Jan Tomasz Gross interview, PolAm Dems, John Guzlowski on NPR, The Defense

Shield 1/21/08

Waldemar Piasecki interview with Jan Tomasz Gross, the author of Fear An Appeal by Polish American democratic leaders. Ambassador Nicholas Rey and Marilyn Piurek co-chair of DNC ethnic committee

Therapy with "Fear" [from Tygodnik Przegląd]

Waldemar Piasecki

Associate me with thinking of Jan Karski, whose truths also aroused pseudo-patriotic fury among many know-it-alls about Poland, observes Jan Tomasz Gross in an interview with Waldemar Piasecki.    

"So you tell me, Mr. Controller please Butt smoke steaming indifferently through your teeth That I shouldn't bother to count myself Among those who trouble over Poland"  

Jan Pietrzak's song from 1968, when you left Poland. Still you persist to trouble yourself over Poland. Why?  Do you identify yourself as a Pole?  

Jan Tomasz Gross: I am a Pole, whether someone likes it or not.  I can feel differently but for other reasons.  I am also unquestionably an American. Of course I am acutely aware that my ancestors were Jewish, but basically I did not emerge from a Jewish cultural milieu.  Nonetheless I feel that all oppressed people are my kin. I1m not sure if my response satisfies your inquiry.  

You know the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel also regards you as a Pole. When "Fear" first appeared at the end of May 2006, he wrote that you are very brave to appeal to your kinsmen in Poland to face up to their post-Auschwitz anti-Semitism.  

In my opinion the historical process of the confrontation, to which Wiesel refers, has already began and is unstoppable.  It began with 3Neighbors2 breaking certain taboos by opening some minds and speaking to conscience that Polish neighbors could murder their Jewish neighbors, and that a person who shows it is not just some nut.  What1s more, the groundbreaking burst of studies about Polish-Jewish relations is coming from young historians without predispositions or taboos. They examine documents and publish their work.  Of course the social impact is not great because their work reaches small readership but the quality is surprisingly high and speaks well of the authors.  

You referred to this burst as "the Mount Everest" of Polish historiography?  

Because it is. On the one hand, anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the Holocaust is already a certain peak but also marked by research.  One can only imagine the courage it takes for young historians to own up to native anti-Semitism at this time.  When they decide to expose facts resorting to historical methods and research that monstrous poison of the anti-Semitic worldview underlying the collective Polish psyche. How disarming and seductive was the devil1s temptation that Hitler offered the world. This doesn1t please and can spawn emotional reactions to objective facts. My hat off to these historians  

Undoubtedly remaining their teacher in this enterprise "Can your "Fear" be compared to Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago"?  

In a broad sense, both books expose something unanticipated and inconvenient. The parallel acquires scale if the network of camps concentration camps--becomes an aspect of accepted reality, in which part of society is liquidated, while society at large keeps its eyes shut--because it is, for example, possessed by fear or anesthetized; and it becomes necessary to shake up loudly the conscience to force change. Similarly, when a society raises its hand against its "foreign" element that was not completely eliminated by the invader exposed.  Of course the scale of the drama described by Solzhenitsyn and his personal dangers as a result are an entirely different story.  

I really wouldn't appreciate if now I was taken to task for comparing myself to a great writer and historian like Solzhenitsyn. If I draw certain parallels, it is only by analogy: In both situations the collective psyche of a nation was injected with evil that marked not only the victims but also the evildoers.  

Jan Kurtyka, head of Institute of National Remembrance, referred to you as a "historical vampire." Do you wish to suck from Poles admission of guilt for a crime, which in the eyes of the world will consume them? What is the truth?  

I really like this description and plan to include it in my CV. Janusz Kurtyka is a government official with very explicit and well known nationalist-patriotic views, which he expresses thus providing me, albeit unintentionally, with an international appeal.  

Another employee of that institution, Piotr Gontarczyk, concluded on TV that academic debate of your points presented in "Fear" is impossible.  He draws analogies, the debate in which you defend the view that the world is not round but flat like a disk carried on the back of four crocodiles, but you refuse to discuss the qualities of the disk, only the crocodiles.  How would you respond?  

As for Mr. Gontarczyk, who gain fame by his published thesis that Jacek Kuron tried to compromise with the communist secret services based on poking about in their secret "masterpieces" let me, if you don't mind refrain from any response, and leave it at that.  

What is your reaction to the actions of the Public Prosecutor that 3Fear2 denigrates the Polish nation?  The Office is basing itself on legislation before the Polish Constitutional Tribunal.  

My first reaction was to question if what I was hearing was factual or fantasy. Since it is a factual I think it is terrible if the prosecutor turns into a book critic with the potential legal penalties of three years in prison decided by a court. Wherever books are judged or burned evil is being done.  Since I am an optimist by nature, I expect the Constitutional Tribunal to rescind the law and the case will be resolved.  

If not? If the Public Prosecutor proceeds beyond clarification to a routine investigation?  

It1s really not difficult to imagine the international fallout.  

Western press has suggested you plan to present witnesses whose testimonies will confirm pre-war anti-Semitism.  

Such people have already contacted me expressing their willingness to testify even without my call.  

Do you see analogies between your situation and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk accused by the Turkish Public Prosecutor of denigration of the Turkish people when he wrote about the Armenian genocide.  

Yes, but I firmly believe it is impossible in Poland.  

You expressed disapointment at Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz1s letter to Znak publishers expressing his regret at publication of "Fear," a book "arousing demons of anti-Polish feelings." Was it an anticipated reaction?  

Absolutely not. This is some sort of misunderstanding, albeit someone could have suggested such an interpretation to the Archbishop of Krakow.  I regard telling the truth, particularly when it involves history, as a calling.  

A significant portion of public opinion is shocked by your suggestion that then bishop Stefan Wyszynski could have believed in Jewish ritual murders for blood dripping on the matzo. What is the basis for such suppositions?  

When a delegation of the Central Jewish Committee met with bishop Wyszynski in 1946 startled by the anti-Semitic atmosphere Kielce pogrom and asked him to deny the Jewish ritual murders and of drawinge blood for the matzo, the bishop rejected their plea.  His rationale was a trial in Tsarist Russia in 1913 involving this very accusation.  The delegation was shaken.  Its account of what transpired in a subsequent book lacks emotional interpretation. The conclusion is that either the bishop did or did not have believed in ritual murders but nonetheless he did resorted to the argument in dismissing the delegation.  

After the Kielce pogrom only bishop Teodor Kubina of Czestochowa sharply condemned the rumors about ritual murders, proclaiming that people cannot commit crimes not only because of the law but most importantly because Christian ethics.  Several months later Bishops Conference officially criticized bishop Kubina for taking a position that diverged from that of the Episcopate and primate Hlond.  

Why the Kielce pogrom of June 4, 2946, with your book begins became the subject of public debate on an international scale? Deceased writer and journalist Samuel L. Shneiderman, who came from Kazimierz Dolny, told me that it was made public by the US ambassador on Polish Independence Day.  A number of foreign journalists were invited, among them Shneiderman who reported for the Jewish and US press.  The impact was immediate and the journalists asked to visit Kielce.  Shneiderman claimed that without the coincidence of time and place, the incident would have gone unreported, as happened with other pogroms at the time.  

The Kielce pogrom was on an unprecedented scale, which would have been virtually impossible to conceal.  The communist authorities tried to diminish its significance politically through propaganda by portraying it as an unfortunate incident, an act of evil doing.  It didn1t work. Mass social protest or condemnation of the act did not take place so there was no point of playing it up.  

Some historians claim that the pogrom served the communists as an instrument of fear used against Jews returning to Poland after the war as well as to provoke an exodus. Did they play this card?  

The pogrom contributed to the exodus in some way but there is no evidence this was intentionally planned in advance.  This is one of the plot legends that emerged from the Kielce pogrom, probably to justify the societal reaction.  

Many Americans see your books as a continuation of Jan Karski1s mission to expose what happened to the Jews in Nazi occupied Poland.  It has to do with Nazi crimes as well as those by their countrymen.  In November 1942 Karski on behalf of the representatives of the government in the homeland and the central command of the Home Army reported on the anti-Semitic climate and collaboration including the proposal to make Poles aiding in the extermination of the Jews a capital crime, irrespective of whether it involved actual killing or informing the Nazi authorities. If the problem was marginal, I am certain Karski would not have raised it against his compatriots.  

Karski was quite explicit about Nazi crimes and also how Poles acted.  His report was very balanced. He was very concerned about the plight of the Jews and did more than could be expected to save them.  His meetings with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt are now part of history. The first admitted that he was incapable of believing the report of the Polish Currier about the Nazi crimes against the Jews, while the latter seemed lukewarm. These accounts describe the general reaction to the Jewish question at the time.  If someone sees analogies with what I do, I can only be proud. I completely identify with the Karski tradition and his line of thought.  

Do you think that in arousing such emotions "Fear" can bring Poles and Jews closer? In which generation?  

I sincerely hope it can.  Truth ought to be the foundation for any honest bond. When one acknowledges it, one can refer to it no matter how horrific it may have been.  What I describe in "Fear" happened many decades ago. It illustrates general human capacity for evil doing, by anybody, not only Poles, which some blame me for proposing.  That capacity should not come as a surprise, for we know it well. It manifests itself in different societies and locations around the world. When discussed, it metaphysically dispels differences between how Poles and Jews see that period.  When both sides can agree that after the war horrible things happened in a society to which Jews also belonged, the problem disappears as it becomes emotionally deflated.  

The fundamental question is whether Jews had any chance to restore their position as an integral part of Polish society?  

Facts indicate they didn't. The last delegate of the government in the homeland Jerzy Braun contended in a report that as a result of the Holocaust, Jews from Poland simply 'vanished' and in their place emerged a new social group consisting of Poles, who took over traditionally Jewish roles, such as trade, wholesale and small business. The reappearance of Jews after the war threatened group interests, affecting material existence and lifestyle. This phenomenon is well studied and has occurred elsewhere. In Poland the problem became dramatic when in an effort to defend these interests, a people who experienced the Holocaust, unprecedented suffering and social dislocation, lost their lives. This is the reason why most of the Jewish refugees decided to leave Poland and those who remained really couldn1t establish roots in Polish society.  Through no fault of their own.  

What do you think will be the finale of the controversy over Fear?  

In the first place many people will read the book, hopefully the young, who know the era that "Fear" describes vaguely from fog-filled tales. The book will be read in Poland and will slowly contribute to the change of how WWII and the post-war period are perceived.  

A friend from New York Times, who knew I was about to interview you asked me to raise the question whether you have any fear of being physically assaulted in Poland? I confess I couldn't have entertained such a thought personally.  

I am entirely free of such fears or concerns.  It didn1t happen during the stormy controversies over "Neighbors" when I participated in many emotionally charged discussions.  I don't anticipate the emotional level to rise.