PRAGUE (JTA) – Being tagged the Britney Spears of historians is among the many tribulations Jan Tomas Gross has endured since debuting his book on anti-Semitism after the Holocaust in his native Poland earlier this month.
Gross, the author of “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz,” also was dubbed a “vampire of Polish history” by a prominent Polish historian, investigated for slandering the state, accused of “anti-Polishness” in the Polish press and chastised by a Polish cardinal for “awakening demons” with “selective historical data.”
“I think the vampire bit would work well for my next book jacket,” Gross, whose father was Jewish, told JTA by phone from Warsaw.
Gross, who in 2000 wrote the groundbreaking book “Neighbors” that revealed that Poles murdered up to 1,600 Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne in 1941, had just concluded a three-city book tour in Poland marked by overwhelming crowds, angry hecklers and penetrating discussions on Jewish-Catholic relations.
The reaction is a sign of the great level of discomfort some Poles have when it comes to revisiting ugly episodes in Polish history involving Jews.
Poles long have seen themselves as the chief victim of the Nazis, alongside Jews, and the frequent suggestion that Poles are anti-Semites or were surrogates for the Nazis disturbs them as much as Jews are angered by anti-Semitism.
The fiery debate over “Fear” in Poland revolves around Gross’ insistence that “the general mood in Poland after World War II was most certainly anti-Semitic,” Gross, a professor at Princeton University, told JTA.
Despite the controversy, “Fear” sold 25,000 copies in its first week in bookstores and another 25,000 later in the month, more than doubling the total sales projections of its publisher, Znak.
Sales may be brisk, but the Polish media’s criticism of the book’s accuracy prompted the Polish prosecutor’s office to open an investigation of Gross this month for committing “slander against the Polish nation.”
Gross posits that perhaps up to 2,000 Jews were killed in anti-Jewish violence shortly after World War II ended. However, most Polish historians say the violence, often banditry, was part of the general postwar lawlessness that afflicted the country.
“Men were going into trains and searching specifically for Jews to rob and beat,” he said.
Gross also presents evidence of a strong anti-Semitic strain within the Communist Party and the Catholic Church.
The author left Poland in 1968 during a period of Communist government-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, said Gross “made some generalizations in ‘Fear’ that shocked many people. There were Jewish people who were murdered in Poland after the war and no one rejects this, but it’s too much to say the whole country was anti-Semitic.”
Cywinski said that in contrast to the book about Jedwabne, “Fear” does not bring anything new to the historical discussion of World War II.
“Neighbors” demonstrated that contrary to popular belief, it was Poles and not the German Nazis who murdered the Jews in Jedwabne, mostly by cramming them into a barn and burning them alive.
All across the former communist bloc, it has taken more than a decade to confront historical truths covered up by past totalitarian regimes eager to foster national pride and gloss over problematic episodes regarding Jews.
In Poland, the debate about the past has been particularly sharp because Poland is both the country that suffered most under Hitler and the place where the most Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Estimates put deaths among Poles and Jewish Poles as equal, 3 million, but Poles time and again have expressed frustration with what they see as Jewish insensitivity, particularly among Americans, to their own suffering and acts of valor toward Jews during the war.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem has granted the Righteous Among the Nations award, which recognizes those who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust, to some 6,000 Poles – more than from any other country.
Yet Gross argues that the Polish perception of seeing war suffering among Jews and non-Jewish Poles as equal shows “that Poles are still in denial” about the nature of the Holocaust.
In the United States, “Fear” received rave reviews when it was published in 2006.
The book recounts through gripping anecdotes the assaults sustained by Jews who returned home half starved from concentration camps, including the infamous 1946 pogrom in Kielce in which 37 Jews were murdered.
The somewhat predictable reactions to “Fear” in Poland’s more nationalistic media include a commentary in the daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik stating “the conspiracy of Gross is part of a conspiracy against Poland.”
However, even the chief editor of the leading mainstream daily Rzeczpospolita, Pawel Lisicki, wrote, “It’s hard to find a more harsh expression of underestimation and hatred” against a nation than in Gross’ latest book.
“I know only one other historian who did it: David Irving,” Lisicki wrote, referring to the British Holocaust denier.
The head of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance labeled Gross a vampire, and in an interview with JTA the Washington-based Polish historian Marek Chodakiewicz of the Institute of World Politics compared the ambition of Gross to that of Spears, the ultimate lowbrow celebrity.
“There is nothing wrong if Professor Gross wants to be a pop culture icon,” a la Spears, Chodakiewic said, “but anecdotes that have not been checked and cross-checked should not be treated as a serious academic effort.”
Despite these reactions Gross, who dismissed Chodakiewicz as “an idiot,” said his three-city book tour was highly positive. The critics constituted a small, vociferous group, but most who attended his appearances really wanted to have an open discussion.
“There is such a tremendous interest in the book, so in that case Poland is ready to look at its past,” he said.
Gross’ optimism is not shared by Piotr Kadlcik, the president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities, the umbrella organization of Polish Jewry. Kadlcik said the debate in Poland was centered around whether or not Gross is a liar.
“From my perspective, to say all Poles were saving Jews or burning them in barns – it’s an abstraction,” he said. “I was hoping there would be some kind of real discussion of the past, and I don’t think that it happened.”