2008-01-18 Michal Kubicki
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New books on afterwar Polish-Jewish relations provoke heated debate in Poland

Not for the first time in recent memory there’s controversy in Poland on a World War II issue. Two books on Polish-Jewish relations after the war have just been published, both by Polish-born historians living in the United States. Michal Kubicki of Polish Radio’s External Service looks at why the books are set to provoke heated debate on one of the most complex chapters in Poland’s modern history.

The books in question are ‘Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz’ by Jan Tomasz Gross, former professor at Princeton University, and ‘After the Holocaust. Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II’ by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Dean at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.

Gross is far better known to the Polish public. Several years ago his ‘Neighbours’, a book about the 1941 massacre of Jews by the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne, provoked a debate which led to a re-appraisal of history written under Poland’s communist regime. It showed that the image of Poles being only the heroes and martyrs of the war was not true. Gross’s new book ‘Fear’ focuses on the 1946 Kielce pogrom in which 40 Jews were killed.

Jan GrossJan Gross
‘A Jew [in post-war Poland] was looked upon as a threat, for various reasons. He could claim the right to someone’s property. He also brought back the memories of various terrible things and crimes in which many people were involved during the occupation. Anti-Semitic actions enjoyed acceptance of broad sections of Polish society. Those responsible for them have not been condemned by the local communities until today.’

In ‘Fear’ Gross writes about what he describes as Polish ‘society’s violently expressed desire to render the country free of Jews’. He declared that he wanted his book to act as a ‘shock therapy’. Professor Chodakiewicz says that a historian’s goal should rather be to reconstruct the truth about the events under study. His own extensive research led him to conclude that most Jews who were killed in post-war Poland were not the victims of anti-Semitism. He stresses that Polish-Jewish relations in the 1940s should be examined in the context of the Soviet-imposed communist dictatorship.

‘Whoever has been despoiled by the Nazis and the communists should have his or her property restored. That goes both for the Christians and the Jews. That didn’t happen because of the communist hostility towards private property. Therefore there were conflicts over property which only the communists could have solved. Also the communists entirely destroyed the machinery of the Polish state. When the communists pushed the Nazis out of Poland they started shooting, arresting and deporting functionaries of free Poland. That also means the police and the judiciary of the underground. That means that there was no law and order. When there’s no law and order banditry is rampant’.

The debate on the two books have only just started in the Polish media and the academic circles. For historian Marcin Zaremba of Warsaw University, Gross’s ‘Fear’ is a very important publication.

Marek Jan ChodakiewiczMarek Jan Chodakiewicz
‘I agree with his argument that Poles had their share in the Holocaust and that Polish peasants took part in the murder of Jews in Jedwabne, Radziłów, the regions of Łomża, Zamość and Kielce. I agree that anti-Semitism was a kind of cultural code which Poles used at that time, and that Jews were not responsible for the introduction of communist rule in Poland.’

Many Polish historians recognize the positive aspects of Gross’s book but argue that the author’s strong language makes serious debate extremely difficult. Professor Paweł Machcewicz took Gross to task for claiming that during the war Poles participated in the Holocaust and after the war they finished ethnic cleansing against Jews. According to Machcewicz such a view is unjustified.

The debate on Polish-Jewish relations which followed the publication of Gross’s ‘Neighbours’ demonstrated the Polish nation’s readiness to confront some of the most difficult facts in its history. According to political analyst Mariusz Ziomecki Poles shouldn’t be wasting time on trying to diminish their discomfort.

‘It’s much better to simply accept co-responsibility and accept the news that there were some heroic attitudes but also some acts of exploitation of the victims. That’s it. This is part of the luggage that we have to carry.’

Polish prosecutors launched a probe against Gross under a section of a criminal code providing for a three years’ prison term for anyone ‘publicly accusing the Polish nation of participating in, organizing or being responsible for Nazi or Communist crimes’. Both the admirers and critics of the book agree that this is a wrong decision. A prominent Polish bishop said: ‘books should be read and discussed, and those of poor quality – simply ignored.’

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