Fear: Anti-Semi­tism in Poland After Auschwitz

Jan T. Gross
  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

In his pre­vi­ous book, Neigh­bors (2001), which was a Nation­al Book Award nom­i­nee, Jan Gross, who teach­es his­to­ry at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, described the bru­tal man­ner in which 1,600 Jews of the Pol­ish town of Jed­wab­ne were mur­dered in June 1941 by their Pol­ish neigh­bors. What was star­tling about this atroc­i­ty was that the new­ly occu­py­ing Ger­man army did not com­pel the mas­sacre in a town where osten­si­bly the Jew­ish and Pol­ish inhab­i­tants had pre­vi­ous­ly enjoyed ami­ca­ble relations. 

Fear returns to the sub­ject of Gross’ ear­li­er work, only this time his focus is on the ques­tion of why Pol­ish anti-Semi­tism con­tin­ued to be endem­ic through­out the coun­try after the war when most of the country’s 3.5 mil­lion Jews had already been anni­hi­lat­ed by the Nazis. Although much of his inves­ti­ga­tion focus­es on the more wide­ly known Kielce pogrom in July 1946, he notes that ear­li­er attacks against the rem­nants of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion had occurred in Rzes­zow in June 1945, and Krakow in August of the same year. In all, anti-Jew­ish vio­lence account­ed for the killing of between 500 and 1,500 Jews (Gross accepts the more wide­ly accept­ed num­ber of 1,500 mur­dered by the Poles.) 

Gross argues that the vio­lence against the Jews was dri­ven by the wide­spread col­lu­sion of the Poles with the Nazis in the plun­der of Jew­ish prop­er­ty and the fear that the remain­ing vic­tims of the Holo­caust would return and demand that their prop­er­ty be returned. He rejects the argu­ment that Pol­ish hatred toward the Jews was due to their asso­ci­a­tion with the Sovi­et regime that was imposed on the coun­try after the war. Using con­vinc­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, Gross shows how few Jews were mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in post-war Poland, and that those who did become com­mu­nists did so because they were pro­hib­it­ed from join­ing more main­stream Pol­ish polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions both pri­or to and after the war where, with the excep­tion of the Zego­ta orga­ni­za­tion that befriend­ed Jews dur­ing the war, most Pol­ish resis­tance groups were as anti- Semit­ic as they were anti-Nazi. 

The author rejects the con­tention that the post-war pogroms in Poland is the sto­ry of fren­zied mobs, moved by tales of Jew­ish rit­u­al mur­der, which the Pol­ish Catholic Church went to pains not to deny, or the asso­ci­a­tion with com­mu­nism, but rather by the wide­ly shared sense in Pol­ish soci­ety that get­ting rid of the Jews, by killing them if nec­es­sary, was per­mis­si­ble.” Gross can only account for the vir­u­lent post­war anti-Semi­tism in Poland because it was embed­ded in the society’s oppor­tunis­tic wartime behavior.

Jews were per­ceived as a threat to the mate­r­i­al sta­tus quo, secu­ri­ty, and peace­ful con­science of their fel­low cit­i­zens after the war because they had plun­dered what remained of Jew­ish prop­er­ty as well as Jews’ social roles, which had been assumed by their Pol­ish neigh­bors in tac­it and often oppor­tunis­tic com­plic­i­ty with Nazi-insti­gat­ed insti­tu­tion­al mass murder.” 

For Gross, there­fore, the pogroms against the Jews were moti­vat­ed not by act­ing out their vam­pire fan­tasies of rit­u­al mur­der or their Judeo-Com­mu­nist fan­tasies,” or by beliefs incul­cat­ed by the Nazis, but by defend­ing their mate­r­i­al inter­ests, quite often premised on murky deals or out­right crim­i­nal behavior. 

Fear makes for riv­et­ing read­ing and pro­vides a great deal of insight into the preva­lence of anti-Semi­tism in Poland, and by exten­sion the hatred of Jews even in coun­tries that no longer have Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions. If there is a crit­i­cism of Fear, it can be found in the short shrift Gross gives to the Chris­t­ian anti-Jew­ish ani­mus of one of Europe’s most Catholic coun­tries. Although Gross details the role the canard of rit­u­al mur­der” played in spread­ing the pogroms, cen­turies of the Pol­ish Catholic Church teach­ing con­tempt for the Jews and the charge of dei­cide, are ignored as fac­tors in the tac­it per­mis­sion that Poles received to mur­der Jews. 

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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