Arts & Culture Nothing to ‘fear’ but Postwar Poland: Jan Gross’ New Book Details Attacks

For anyone interested in European and Jewish history, “Fear” is essential reading, documenting the monstrously anti-Semitic environment to which Polish Jews returned, and then fled, after World War II. The historical text from Polish historian Jan Gross — who achieved fame several years ago with “Neighbors,” his account of the Jedwabne pogrom — is as gripping as a thriller and has won accolades from newspapers such as The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun.

With detailed accounts of collective and individual attacks against Jews, Gross’ main achievement is to show the depth of hostility toward Jews at every level of postwar Polish society, from the Catholic Church and the police to doctors, factory workers, peasants and the Communist party.

A testimony by survivor Ida Gerstman to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw is one of dozens in the book that chills the blood:

” ‘I noticed on the train that I was being observed. One of the women pointed at me: ‘This is a filthy kike, throw her under the train!’ Another said: ‘We’ll turn her over to the police at the next station, let them shoot her.’ When we reached the next station, women grabbed me by the feet and by the head and pulled me onto the tracks to throw me under the train. I begged them to spare my life, but they said I was Jewish and so I must die. Children started to throw stones at me. I begged a railwayman to shoot me because I could not suffer any longer, but he answered; ‘You would like to die an easy death; slowly, you can suffer for a little longer.’ “

There are traumatic accounts by witnesses, victims and even perpetrators of various pogroms. Jews are beaten, stabbed, robbed and killed as their abusers unleash a tirade of anti-Semitic epithets.

There are observations by Polish politicians and foreign ambassadors who say clearly, in their letters to top government leaders and even clergy, that the problem of anti-Semitism is dangerous and pervasive.

The 303-page book’s epicenter is a portrayal of the Kielce pogrom, which Gross argues “could have happened anywhere in Poland, and at any time during this period.”

The hours of wanton murdering in Kielce, triggered by a false accusation of ritual murder, left 42 Jews dead and twice as many wounded.

In contrast to “Neighbors,” which shocked Poland with its revelations of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in “Fear” Gross uses material that for the most part is already known.

But telling the Jews’ story against the background of the creeping Communist takeover of Poland and the lawlessness that befell Poland at this time, Gross proves, as he told JTA in a phone interview, “there was very little sympathy for the Jews who returned to Poland after the war, and very much a feeling going the other way.”

His secondary aim, and hence the name of the book, is to explain why Poles behaved so horribly toward victims of genocide and unspeakable cruelty.

“Until someone offers an alternative explanation, we must consider that it was ordinary Poles’ widespread collusion with the Nazi-driven extermination of the Jews which alone could produce such callousness,” writes Gross, a native of Poland who is a history professor at Princeton University.

Gross is an engaging and meticulous historian, a writer on par with great storytellers like George Orwell, but he is not a sociologist.

Thus it’s hard to know if his view that the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, near starvation in the country and Nazi pressure to treat Jews as subhumans merely were contributing factors to the Polish postwar psyche, as Gross estimates, or their key determinants.

Also, the relationship between prewar and postwar anti-Semitism is not explored in depth, and Gross’ attempt to prove that Jews were not responsible for communism seems out of place, since what determines people’s actions is what they believe, not what’s true.

If Gross’ psychoanalysis of Poles leaves doubts, it doesn’t matter. “Fear” is a masterful depiction of a gruesome postwar phenomenon. A Polish-language version of the book will come out after Gross finishes translating it in the spring — though discussions on the book’s significance already have begun among historians and others.

For proponents of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, the book raises the worrying specter that presenting Poland, even 60 years ago, as a country rife with anti-Semitism could leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Told that the book could make people wonder how much of that anti-Semitism is still around, Gross says “Fear” is “not a picture of Poland today.”

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, expressed concern about the book being used to tar all Poles with the same brush.

“What percentage of the general population did this represent?” he asks. “Every city had its horrible people. But were they 90 percent of the population, were they 9 percent or 0.9 percent? How do we know that?”

There is no doubt Polish historians will debate whether Gross’ views of the proportionality of anti-Semitism in post-World War II Poland are accurate or inflated.

Meanwhile, any country worthy of a democracy shouldn’t be afraid to peer into its closets. Let the debate begin and let no Pole fear “Fear.”

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