Ordinary Poles

Consult the Web site of Poland’s Consulate General in New York and you’ll find a link to a photo of the gates of Auschwitz, featuring the infamous promise, Arbeit macht frei. Beneath this the Consulate has pasted a protest: “Against ‘Polish camps.’” The Polish government does not want you to think of Auschwitz as a Polish camp. But why not? It was on Polish territory, after all.

The problem for Poland’s diplomats is that Americans misunderstand some basic facts about World War II—for example, that the Nazis did not set up a puppet government in Poland, but rather seized the western half of the country in 1939. As a corollary result of that year’s Hitler-Stalin Pact, the USSR annexed eastern Poland, then lost that territory after the Germans double-crossed them with the furious assault of June 1941. In sum, the Polish state did not exist during World War II, and the death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek were built and run by the Germans. Poles know that many who hear the words “Polish camps” assume Polish complicity in the mass slaughter of the country’s Jews, and they are touchy on the subject. Touchiness turns to outrage when Poles recall that theirs was the first country to defy Hitler, and that half of the 6 million citizens it lost during the war were not Jews. Poles have long considered themselves among the foremost opponents and victims of Nazism.

In 2001 the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross challenged these beliefs by showing that in the small Polish town of Jedwabne, Poles indeed killed their Jewish neighbors, and did so in a particularly gruesome way, burning them to death in a barn after a day-long pogrom on July 10, 1941. German forces had recently expelled Soviet troops from this part of eastern Poland, and the SS is known to have encouraged the killing of Jews; but in Neighbors, Gross demonstrated that it was the Poles who carried it out. Poland’s historians, many of them at first bitterly opposed to this charge, now mostly accept it as fact, and recognize similar deadly pogroms in other towns near Jedwabne.

But were the massacres in Jedwabne and nearby towns exceptional, or did they reveal something more general about Polish-Jewish relations? Gross pursues this still-open question in a new book whose subject is even more disturbing than that of his previous one—the continued killing of Jews even after the war. Fear shows that in the immediate postwar years Poles murdered between five hundred and fifteen hundred Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Gross’s centerpiece is the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, in which Poles clubbed and stabbed to death forty-two Jews.

How to account for this horrific and little-known fact? During the Communist period, many Poles speculated that the Communists themselves had provoked the pogrom in order to divert attention from elections they had falsified a few days earlier. But newly opened archives give no evidence to support this notion, and Gross argues convincingly that even the most rudimentary plan would have been beyond the capacity of bumbling local officials. Indeed, the documents he analyzes in his absorbing and lucid prose reveal the opposite: that the violence in Kielce, far from being planned, was spontaneous and uncoordinated. In many cases complete strangers collaborated in killing Jews. The murderers of Regina Fisz and her young son, for instance, reluctant to shoot their victims openly in the streets of Kielce, approached a truck driver, explaining that they needed transportation to a forest “to kill some Jews”—and after collecting a fee of a thousand zlotys, he took them. Having completed their mission, the killers matter-of-factly asked local villagers to bury the bodies. Finally, they celebrated in a local restaurant.

Although Gross writes that this kind of horrific event “could have happened anywhere in Poland, and at any time during this period,” he concedes the difficulty of explaining it. “Nothing on the murderous scale of the Kielce pogrom fit into the repertoire of traditional Polish anti-Semitism,” he writes. So what motivated the killers? In trial testimony they claimed that Jews had kidnapped a Christian boy and used his blood for a ritual. Investigation by Polish authorities quickly revealed this to be untrue. Gross calls the blood libel a “Pavlovian signal that activated an embedded prejudice.” Such medieval superstition was widespread all over Poland. After Kielce, the auxiliary bishop of Upper Silesia, Juliusz Bieniek, confided to the British ambassador that Jews had taken blood from the arm of a Christian boy. The diplomat cabled London: “If a bishop is prepared to believe this, it is not surprising that the uneducated Poles do so too.”

The Catholic Church issued half-hearted condemnations of the violence at Kielce—refusing to mention that the victims had been Jews. Despite the fact that local priests did nothing to quell the violence, Cardinal Primate August Hlond proclaimed that the “Catholic clergy in Kielce had fulfilled its obligations.” He wrote further that Jews had themselves to blame for the “deterioration of good relations” with Poles, and accused them of helping “impose” the Communist regime upon Poland. (In fact, Gross shows, Jews overwhelmingly supported non-Communist political forces.) And when one courageous bishop—Teodoro Kubina of Czestochowa—declared that the “statements about ritual murders are lies...deliberately invented by criminals or by confused people who do not know better,” and urged Poles to “combat with all your strength all the attempts to organize anti-Jewish excesses,” his fellow bishops called his intervention unacceptable “on the grounds of fundamental and canonic principles of the Catholic Church.”

Gross points out that neither of these popular defamations of Jews—as rabid Communists or ritual murderers—was new. What was new was the poisonous atmosphere left by the war. “Jewish survivors were an unbearable sore spot,” he writes, “because they had been victimized by their Polish neighbors-for centuries, but especially during the Nazi occupation.... It was ordinary Poles’ widespread collusion with the Nazi-driven extermination of the Jews which alone could produce such callousness.”

Though intellectually elegant, this solution to the puzzle of Kielce leaves a few things to be desired. For one, it contradicts Gross’s own commitment to combating ethnic stereotypes. “The nature of prejudice is to make unwarranted totalizing claims,” he writes at the book’s outset, “whereas understanding advances through elucidation of careful distinctions.” Why does that not apply to “ordinary Poles”? Why does Gross not ask which people in and beyond Kielce were more likely to engage in violence, and which less likely? Other works on Polish anti-Semitism show its prevalence among people with minimal education. But Gross does not attempt to differentiate.

If Gross’s idea is that “widespread collusion with the Nazi-driven extermination” produced callousness among Poles, then one would expect to find extraordinary collusion in wartime Kielce. But Israeli historian Sara Bender’s recent study of this town under Nazi occupation shows that Poles there had little if any role in the Holocaust. German authorities kept Poles out of the killing squads, relying instead on the SS and German and Ukrainian police; when Gestapo officers entered the Kielce ghetto on the morning of August 20, 1942, they ordered Jewish—not Polish—police to take residents from their homes to waiting freight cars destined for Treblinka. Survivors recall that in general Poles showed little sympathy. Yet one also remembered a Pole who brought water to Jews in the overheated cars. For this he was shot dead by an SS man.

Gross additionally supposes that Poles abused Jews in the postwar years because they had seized much Jewish property during the war, and he notes several cases in which Poles refused to give property back. Yet Bender tells us that in Kielce, Poles who attempted to loot Jewish property were shot. We may suspect that much Jewish property found its way into Polish hands during and after the war—but how and how much is still a matter of speculation.

What, then, caused the violence against Jews in postwar Poland? Some have supposed that Nazi occupation “demoralized” Polish society. Gross dismisses this explanation; Nazi ideology, he asserts, did not simply “rub off” on Poles. But perhaps he is too hasty, overlooking his own insight into the crucial legacy left by the war. The Nazis created a radically new context in Poland, one that did not end when hostilities ceased. Its character was paradoxical. On the one hand, the Germans destroyed the fondest dream of Polish nationalists, the Polish state. On the other hand, they came close to effecting Polish nationalists’ next dearest wish: ridding Poland of Jews. Many Poles resented the three hundred thousand Jews who survived the Holocaust, and once the Nazis were swept away, these nationalists did not suddenly regard Jews as Polish citizens with equal rights. As Gross shows, the perpetrators in Kielce shared an unspoken assumption that Jews could be killed like animals. In other words, they saw Jews as subhumans, precisely as Nazi ideology stipulated. It did not “rub off,” but rather was deeply internalized through Poland’s experience.

There are two, mirror-image dangers to a study such as this. One either judges Kielce and Jedwabne as purely local affairs with no relevance for the rest of Poland, or portrays them as fully representative of Poland. Gross has embraced the latter position. His apparent fear of somehow minimizing the dimension of the crime leads him to blur important distinctions among possible and actual perpetrators. This is unfortunate, because only by searching tirelessly for exceptional persons like Bishop Kubina do we see clearly that the guilty had the freedom to act differently—which they chose to squander.

Perhaps this book will generate deeper concern for such questions in Poland, and fuel an informed discussion. To most Americans, however, the effect of saying that “ordinary Poles” caused violence is to reinforce deeply held stereotypes. One Oakland history teacher, for example, recently told me that Gross’s book on Jedwabne, Neighbors, had not told her anything new: she had always known that Poles killed Jews. The rest of my audience, consisting of high-school history teachers, nodded in agreement. For them, Auschwitz and Treblinka are “Polish camps,” and nothing in Jan Gross’s book is likely to change that.

 


Related: My Polish Grandfather, by Alexander Charns

Published in the 2007-02-23 issue: 
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John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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