the History Club, and campus Hillel. Many in the audience were survivors or ?migr?s from Eastern Europe. "Most of us here were descended from Polish Jews," Gross commented during the question-and-answer session that followed his talk.
Polish historian Jan Gross speaks at Ramapo College.
"It’s important to realize that what happened in the Shoah simply didn’t stop, and the occurrence of anti-Semitism and violence afterward explain why there are so few Jews remaining in Europe," said Dr. Michael Riff, the Holocaust Center director, who arranged Gross’ visit.
Gross examined what took place in Poland in the two to three years between the end of World War II and the invasion of Soviet forces that led to a communist takeover of the government, roughly 1945 to 1948. He documented the cruelty directed at those who had already been physically and psychologically brutalized by their experience in concentration and labor camps or in hiding among the local populace. He also discovered the surprising reluctance by some Poles who had protected Jews during the war to acknowledge their bravery indeed, what the Jewish community has termed heroism.
Illustrative of the period was the Kielce pogrom, which forms a key part of Gross’s narrative. On a single day in July 1946, more than 40 Jews were murdered in one location. What is less well known than the pogrom itself, said Gross, was the spillover effect; in its wake, additional killings took place as Polish citizens confronted random Jews on the street, demanding to see papers or a circumcision to confirm Jewish identity. Within days, the number killed had doubled. And similar episodes were taking place, he said, in towns and villages throughout the country, as the emaciated remnant made its way home or emerged from hiding, trying to reconnect with their past and, more to Gross’ point, reclaim what had been left behind.
"Is this madness?" asked Gross, concluding that there had to be more to the story than "a community of hatred for this [widespread and sustained violence] to have occurred all over the place." The conventional argument, one previously put forth by scholars of the period, that Poles believed that Jews were responsible for the ensuing Communist onslaught, is not supported by the evidence, Gross believes. "It doesn’t make sense as an anti-Communist [reaction]," he said, because the virulent anti-Semitism, which, he argues was disproportionate to the post-war presence or strength of the Jewish community, "was found long before Poland was established as a Communist territory."
Gross’ central thesis, then, is that with Jews "no longer a social problem," the explanation for the Poles’ post-war behavior lay in what they had done during the war. "[The Poles] sinned and sinned, majorly," Gross reported.
According to Gross, they stole Jewish property and possessions, never imagining that the owners would return. Moreover, Gross explained, Poles who were "instrumental in ferreting out, identifying, exploiting, or denouncing Jews to the Germans" during the war worried that those who returned "could also bear witness to their acts of betrayal." Research in the past five years, said Gross, has uncovered documentary evidence of what became known as the "August cases," a series of trials in 1949, based on a law written in August 1944 to criminalize collaboration with the Germans. While not many were actually tried, the widespread complicity in the extermination of Jews that had occurred all over the country triggered a pervasive fear on the part of Polish citizens who had participated.
"The stories are very sad because they reveal a quasi-consensus, an acceptance on the part of the local population that Jews had to be gotten rid of," said Gross.
Another example of this fear he cites involved a Jewish woman with deceptively Slavic looks who, "passed" as a member of the Polish Underground. Working with a Jewish organization as well, she managed to save a number of Jewish children by placing them in convents or with local Catholic families. After the war, as Jews were desperate to retrieve surviving members of the community, she found many of the children, hoping to reunite them with family. Approaching those who had sheltered the youngsters, she found many unwilling to be publicly identified, concerned they would be ostracized by their own neighbors. "Those who we honor today as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel were afraid to identify themselves," Gross noted.
"Fear" is Gross’ second significant publication on the complex relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the context of the war and Nazi occupation. A professor at Princeton University, Gross is known for his work on the Jedwabne massacre in July 1941. In "Neighbors" (‘001), a National Book Award finalist, he contended that the murder of Jedwabne’s 600 Jewish residents was not carried out by German occupiers, as previously thought, but rather by those who had known their Jewish victims intimately Poles who lived around and among them and ultimately sought to cover up their role. As occurred following the publication of "Neighbors," vigorous debate and national self-reflection is anticipated in Poland, once "Fear" is translated into Polish, a task Gross said he hopes to accomplish by this summer.
In addition to his scholarly bona fides, which include a doctorate in sociology from Yale University, Gross has firsthand knowledge of his sources. He was born in Poland in 1947 to an assimilated Jewish family. He attended Warsaw University, before immigrating to the United States in 1969 after being imprisoned in March 1968, a time of unrest in Poland. Before joining the Princeton faculty, he taught at Yale, Emory University in Atlanta, and NYU, as well as in Paris, Vienna, and Krakow.