"POSTWAR POGROM NY Times book review of Jan T. Gross, 'Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz'

by David Margolick July 23, 2006

Sometime in the late 1950's, a pair of Jewish newlyweds walked arm-in-arm down the streets of Lodz. Like all surviving Polish Jews of their generation, the two had lived through the Holocaust against enormous odds, making the joy of that moment all the more poignant. "Look at them," a well-dressed passer-by suddenly sneered, loud enough for them to hear. "It's like they're in Tel Aviv." To them, his message was clear: Jews had no business living in Poland, let alone being happy there.

I thought of these two people, who later became friends of mine, as I read Jan T. Gross's new book, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz." The Polish-born Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University, does not recount their story; even had he known it, there'd have been no room, or time. He has too many greater indignities to relate. He has to tell how surviving Polish Jews, having escaped the fate of 90 percent of their community - three million people - returned to their homeland to be vilified, terrorized and, in some 1,500 instances, murdered, sometimes in ways as bestial as anything the Nazis had devised.

One might have thought that if anything could have cured Poland of its anti-Semitism, it was World War II. Polish Jews and Christians were bonded, as never before, by unimaginable suffering at the hands of a common foe. One might also have thought there'd have been pity for the Jewish survivors, most of whom had lost nearly everything: their homes, their youth, their hope, their entire families. Besides, there were so few of them left to hate: only 200,000 or so in a population of 20 million.

Instead, returning Polish Jews encountered an anti-Semitism of terrible fury and brutality. Small wonder, then, that nearly as soon as they set foot on Polish soil, most fled all over again. Many went westward, to a place that, oddly enough, had suddenly become an oasis of tranquillity and safety by comparison: Germany. Far from being celebrated, those Poles who had sheltered Jews during the war - and there were many - begged them to say nothing, lest their neighbors deride them as "Jew lovers," or beat them, or break into their homes (searching for the money the Jews had surely left behind) or kill them.

Polish attitudes toward the Germans remain understandably bitter. During his trip to Poland this May, when he visited Auschwitz, the German-born Pope Benedict XVI took care to speak mostly in Italian. But as Gross reminds us, in at least one respect many Poles applauded Hitler: just as he offered a final solution to Germany's Jewish problem, he was taking care of Poland's, too. Nazi policies toward the Jews, the legendary underground Polish diplomat Jan Karski reported to his government-in-exile in London in 1940, formed "a sort of narrow bridge where the Germans and a large part of Polish society meet in harmony."

It wasn't only Karski saying so. Eyewitnesses in the Warsaw ghetto saw Poles watching approvingly or even helping out, acting as spotters as German soldiers shot Jews. Polish girls were overheard joking, "Come, look, how cutlets from Jews are frying," as the ghetto burned. Nazi accounts of Judenjagd, or "Jew hunts," detailed how Poles pitched in to find any stray Jews the Germans somehow managed to miss. As the deportations proceeded, and practically before the trains had left for Chelmno or Belzec or Treblinka, Poles gathered on the outskirts of towns, waiting to plunder Jewish property or move into Jewish homes. And while the Nazis killed millions of Jews, Poles killed thousands - most famously, as Gross related in "Neighbors" (2001), a book that caused an uproar in Poland, 1,600 of them in the town of Jebwabne in July 1941 - crimes little noted at the time nor since remembered in Polish history books.

With the war over, and to tumultuous applause, a thousand delegates of the Polish Peasants Party actually passed a resolution thanking Hitler for annihilating Polish Jewry and urging that those he'd missed be expelled. Indeed, the mopping up soon began. Returning to their villages and towns, Jews were routinely greeted with remarks like "So,---? You are still alive." Their efforts to retrieve property were futile - and, sometimes, fatal. Some Jews met their end on trains - not cattle cars this time, but passenger trains, from which they were thrown off. If the trains weren't moving fast enough, they were beaten to death.

This is a book filled with arresting, appalling images. There's Treblinka, September 1945: a lunar landscape pockmarked with craters, where Poles had dug thousands of holes searching for gold fillings amid the bones and ashes. Or Polish synagogues disassembled for construction projects, and Jewish cemeteries used for landfill. Or Jewish schoolchildren being harassed and Jewish artisans and professionals denied work.

With the police and courts looking the other way, Jews were murdered randomly, or in pogroms. Behind these massacres, invariably, was the old canard of Jews killing Christian children for their blood, but with a new twist: Jews now craved gentile blood not just to make matzos, supposedly, but to fortify their own emaciated selves.

In the most notorious episode, 60 years ago this month, residents of Kielce, among them policemen, soldiers and boy scouts, murdered 80 Jews. "The immense courtyard was still littered with blood-stained iron pipes, stones and clubs, which had been used to crush the skulls of Jewish men and women," the Polish-Jewish journalist Saul Shneiderman wrote the following day. It was the largest peacetime pogrom in 20th-century Europe, Gross says. But he maintains that Kielce was nothing special: during this era, it could have taken place anywhere in Poland. Polish intellectuals, Gross notes, were mortified by what was happening in their country. Only a psychopath, one wrote, could have imagined such cruelty.

Days before the pogrom, the Polish primate, Cardinal August Hlold, had spurned Jewish entreaties to condemn Roman Catholic anti-Semitism. Afterward, he charged that by leading the effort to impose Communism on Poland - Jews were in fact prominent in the party, though hardly in control - the Jews had only themselves to blame. The point was seconded by the bishop of Kielce, who suggested that Jews had actually orchestrated the unrest to persuade Britain to hand over Palestine. It was a neat trick: being Communists and Zionists simultaneously. Only the bishop of Czestochowa condemned the killings, and was promptly reprimanded by his colleagues. One wonders how Karol Wojtyla, then a young seminarian, later Pope John Paul II, viewed this cesspool of ignorance and intolerance.

If the Church gave the Jews short shrift, the same was true of the Communists, even the Jewish ones. For them, ignoring the Jewish plight, as well as Polish complicity in wartime atrocities, offered a way to ingratiate themselves with a wary nation. Besides, what was to be done? When Polish Jewish leaders called for the Communists to do something to stop the hatred, one official had a ready rejoinder. "Do you want me to send 18 million Poles to Siberia?" he asked.

How can one explain this madness? Gross conjures up the famous remark of the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir - that Poles suck in anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk - only to dismiss it. "Untenable in the light of common sense or empirical evidence," he says. So, too, Gross writes, are spurious claims of ritual murder or Jewish-Communist complicity. Instead, he argues that Poles were feeling guilty: so implicated were they in the Jewish tragedy, aiding and abetting and expropriating, that the mere sight of those wraiths returning from the camps or exile or hiding, people who knew the Poles' dirty secrets and held title to their property, was too much to bear. So they murdered Jews or chased them away.

But Gross's evidence, right down to an anti-Semitic revue that was staged in January 1947 near the largest Jewish cemetery on the planet, Auschwitz (a local policeman had the starring role), overwhelms his theory. Such an enormous and varied inventory of inhumanity, one that included the cruelty of children too young to have felt guilt or remorse for anything, transcends any set of historical conditions. A more likely, if less politically palatable explanation, is that through their own state-of-the-art anti-Semitism, the Germans emboldened many Poles to act upon what they had always felt. The comment from Shamir, a Polish Jew himself, may strike us as deeply offensive, simplistic, racist. But whatever Gross may believe, he buttresses Shamir more than he discredits him.

Ultimately, what's far more important than the "why" of this story is the "that": that a civilized nation could have descended so low, and that such behavior must be documented, remembered, discussed. This Gross does, intelligently and exhaustively. That he digresses from time to time, that his chronology can be confusing, that he repeats himself and occasionally lets his indignation get the better of him, doesn't really matter.

Two additional waves of government-inspired anti-Semitism, in 1956-7 and 1968-9, drove out most of those Polish Jews who, despite everything, had held on. (Among them were those newlyweds; the husband later told me that on his first day in New York he felt more at home than he ever had in Poland.) Now, despite occasional anti-Jewish episodes - in May, for instance, the country's chief rabbi was punched on a Warsaw street by someone shouting "Poland for Poles" - and widespread suspicions that Jews still run things there, Poland has become a place of necro-nostalgia. Klezmer music wafts out of Krakow's old Jewish quarter. There's matzo in every Polish supermarket. And in liquor stores, the faces of happy Hasidim - more than you'll now see in a lifetime in Lublin or Bialystok - stare out from bottles of Polish kosher vodka, prized for its supposed purity. Meantime, young people with even the most tangential Jewish ties now lay proud claim to their heritage. But as Gross reminds us in this depressing, devastating and infuriating book, the luckiest Polish Jews, not just before Hitler but after, were the ones who got away.

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink."