Book on anti-Semitism stirs controversy in Poland

30th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

The author asserts that widespread Polish hatred of Jews drove off hundreds of thousands after the war.

Warsaw (dpa) - How was anti-Semitism able to spread in Poland after the Holocaust?

This is the provocative question posed by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross in his book "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz."

The Polish version of the work, which appeared in Poland some two weeks ago with a subtitle that translates as "A History of a Moral Downfall," has sparked an intense historical debate.

Thousands of people headed to Krakow, Warsaw and Kielce in recent days for book promotion events with the author, who has lived in the United States for nearly 40 years. Right-wing extremists with shaved heads shouted "Lies! Lies!" and threatened to sue him.

Former Polish dissident Adam Michnik, who since the fall of the Communist regime has been editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest quality newspaper, demonstratively thanked Gross for the book.

For the second time in a decade, Gross has called into question Poles' self-image as a people made up solely of heroes and victims.

He had already caused a major shock with a book, published in 2000, about Poles' murder of their Jewish neighbours in the eastern Polish town of Jedwabne in July 1941.

The Jedwabne pogrom took place after the Germans invaded the area, which had previously been occupied by the Soviets.

In his latest book, Gross accuses the majority of Poles not only of having failed to help Jews that the Nazis persecuted, but also of having often participated in various ways in the Jews' destruction.

Some Poles, Gross says, expropriated Jewish property during the Nazi occupation and were afraid, after the war, that they would have to return it to Holocaust survivors.

This, in the author's view, is the main reason for Polish anti- Semitism after 1945. He says the Catholic Church shares blame because it did nothing to stop hostility toward Jews. Gross estimates the number of deaths in postwar anti-Semitic attacks at 500 to 2,500.

Poland's former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a national conservative, has slammed the book as slander and accused Gross of "manic anti-Polishness."

The archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, criticised the publishers, Krakow-based Znak, saying they should not "awake anti-Polish and anti-Semitic demons."

Meanwhile, the prosecutors office in Krakow is considering whether to bring charges against Gross for "slandering the Polish nation."

Polish nationalists and Catholics are not the only ones up in arms. While many historians do not challenge what Gross presents as facts, they say he is guilty of "generalisations" and an "accusatory tone."

Bozena Szaynok, an historian of Polish-Jewish relations, noted that Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe where helping Jews brought the death penalty. The Nazis often killed the helpers' entire families, too.

Other critics have pointed to the collapse of government structures after the Communists took power. Robberies were daily occurrences then, they say, did not target only Jews, and were not necessarily motivated by anti-Semitism.

Gross himself sees his book as "a nail in the coffin of Polish anti-Semitism." He says he wanted to show how strongly anti-Semitism has poisoned Polish history.

Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1943, is much more sceptical. In a discussion with Gross, Edelman, 85, said that in three months no one would remember the book.

People are "greedy beasts," Edelman said. "Before anything changes, the generation that saw the Holocaust has to die out."

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