Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz
Jan T. Gross
Random House / 336 pages / $25.95
Jan T. Gross, a Princeton professor, has written an astonishing book, an expose of vicious anti-Semitism, complete with medieval, murderous pogroms raging in Poland -- after the end of World War II.
Fear documents in meticulous detail how, after the Nazi defeat, Polish citizens of all classes set upon the remaining Jews in their communities and murdered them outright. During the 1946 Kielce pogrom, soldiers who were called to the scene to restore order instead tossed women out of windows. In the courtyard below, townspeople finished off those not yet dead.
Blood pooled in the streets as people executed their Jewish neighbors mercilessly. An infant was shot in the head, its mother already dead, because, the murderer says, "it was crying." On trains, boys in a youth group dutifully move from car to car singling out the Jewish passengers, the more readily for them to be murdered at the next stop, where a bloodthirsty mob waits impatiently.
Gross supplies impeccable documentation: witness testimony, court testimony from the desultory trials (most of the killers got off), letters, diaries, films. All tell the same story: Anti-Semitism was so embedded in the culture of Poland that even witnessing the outrages of Auschwitz and Treblinka, which were not concealed from sight, did not dissuade large sections of the Polish population from the murderous project of cleansing their country of Jews. Only in their being less well-organized did they differ from their Nazi occupiers, in whose efforts against the Jews many gladly assisted.
The old order and the army, the new Communist apparatus, the cardinal and his bishops - all conspired to kill Poland's remaining Jews (90% had already perished) or to drive them out of the country for good. Gross exposes how this brutality unfolded in contradistinction to the "Romantic" Polish tradition "of nurturing the weak and defending the persecuted."
Many of those Poles who had shielded or rescued Jews from the Nazis tried desperately to keep their identities secret so that their neighbors would not murder them. In one of his very helpful and copious footnotes, Gross invokes that paradigmatic scene from Primo Levi's classic Survival In Auschwitz. Levi, newly arrived, was perishing of thirst, longing for a drink of water which was not, of course, forthcoming. At last, he seized an icicle and lifted it to his lips, only for it to be knocked away by a guard. Perplexed, because he was a young man and not yet initiated into the Nazi landscape, Levi asked: "Why?" The guard offered a ready answer: "Hier ist kein warum." Here there is no why.
Gross dutifully attempts to examine why so many Poles of all social classes revealed themselves to be so brutish and lacking in compassion as to have excluded themselves from civilization itself. He can discover no answer. He ponders whether Poles murdered the few Jews remaining alive in Poland because the Poles thought the Jews had brought Communism to Poland. They had not. Most Polish Jews were not in the Communist Party, were not Stalinists. He ponders whether Poles really believed that the Jews killed Christian children and then used their blood to make matzo, or to give blood transfusions to concentration camp survivors. He discovers that no one really believed these absurdities.
Gross wonders whether the Nazis had corrupted many Poles by exterminating the Jews openly. But then he notes that pogroms were flourishing before the time of the camps, as they would after them. He considers whether many postwar Poles killed Jews because they didn't want to return illegally appropriated Jewish property. Then he remembers that the overwhelming majority of Jews were not coming back, and everyone knew it. He examines Stalin's virulent anti-Semitism, but that was in another country.
Gross finds no explanation for these horrendous deeds because there is none. He is looking at pure, unregenerate evil. Based on his evidence, it is not gone yet. Gross reveals how, into the 1990s, Polish historians covered up these horrors. A 2004 poll conducted in Poland revealed that 40 percent of respondents still thought Poland was controlled by Jews.
"People engaged in a murderous encounter belong in effect to a different species," Gross concludes. For balance, one might add that the Poles were not alone in history in separating themselves from civilization, that they have been joined by the exterminators of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the slave traders, and the Belgian mass murderers in the Congo, to cite by no means the only examples.
Fear is so important a story because the existence of these pogroms after the war is not common knowledge. Although it is well-known that Poles applauded Jews' being carted away by the Nazis so that they could appropriate their property, and that anti-Semitism has flourished for centuries in Poland, the fact that pogroms could progress unimpeded after Auschwitz may be news to many.
Fear provides so important a story that I forgive Gross the false moment when he equates anti-Semitism in Poland with anti-Semitism in "Christian Europe and the United States at the time." Whatever our faults, we have never done anything remotely like this to our Jewish citizens. Gross has done a great service to the historical discourse by exposing the realities of what is, was and has been racist cruelty in Poland. I am Jewish, but I'm confident the evil he has illuminated will offend and disgust all his readers no less.
Joan Mellen's most recent book is "A Farewell To Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination and the Case That Should Have Changed History." She teaches in the graduate writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.