Academic journal article European Studies

Coming to Terms with Anti-Semitism: Jan T. Gross's Writings and the Construction of Cultural Trauma in Post-Communist Poland

Academic journal article European Studies

Coming to Terms with Anti-Semitism: Jan T. Gross's Writings and the Construction of Cultural Trauma in Post-Communist Poland

Article excerpt

Abstract

Since 1989 the Polish have struggled with their history and memory. The most heated debates were provoked by two historical books, Neighbors Sasiedy 2000) and Year (2006, Strach, Polish trans. 2008). The author of these books, Jan T. Gross, challenged the Poles' view of themselves as solely innocent victims of German Nazism, showing how anti-Semitism could lead them to kill Jews both during and after the war. This chapter analyses the Polish reactions to Gross's book Fear and identifies amongst them a number of coping strategies typical of a trauma situation. The author argues that the memory of Polish anti-Semitism during and after the Holocaust became established as a cultural trauma in post-communist Poland and Jan T. Gross's writings have played a crucial role in this process. This chapter demonstrates how the cultural trauma has been constructed but at the same time points to the fact that it has not yet resulted in a radical revision of Polish memory and identity. Thus the study shows the weakness of the normative aspects of the theory of cultural trauma. The construction of cultural trauma does not necessarily lead to empathy, greater moral responsibility and reconciliation as postulated by the authors of the theory.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of communism entailed many changes in Poland in the ways history was written and the past recollected. Since 1989 many heated debates about the past have taken place. Surprisingly, the stormiest debate did not concern communist crimes, but Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and the immediate post-war years. The two most discussed historical books in post-communist Poland, Sasied^i (2000, English trans. Neighbors 2001) and Fear (2006; Polish trans. Strach, 2008) dealt with anti-Semitism in Poland during and after the Second World War. The author of these books, the Polish-American scholar Jan T. Gross challenged the Poles' view of themselves as solely innocent victims of German Nazism, showing how anti-Semitism could also have led them to kill Jews both during and after the War. Gross's books awoke strong emotions and Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz even ^d to his opponents trying to press legal charges against him for 'defaming the Polish nation'.1 At the same time he was praised by a large part of the Polish intellectual elite for his contribution to making the Poles face the anti-Semitic legacy in their country and to start dealing with it. This had never been raised in Communist Poland where the regime had used anti-Semitism as a political weapon and the subject was made taboo.

There are many reasons for the involvement of parts of the Polish elite in remembering the Holocaust and the Polish role in it. One of them is the determination to 'Européanise' Polish national identity by subscribing to the idea, wide-spread in EU countries since the 1990s, that the memory of the Holocaust is fundamental to European identity, a lesson to remember in order to build a more tolerant and democratic Europe. The huge public discussions about Polish guilt that took place during some years before and after Poland's entry to the EU inscribed the country in the general trend of European politics of memory, namely the politics of regret, guilt and expiation.2 Trying to change a nation's collective memory from focusing on the glorious days to the days of guilt and shame is an enormous challenge. In the following I focus on Gross's writings as such an attempt. However, because Gross's book Neighbors has already been analysed by several researchers, including myself (Törnquist-Plewa 2003, 141-176. Compare with Michlic and Polonsky 2003). I will concentrate on Gross's second book Fear (Strach)? I analyse the Polish reactions to Fear by using the theory of cultural trauma as it has been formulated in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (2004), co-authored by Alexander, Eyerman, Giesen, Smelser and Sztompka.

In the light of this theory I argue for the hypothesis that Jan T. …

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