Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fear in Poland

The Polish language version of Fear: anti-Semitism in Poland, the book by Jan Gross, has just been published here, two years after the English version.

Polish historians have jumped on it, calling it ‘speculative’ and reinforcing a tired old stereotype of the anti-Semitic Pole. And a Polish prosecutor is reading the book to see if Gross has ‘slandered the Polish nation.’

The previous Kaczynski government brought in a law in 2006 that made it an offence to 'slander the Polish nation by accusing it of participating in communist or Nazi crimes.'

Gross’s publisher, Znak, is delighted, naturally. Empik, the largest book chain store, has been selling out of Fear since it was released last Friday.

I hope the prosecutor in Krakow doesn't go ahead and take Gross to court. The right way to settle a historical dispute is to debate it. Thankfully, that is what some have been doing.

Another book by an author, like Gross, who was born in Poland but since has made an academic career in the US, The Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz seems to argue that understanding the pogrom in Kielce in 1948, and other acts of violence against Jews in the post-war period, was not connected to the Holocaust, or to a general Polish anti-Semitism, but to the situation of Jews, and Poles, in a lawless land with private property appropriated by what was, effectively, a communist occupation.

From reviews, Gross points the finger at the Catholic Church, Polish nationalism before the war, among others, which added to the ‘ideology’ of anti-Semitism which was evident, he says, at that time. The wiki entry sums Gross’s book up like this:

"Fear" undermines Poland's self-image as the heroic and the principle martyr of the war. [Gross] points to Polish "society's violently expressed desire to render the country 'Judenrein' (Jewless). For Gross, Poland's communist regime took over where the Nazis left off in the annihilation of three million of the 3,5-million Jews who lived in Poland before the war. "Poland's communist rulers fulfilled the dream of Polish nationalists by bringing into existence an ethnically pure state,"

In an interview with Polish daily Rzeczpospolita published on Friday, January 11 2008, Gross rejected charges that his book was directed against Poland. "I am convinced anti-Semitism was one of the main poisons that were injected into the Polish identity," he was quoted as saying, and he blamed nationalist and Catholic circles.
Chodakiewicz, on the other hand, puts the murders of Jews in the context of the conflict – sometimes violent on both sides - caused by concrete circumstance, he says. His argument is interesting. He told Polish Radio, in what is a very interesting piece (it sounds better than it reads):

"A free country would have taken care of all the burning issues. Number one was property restitution. 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. There was no law and order. When there's no law and order banditry is rampant.

If you add into the mixture what the Soviets were doing – raping, pillaging and killing then you have a fuller picture. The Jewish community which survived the Holocaust, individual Jews and the Jews who returned from the bowels of the Soviet Union were thrown into this mini inferno.'
The truth? Dunno. But what’s good about all this, is that Poles do not go nuts anymore when they are accused of anti-Semitism. They have debates. And if they drop the daft prosecution nonsense down in Krakow – which would be an attack on academic thought and debate - then that will be progress, I suppose. So is the fact that they are talking about something that was taboo for years. And for that they can thank Jan Gross for, as much as anyone.