Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Fear and Trembling

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Fear and Trembling

Article excerpt

Fear and Trembling FEAR: ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND AFTER AUSCHWITZ by JAN T. GROSS Random House, 320 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Andrzej Fister-Stoga

AT THE CENTER OF THE complex historical landscape of Polish-Jewish relations stand World War II and its aftermath. Jan T. Gross' previous book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwahne, Poland, published in Polish in 2000 and then a year later in the United States, revealed that the brutal murder of the Jewish residents of one town was committed by their Polish neighbors rather than by Germans. This revelation sparked an overdue debate in Poland about the ethnic violence at a local level that occurred in the years that followed its partitioning by the Nazis and Soviets in 1939.

Now, with his new book, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, Gross sounds a similar note, focusing on what he sees as Polish anti-Semitism in what had become communist-controlled Poland following the Nazi occupation. Gross' account highlights the July 4, 1946, pogrom in Kielce, a town in southern Poland, in which some forty Jews were slaughtered. It started on July 1, when a father reported to the police that his eight-year-old son had not come home. The boy returned after two days, having run away to meet a friend in a neighboring village. But the father told the police that die boy had been abducted and imprisoned by Jews in a house that served several of their organizations. The following day, the police sent a patrol to investigate, spreading the rumor along the way that Jews snatched Polish children. After a crowd of people gathered, a riot began, with civilians, policemen, and soldiers taking part. Jews hiding inside were pulled out into the street and beaten; others were thrown out of windows. The killings also spread throughout the city and onto passenger trains passing through Kielce.

What was the cause of this violence? Gross points to what he sees as the "widespread" and "virulent" anti-Semitism found in Poland. Ordinary Poles of all walks of life hated Jews and had no qualms about killing them. During the pogrom, for instance, Jewish-looking passengers were pulled off trains, their "skulls crushed." In another example, a young mother and her child were driven off to a forest and shot dead, the murderers later going off to enjoy a fine dinner. Meanwhile, the communist security and administrative agencies were not eager to stand up for Jewish citizens.

IF ANTI-SEMITISM WAS so pervasive in postwar Poland, what was the reason behind it? According to Gross' historical interpretation, Poles hated Jews after the war because of what Poles had done to Jews during the war: They profited from the extermination of Jews by the Nazis by taking over their properties and jobs. Having benefited from the crimes, Poles hated those Jews that returned-in part because they wanted their property back but, more deeply, because they were a living testimony to the moral sickness to which the Poles had succumbed.

Had the Kielce rioters profited from the Jewish tragedy during the war, and did they feel fear afterward? As an explanation, it has an intuitive appeal. Gross, however, fails to establish any of these facts. Certainly there were Poles who behaved disgustingly during the war, but no factual connection between them and the pogrom is made in the book. Gross states: "I see no other plausible explanation of the virulent postwar anti-Semitism in Poland but that it was embedded in the society's opportunistic wartime behavior."

Had Gross paid closer attention to other relevant issues-as, for example, the degenerative effect on public morality caused by the Nazi occupation-the tensions generated by mass population movements after the war, mob psychology, and also how Poles perceived the political attitudes of Jews, then he might have come up with a more convincing interpretation.

To support his claim of widespread Polish anti-Semitism, Gross refers to historians' estimates that between 600 and 1,500 Jews were killed in Poland in the years following the war. …

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