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A Different View on the Łomża Region in Poland

During the past few years many things have been written about Łomża Land; and not only praise but also quite controversial things as well. One may ask about the point of writing about this region ? The goal is not to add yet another publication to the list but to set the record straight, to show a different image of the region and the people who have inhabited it for centuries.

The Jedwabne area especially has become an object of special interest for historians, sociologists, politicians and moralists, and the positing of various claims, not always flattering to the inhabitants of that part of Poland. I asked myself the question: do I have the right to speak out about Jedwabne ? After all, all kinds of scholars and journalists , people hoping to “bake” their plans (including financial plans) on this fire, are not shy about expressing their views on this issue.

I am very attached to the region in question. I was born during World War II, 9 kilometers from Jedwabne, 10 km from Stawiska, 8 km from Radziłów and 18 km from Wizna. I spent my childhood in the village of Przytuły (at first we lived away from the village and, later, in the hamlet itself). My relatives resided in Radziłów, Jedwabne, Wizna and Zanklewo (My mother was born in Zanklewo. She was a friend of the Dobkowskis, who hid Jews). Even now I have strong emotional ties to the region and I believe that I understand the psyche of the locals regardless of my PhD from the Sorbonne or the fact of having lived abroad for over 30 years (I visit Poland almost annually anyhow). It is with nostalgia that I remember the hilly landscape, the forests and the local streams and rivers: the Biebrza (one kilometer away from Radziłów) and the Narew River, which flows through Wizna.

As usual, my parents were the first to teach me both recent and more distant history. I remember the stories my father told. As a young man, he went to France to work in order to save up some money for a farm of a dozen hectares or so, which had always been his dream. I would end up in France some time later, but no longer as a worker, but as a recipient of a French government scholarship. I remember what he told me about his participation in the September Campaign, about his escape from the Germans, about slave labor in Germany and about the horrible terror of the occupation, which he personally experienced. His statement that “when a German didn’t like something he either beat or shot you“ has stuck out. Of course, he also told me about the tragedy of the Jews in Jedwabne and Radziłów; he also mentioned Wizna. He told me about Germans moving from Radziłów to Jedwabne. I do not recall whether he said that they were riding in trucks or vans, but I do remember that they were heavily-armed and had heavy machine guns mounted on the vehicles. He mentioned Stawiska often, since he was born in Sokoły, i.e. five kilometers form Stawiska. He spent his childhood, before he emigrated to France, in his birthplace and told me about Jews trading with his father or visiting the wealthier farmers in Sokoły.

One time, he also told me about the time he went to see his brother in Radziłów two weeks after Jews were burned because he smelt the horrible stench of burned bodies; he also saw unburied parts of human bodies. My mother, in turn, told me about feeding and clothing Jews or partisans who showed up during the night at our humble house. She told how the Dobkowski family hid Jews in the village of Zanklewo … the village knew and yet no one notified the German occupiers. She also told me that Jews were also hidden in Kubra. One of the Poles involved in this operation even married a Jewish woman that was being hidden and, as a matter of fact, I happened to attend elementary school with their child.

Right after the war I also remember seeing Jews selling cloth, pots, pans and other house wares. But before I proceed further, the methodological question must be asked whether a person coming from a given community and identifying with it and the locals can be relatively objective and balanced ? I shall direct the skeptics to the serious academic journal “Organizational Research Methods” , no. 10, 2007, Theresa Brommick and David Coghan,  In Defense of Being ‘Native’: The Case for Insider Research, pg. 59. 

Of course, much can be written about the region, but my goal is not present a detailed study of the region’s topography or history. Some interesting facts should be mentioned, however, for as legend (or historical fact) has it, it was near Wizna or Łomża that St. Wojciech (Adalbert) suffered death as a martyr. Recently, Łomża also celebrated the one-thousandth anniversary of her existence. The mother of the great Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński , after whom a school in Jedwabne has been named, would also be buried in the  Łomża cemetery. It would also be in Wizna that the famous Italian-born Queen Bona Sforza would have her castle and summer residence. She founded a church in the town and even built an underground passage between the castle and the church. The areas around Wizna were inaccessible but nevertheless served as a hunting ground fro the royal entourage. Even the princes Radziwiłł fell in love with the forests on the banks of the Biebrza and wished to hunt there. They also founded the settlement of Radziłów.

The area had been known to merchants since “time immemorial”, since a trade route ran through the region. I shall add that many Roman coins have been found in Przytuły. If we wanted to peruse the history of the region, we would find mentions of, for example, a noble levy (pospolite ruszenie) from 1446 (the documents are at the Polish Museum in Chicago). It is interesting to know that we find the same names of men fighting under King Władyslaw IV as we encounter in the area now. Documents reflecting the local petty nobility going to defend the Patria show that the local villages had the same names as they have now. In addition to the petty nobility there were also serfs and pretty large demesnes in Stawiski, Przytuły or Jedwabne, not to mention the lands of the Rzadiwiłłs.

The march route of the Napoleonic armies moving against Russia also led through Stawiski. Supposedly there was a beaten track. The great idea of national independence was also not foreign to the locals. I have been told that my great ancestor (from my father’s mother’s side), Adam Konopka (probably educated in the Tsarist Army), was a general in Napoleon’s army and later found his way to the court of the British Queen. The names other local people who fought for Polish independence and took part in the January Uprising of 1863. My great grandparents, who bore the name of Bagenski (my father also signed his name in this manner) also fought in the January Uprising and had to escape into the Prussian partition. After the defeat of the uprising the Tsar ordered the parcellation of such estates as Sieburczyn on the Narew. The next “wave” of parcellations would take place after World War I.

Contrary to appearances, we can speak of fairly advanced social stratification in this area. There was the clearly defined group of rich nobles, plenty of impoverished petty nobles and many peasants freed from serfdom in 1863 who could not completely “assimilate” with the petty nobility. Finally, we also have enfranchised farm laborers, known as fornale (“carters”). The last group was much different from the other groups because they did not always know how to manage a farm and often sold off the plots granted to them. They would continue to work either for richer peasants or for nobles on their now reduced estates. This stratum was often held in contempt, either consciously or subconsciously, by the enfranchised peasantry or the petty nobility. When we add to this the small town laborers who began to engage in trade, crafts or small-scale agriculture we gain a clearer picture of the social situation in this area. Now we must proceed to discuss the situation of our brothers of the Mosaic faith.

According to some Jewish historians, Jews would begin to appear in this region during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. At the beginning of the twentieth century the towns in the area can already boast of being almost 50 percent Jewish in composition. The local Jews would mostly engage in trade and handicrafts. At the same time, like in Stawiski, the Jews had their own organizations, schools, political parties and, not to mention, synagogues.

Such a Jewish presence in the area could not reflect any great persecution or an unfriendly attitude towards the Jews on the part of the local Polish Christian population. These people had inhabited the same land for centuries, had their own niches and, although they were a separate ethnic group, it does not appear that the goal of Polish independence was totally alien to them. The degree of this and their assimilation or separatism are another question. The question of Jewish identification, assimilationism and patriotism in light of the Polish drive for independence is being researched, among others, by Kevin McDonald. It is not my task to make arguments about this problem but better knowledge will undoubtedly cast more light on the actions of Poles during World War II.

As Marek Jan Chodakiewicz noted, service in the army of a given state is the best gauge of identification with a given society. During World War II 5,000 Jews would serve in the Polish Armed Forces, numbering about 300,000 troops. Several hundred Polish officers of Jewish descent would also be murdered by the Soviets in Katyń. Of more famous Jews, Menakhem Begin, the future Israeli PM, himself born in or near Łomża, would serve in the Polish Army led by Gen. Anders.

But I am most interested in the political climate after World War I. The inhabitants of the area finally regained the liberty they had been desiring for so long. They had witnessed Piłsudski’s victorious war with the Bolsheviks and independentist and national ideas were not foreign to them. Roman Dmowski himself was to spend the last five years of his life in Drozdowo, several kilometers from Stawiski. At the same time, the attitude towards Piłsudski’s regime, the “Sanacja”, was also not uncritical. The more enlightened inhabitants, the intelligentsia (the pharmacist, the priest, the doctor and the teachers) and even peasants took note of the rulers’ faults but, in general, there was much more distrust, and even enmity, towards the foes of Poland’s independence: Germany and Russia. The monument to Piłsudski, erected in the Jedwabne market place, was a sign of the pro-independence and patriotic worldview of the local population.

At the same time it must be said that the Jewish population, in general, stood aloof from the movements whose goal it was to protect Poland’s independence. In fact, most supported those socialist currents favoring communist ideas. As the historical sources show, there was only one ethnically-Polish communist in Jedwabne; all the others were of Jewish descent. The Zionist movement was also popular and was especially developed in Stawiski. The situation in Radziłów was similar.

This allows us to argue that the local Poles did not necessarily see the Jews as a different “race”, but as political opponents who, incidentally, happened to be Jewish. If there were conflicts or disagreements, they were usually of a political or economic, not necessarily ethnic, nature. Thus, if we take into account the deeply-rooted Polish attachment to independence and the general indifference of the Jewish population towards this goal our image of Polish and Jewish behavior during World War II will be clearer.

 The great hostility on the part of the Catholic population towards the communist ideology was a source of enmity towards both Polish communists and Jewish communists. Considering the categories of political struggle or the tenets of Catholic religion as obvious can help us understand certain actions, though that does not mean that they are sufficient or serve as justification for those actions that are irreconcilable with the moral tenets of religion or social ethical norms.

We must also note that back then moral behavior was controlled by public opinion which either approved or condemned moral stances. Honesty and the love of liberty or independence were often considered as very important in the minds of individuals and held in high esteem by public opinion. Alcoholism, stealing and cheating were frowned upon and the moral authority and pronouncements of the clergy were very important in this matter. Being criticized from the pulpit was often a greater punishment than prison. When we also note that both the Polish and Jewish populations (the latter being slightly richer) did not belong to the wealthiest in Jedwabne an even clearer picture emerges.

Honor and respect for the private property of others were very important commandments rubbed in from the crib and were strictly enforced. Thieves were looked down upon by society and respect for someone else’s property was a moral value. This introduction, however general, was intended to help understand the crimes and actions of those either calling themselves “Poles” or being called “Poles” by others. In order to bring to a close these introductory comments I would like to introduce the following working hypothesis: sometimes a supposed victim can be become a criminal or a supposed criminal can become a victim. This is possible during extraordinary circumstances, such as wartime or during ethnic or racial conflicts. When a man’s existence is under great threat, he can commit acts aiming at self-preservation or the avoidance of destruction, but without properly taking into account the self-preservation instincts of others.

Having read almost everything on the tragic massacre in Jedwabne I would now like to address some prevailing myths about the locality.

Myths about Jedwabne

One of the greatest, and yet most popular myths about the massacre perpetrated on the Jews in Jedwabne is the number of victims. The numbers given by Jan T. Gross and others are far removed from the reality, since it appears that a more accurate figure would be about 200 victims. Unfortunately, for political, not ritual reasons, a proper exhumation was not conducted. The reasoning was that it would be “better” not to conduct it so as not to expose the lies peddled by Gross and other “scholars”. At the same time, the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) did not publish all the available documents despite of the publication of two large volumes. In the end, those who were supposed to seek the Truth and tell us “what really happened”, instead of what they think happened, seemed to have abandoned their professionalism. 

Another myth was the supposed possession of fire arms by those Poles whose task it was to guard the Jews and herd them towards the market square. In fact, only the gendarmes or the representatives (of whatever nationality) of the German occupier present at the location could have firearms.

The direct participation of the inhabitants of Jedwabne and the vicinity in the massacre is yet another myth. Documents, eyewitness testimony, serious scholarly works, a partial investigation and the archives support the direct presence of the Germans that day and their causative and direct role in shooting the victims. Seven vehicles from a special Gestapo unit arrived from Radziłów.

There is also the issue of the alleged indifference of the local Poles towards the suffering of the Jews. Documents, eyewitness testimony, the excavation of valuable objects, the Jews hidden and rescued during the round-up or the reactions of neighbors (to the drowning of their own children by Jewish mothers, for example) show compassion for the victims despite of the threat of execution by the Gestapo. Many Poles also escaped from the “task” of guarding Jews at the market.

Another myth: the credibility of witnesses and documents heretofore considered credible. According to documents and key witnesses Gross’s witness (Shmuel Wasserstein) was not in Jedwabne on that horrible day of 10 July, 1941. The court documentation is of doubtful value because of the political character of the trial that took place after World War II and even the court itself considered most of them worthless.

Another myth: the complete innocence of the victims. Documents, witnesses, archives and scholarly works and primary sources speak of a well-documented, wide-spread collaboration of many Jews in denouncing patriots, sending people to Siberia and actively persecuting Poles with arms in hand. Clear proof of this was in the presence of Jews in the homes and properties of those whom the Soviets did not have the time to deport to Siberia and who returned home from Łomża on 24 June, 1941, only to find Jews living in their houses.

Another myth: the common Polish and Jewish drive to fight for and regain independence. The archives, eyewitnesses and scholarship show the active participation of most of the Jews in Jedwabne and the other localities in the Soviet administration, active collaboration with the NKVD, happiness at the Soviet occupation, the destruction of the intelligentsia and the killing of partisans. Moreover, the statue of Piłsudski was destroyed and replaced with Lenin’s. Some of these perpetrators escaped with the Red Army and left their families behind while others could not leave.

Another myth is the argument that anti-Semitism was the only factor motivating Poles from the margins of society to perpetrate this crime on the local Jews. Jewish-Soviet collaboration was, as was mentioned earlier, perceived by Poles in general as inimical to Polish pro-independence drives. Jews were, first of all, political opponents and, only later the representatives of a different “race”. There was also the motivation to “punish” for crimes committed against Poles; this would not have been necessarily aimed at the perpetrators themselves but, in accordance with Jewish tradition, at their families and especially children. This was inexcusable but we must nevertheless understand the metalite. We may conclude that if, hypothetically, the crimes perpetrated against the local Poles had been perpetrated by, say, Tatars or Belorussians, then the anger of the people would have turned against them as well and some kind of pogrom committed by people from the social margins or overzealous and blinded “patriots” having old scores to settle with Jews or representatives of other minorities would have been a possibility.

Another myth: the lack of a clear order issued by the Third Reich to exterminate, initially, Jews and, afterwards, also Poles. Archival documentation from 1940, 1941 and 1942, the creation of special task forces and an order issued in this matter.

Yet another myth: an uncontrollable desire to loot Jewish property as the main motive of the massacre. The partial exhumation, archival documents and studies show a different picture. Moreover, valuables were also found buried along with the victims of the horrible crime.

Another myth: the ability of the local gendarmerie composed of or using elements from the Jedwabne community, a handful of persons embittered by the experiences of the Soviet occupation and the behavior of Jews during it, and the new civilian authorities (Karolak and other non-local elements installed in the town by the Germans) to perpetrate carry out such a massacre themselves. Eyewitnesses, archives documents, studies by authoritative scholars and, of course, the Nazi German terror instituted in the area tell a much different story.

Yet another myth is the claim that Jan T. Gross was the first to call attention to the participation of Poles in murdering Jews. But this topic had been addressed as early as the 1980’s and there were plenty of works on the topic. It is unfortunate that Jan Gross either did not have the time, the will or the ability to study them. Much has also been said about the various myths perpetuated by Gross and other pseudo-specialists; there are many publications available, not to mention on-line materials. On the other hand, rich documentation can help us reconstruct the “reality” of Jedwabne, under which we shall subsume the events transpiring in the other towns and villages of the area.

The Reality of Jedwabne

What happened was a tragedy: about 200 more or less innocent people were brutally massacred on the orders of the German conquerors occupying Polish lands at the time. Under duress, a handful of people, not to mention some elements from the margins of society (who came from Jedwabne or other localities) assisted and, perhaps, wanted to show off their “courage”. Perhaps some also had scores to settle with some Jews and believed that they would go unpunished because of the wartime conditions. All of them were either casual (opportunity criminals) or ex officio assistants of the Germans (the Gestapo and the Einsatzgruppen) fulfilling orders given by Hitler and his henchmen.

We can also note that the massacre of Jews in nearby Radziłów, which took place three days earlier, was more cruel than the one in Jedwabne. According to some eyewitnesses, the excesses committed by the drunken Sadkiewicz and his accomplices were even worse than those committed in Jedwabne.

One must add that sometimes supposedly academic research is based on unconfirmed or even nonexistent sources but it is nevertheless accepted as true by the public at large. Even if it is refuted, as was the case with Jan T. Gross’s “work”, the myths are nevertheless perpetuated and repeated for political and propagandistic purposes. Moreover, some Catholic circles mostly descended from neophytes (that is Jews converted to Catholicism) have uncritically accepted Gross’s fabricated propositions and attempted to spread them and lay blame where there was little or none. It is also unfortunate that even scholars from the IPN succumbed to the temptations of selectiveness when it came to publishing documents. They also halted the research when it appeared that it would lead them towards conclusions incompatible with their expectations, the requirements of political correctness, the political line of the government or the demands of pressure groups. Some Church hierarchs were also too rash to make uncritical statements about a subject they were not well acquainted with. Government officials then in power in Poland also made statements not only slandering Poland’s reputation but also contrary to Polish raison d’etat and national interests. One could also notice an extreme bias in the media, especially in publications hostile to the Polish raison d’etat, such as Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Powszechny and Rzeczpospolita, even though pretensions to appear unbiased were sometimes made. This was not merely a hunt for the “sensational” but a thought-out tactic of molding public opinion in a certain way.

It is with shame that one must acknowledge the great difficulty in establishing unbiased and independent mass media in Poland … even given the sad experiences of communist propaganda. The same goes for the lack of objectivity in academic research, which stooped so low as to forge documents or rely on “eyewitnesses” that never witnessed an event in question. Conclusions carelessly arrived at and introduced into mass circulation have become “facts” and the damage this has done is sometimes difficult to remedy.

One also notes the limited attitudes of supposed scholars who are rash to make claims and, afterwards, do not even have the courage to admit they were at least partly wrong when new information proving that the reality diverged from their arguments surfaces. It is almost unfathomable that, in the twenty first century, some would dare peddle such absurdities to people who are supposedly educated and computer-literate, not to mention the “benighted” ones or readers who know nothing of the subject matter at hand. It violates even the most basic principles of honesty and reminds one of the one-sided line of communist propaganda.

There are grounds to fear that the debate on Fear can be characterized by the above. For example, the Polish historian, prof. Jerzy Robert Nowak, in an article published in Nasz Dziennik on 17 January, 2008, argues that a debate held on public television fits this pattern. Except for historians Marek Chodakiewicz and Bogdan Musiał others did not seem to know what they were talking about, nor did it appear that they actually read Gross’s Fear. Unfortunately, the media in Poland gave Gross a venue to promote his views, despite of the fact that even the current director of the IPN, Janusz Kurtyka, called him a “vampire of historiography”. How can any serious person accept Gross’s claims about Poles supposedly believing in ritual murder or wanting to erect a monument to Hitler ?! Can one take such exchanges among friends as “I will kill you if you don’t come to the party” or “I hate you because you don’t want to play with me” seriously ? Is Gross as naïve as to consider the above statements to be reflections of reality ? Is so desperate as to reach for such “arguments” ? Or is this simply a case of wanting to sell a book and making money ? Perhaps the greed that Gross accuses others of is his specialty ? Let us address some of the statements made by prof. Gross in interviews conducted with him.

In one interview Gross said (among other things) that “Jews were being killed by ordinary people and not by people from the margins of society”. Gross and his supporters should be reminded that Ekstowicz was present at the barn in Radziłów in which Jews were burned to death. It was he that actually rescued and took home a Jewish child that managed to escape from a fresh mass grave filled with murdered Jews. A German allowed him to do this and Ekstowicz would share everything that he and his four children had with this Jewish child. I will add that Klimaszewski, considered to be mentally unbalanced by his neighbors, was the one to pour gasoline on the barn. At the same time, the Sadkiewicz  who tortured Jews while intoxicated  had some unsettled scores with them from before the war and, as far as I know, he did not survive the war.

It really does not take a lot of time to familiarize oneself with such scholarly works by historians Marek Chodakiewicz, Bogdan Musiał or the late Tomasz Strzembosz, to avoid the pitfall’s of Gross’s exotic generalizations about Poles. Is prof. Gross really unaware of such documentation as 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis (2002) -  www.marxists.de/middleast/brenner/index.htm. One can also mention Bryan Mark Rigg’s book about Hitler’s “Jewish” soldiers or Marek Chodakiewicz’s work on “Jews” in Hitler’s service. Perhaps this will allow Gross to understand that not all people who happened to be Jewish were as crystal-clear as he purports. But Gross probably believes that such inconvenient facts should either be ignored or considered irrelevant.

We must also return to the Kielce “pogrom” of July, 1946. I write the word pogrom in quotes because we still do not know exactly what sparked the event, who initiated it and why. How many documents are still unknown or unavailable to historians ? One can search in the IPN or the Russian archives but even that will not reverse the destruction of some documents.

Gross’s answers to serious accusations levied at his work are usually quite exotic. For example, Marcin Wojciechowski told Jan Gross that “you formulate quite extreme theses, you are quite liberal in your usage of quantifiers, and you do not nuance generalizations”. Gross replied that “I don’t agree with that. My book is very nuanced because it is based on a whole series (mnóstwo) of particular events. One must later try to understand them somehow”. But what does a “whole series of particular events” mean for Gross ? Twenty, fifty, one hundred events ? Apparently, a “whole series” for Gross is two or three events, followed by making extreme claims and generalizations.

During an internet discussion on Gross’s book a commentator using the handle Azrael noted the following: “It is forgotten that Gross’s work is not a work of professional scholarship or even popular scholarship, but merely an essay. And an essay based solely on Jewish testimonies at that ! In that case Gross is not obliged to contrast them with other sources. Gross’s book is subjective, it is also partly a work of manipulation, but the materials he does use are irrefutable”. It is difficult to understand how reality can be, at once, irrefutable without the possibility of verification and mythology. Ergo, “Gross is a provocateur and a historical rogue” (Ibid.).

Meanwhile, contrary to appearances, reviews on the cover of Gross’s book are “competing” in their admiration for the author: ”Gross supplies impeccable documentation”(Baltimore Sun); “One of the best book of the Year” (Washinghton Post Book World); “Compelling … Gross builds a meticulous case” (Publishers Weekly); “Fear’s anguishing expose is brilliantly scholarly, analytical, sober, yet compellingly readable” (The Australian).

I read Fear in its English original (according to Prof. Jerzy Robert Nowak, Gross removed about 100 pages of text before the publication of the Polish version) as well as other works on the Kielce pogrom and Polish-Jewish relations during the period in question  (E.g. see “The Road to the Israel-Polish Rapprochement”, Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 41,  Nov. 2005) and I do not hide my distaste at the allegations made in many of them.

For example, it is very difficult to comprehend Gross’s esoteric generalizations or accusations of ritual murder when describing the Jewish Committee on pg. 148: “the bishop(Cardinal Wyszyński) clarified that during the Beilis trial, a lot of old and new Jewish  books  were assembled, and the matter of blood was not definitively settled.*reference to the Mendel Beilis trial in 1913 in Kiev, when he was acquitted” . This description has as much to do with reality as a common joke about Jewish woman as supposedly having crosswise sexual organs.

It is very unfortunate that Gross’s book was published in Poland by “Znak”, which considers itself a Catholic publishing house. One can attempt to work for Polish-Jewish reconciliation one way or another, but why do it by publishing a book replete with lies and myths ? As a counter-weight, one ought to ask “Znak” to publish a Polish version of, for example, The Massacre in Jedwabne by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, or other more informative publications showing the complex nature of Polish-Jewish relations over the ages and during and after World War II.

As the debate over Gross’s book continues, journalists are often asking the question: “Who is afraid of Fear” ? Some, including the author of this essay, believe that it is Gross first and foremost ! It was he that left out of “fear” in 1968 because he was either afraid to identify with any of the groups struggling for political power at the time, and thus felt rejected, or he and his older friends were unable to find a way out of the political and ideological impasse during the March Events of 1968. It is possible that already then, as a young “scholar”, he sensed that the eclipse and fall of  the ideology of communism in Europe, and especially in Poland, were well underway. It is indeed possible that already then he began to promote the myth minimizing the role of ties between Jews in Poland and the communist regime after World War II and the “harm” done to Jews by Poles after that war. It is yet another paradox of Gross’s allegations that this “harm” was supposed to have been perpetrated upon the Jews in Poland when that country was ruled by many powerful Jewish communists.

Gross includes yet another one of his esoteric claims in his conclusion by stating that “while Jews were literally running away from Communism, the Communists were politically running away from the Jews” (pg. 245). This is nothing more than a mythical and erroneous view of the history of socialist and communist movements that ignores the names and roles of people participating in them from the Spring of Nations (1848) until the present era. In 1944, as names, documents and reports confirm, the Countrywide National Council (KRN), which represented the Soviet occupiers, arrived from the Soviet Union and included many Jews; so did its successor, the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), seen by most Poles as a Soviet Russian puppet government. Jews were also given important positions in the state administration and the diplomatic service, both subordinated to Moscow; the repression apparatus was also staffed with many Jews, though sometimes Polish figure heads were employed, only to be secretly subordinated to Russian decision-makers who, “incidentally”, also happened to be “Jewish”. The statistics (47 % of the government was Jewish, as well as crucial posts in the judiciary, schools and state enterprises), names, statements, memoirs and scholarly works are direct proof.

One may add that the Soviets were not behaving that differently from the previous occupiers, by attempting to spread the blame by once again persecuting Poles with Jewish hands, although this time they did so by using more refined methods adapted to the more peaceful post-war situation in accordance with the old precept of divide et impera.

Next, let us consider another of Gross’s claims: “Postwar hatred of the Jews in Poland was too lethal, too widespread, too untamed to be grounded in anything else but concrete palpable fear … Until somebody offers an alternative explanation, we must consider that it was ordinary Poles’ widespread collusion with the Nazi-driven extermination of the Jews which alone could produce such callousness” (pg. 247 - 248).

But, according to documents, research and scholarly publications it was neither fear, nor a conspiracy of indifference, lust for Jewish property or any “fixation” on the Nazi German methods of exterminating Jews that motivated the Polish enmity towards Jews after 1944. The causes must be looked for elsewhere. First of all, in many stereotypes about Jews which perceived the Jew as a cheating trader without ethical scruples, a communist, an ideological opponent or opportunist, an ally of the Russian occupier bringing communist ideas and persecuting freedom and Catholicism, a potential or real traitor of Polish national interests, a supporter of “political correctness” (e.g. baptism for political or economic advantages), someone “alien” and not identifying with the interests of the nation or not striving for Poland’s independence, not caring about the sovereignty, good name or welfare of the Fatherland.

The Benefits of the Debate on Jedwabne and Kielce

The positive side of the debate analyzed in this essay was that the complex and multi-layered nature of Polish-Jewish relations has been demonstrated. We also had the opportunity to witness the workings of a propaganda machine laboring under the pretense of scholarship. Many impartial scholars hoping to understand the subject reached for historical sources, documents and searched for eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, many also began to uncritically perpetuate groundless theses not confirmed by the sources but compatible with widely-held stereotypes. Perceptions or allegations were also propagated as the results of professional research. Holocaust historiography has also become an hot topic.

At the same time we have also had the chance to see the work of various pressure groups and interests masquerading as scholarly research. The recently-published Polish edition of Jan Gross’s Fear is, unfortunately, a part of this policy. Fear, like Gross’s previous book, Neighbors, have very little if nothing to do with such genres as the essay of science-fiction either. On the basis of one event, without even clearly explaining the causes, Fear offers mythical claims about the causes of alleged anti-Semitism in post-war Poland and, at the same time, attempts to propagate esoteric arguments contrary to available documentation. Gross attempts to show Jews in Poland as non-communists and even escaping from communism. It is also very dishonest to portray, as he does, the Jewish-communist friction inside of the Party as the persecution of Jews by the Poles.

Jan Tomasz Gross tries to convince the readers that Jewish communists in Poland were completely assimilated. He “forgets”, however, than whenever an “opportunity” came about a supposedly “assimilated” Jewish communists would leave Poland, again become a Jew and would even work against Poland – his adopted Patria. Unfortunately, he did not learn anything since the publication of his last book, Neighbors, when his “errors” were exposed and a more realistic picture of what happened in Jedwabne on 10 July, 1941 was reconstructed. By publishing Fear Gross has violated the basics of scholarship and the basic principles of honesty to an even greater degree than with Neighbors. What is even worse is that he found various praetorians willing to support his dues ex machine theses and hoping to flatter the representatives of various interest groups.

One must also note, however, that other scholars have perfected the methodology guiding the research on the Holocaust as a result of the criticism levied against Gross. Those researchers from Gross’s “circle” have, however, learned nothing and continue to perpetuate, for whatever reasons, claims about Polish anti-Semitism. They continue to adhere to the “lie, deny and do not let others speak out” approach. Fortunately, academic circles in Poland and, partly, in the United States have now become acquainted with Gross’s methods. On the other hand, Gross et consorts have not abandoned the propagandistic and instrumental treatment of scholarship in order to accomplish certain goals (political or financial) and continue to propagate negative stereotypes and groundless accusations. It appears that, for ideological reasons J.T. Gross has “forgotten” the basics of any methodology and demonstrates very few signs of deductive thinking, not to mention inductive or analogical thinking. He prefers to either ignore or deny inconvenient facts (such as the presence of the Germans in Jedwabne) and to select only that evidence which fits his preconceived notion (e.g. every Pole is an anti-Semite except for rare exceptions). How easy it is to base one’s claims on hearsay (one lady told another lady that she heard another lady say etc.). After all, why conduct research when a glance will suffice to know everything one “needs” to know in all its simplicity. Reviews flowing from one’s ideological-political “camp” will be positive anyhow.

It would have appeared that after the “fall” of communism the era of historical “curiosities” about the necessity of class struggle ordered by the regime would have come to an end. It is unfortunate that we are still dealing with a similar phenomenon, as various claims and allegations become recognized as serious scholarship. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to confront Gross’s slanderous accusations because both the media and academic venues are much less tolerant towards Gross’s critics and I have experienced this firsthand. This does not absolve one from the duty to be aware of the great defects of Gross’s “writing”, of the need to bring attention to the methodological poverty of his work, about the groundlessness of his arguments, not to mention his attempts to manipulate documentation to his claims.

It is unfortunate that Jan Tomasz Gross can be considered a classic example of modern anti-Polonism such as Josef Goebbels is considered the father of the modern theory of propaganda. What is even more interesting is that Gross has succeeded in utilizing the mass media to peddle his propaganda and interest some among the public in it. It seems that Gross’s justified suggestion that “anti-Semitism should be torn out with the roots” is problematic because of he believes that the roots of anti-Semitism lie in fear, a supposed Polish collusion with the Nazis during World War II and the desire for material gain. These have nothing in common with what other scholars (Chodakiewicz, Strzembosz, Musiał) have demonstrated and so, if we follow Gross’s thinking, there is nothing to root out … This obviously does not help or further Polish-Jewish reconciliation or mutual understanding and dialogue.

A dialogue between interested parties bears fruit only when both show the desire to know each other better and to familiarize themselves with reality as is, and not as we invent or imagine it. Objectivity, authenticity, abandoning preconceived notions, a multi-layered approach to historical problems as well as placing everything in a socio-historical context can become a reliable answer to doubts plaguing us and others. Responsibility, sincerity and moral values can also assist people with good will in researching the history of Polish-Jewish relations. Undoubtedly micro-studies focusing on social, economic and political problems can help us and even facilitate our understanding of the causes of potential anti-Semitism which could, both at present and in the future, lead to cordial relations, mutual understanding and a modus vivendi among interested Polish and Jewish parties. Seeing certain problems in historical context can help us to finally build a real Poland and not a Poland tainted with Bolshevism. It appears that even in the case of J.T. Gross “that which does not kill one will make one stronger”.

Marian Bagiński, Ph.D.

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