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Historian’s work uncovering the past helps community 'look itself in the eye'

From the March 26, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Seven years ago, Princeton history professor Jan Gross wrote a book that drew international attention to a little-known event in World War II and set off a firestorm in Poland. His latest work, about anti-Semitism in Poland after the war, is likely to stir up another tempest when it is published there later this year.

“Neighbors,” published in 2000, told the story of the mass murder of 1,600 Jews on July 10, 1941, in a small town in Poland named Jedwabne. The perpetrators, the book stated, were not Nazis. They were the Polish citizens of the town, who pulled Jews from their houses, clubbed them to death in the town square and eventually forced them into a barn that was set on fire.

Gross’ book led to an investigation by the Institute of National Memory, a government organization created to investigate crimes committed in Poland during communist rule and under the Nazi occupation. In the summer of 2001 the president of Poland apologized to the world for the murders at Jedwabne.

Now in “Fear,” published in the United States by Random House last July, Gross describes how Jews who returned to their Polish villages after surviving the Holocaust were scorned, vilified and in some cases murdered by the Polish neighbors they had lived alongside before the war.

Gross, the Norman Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 Professor of War and Society, was born in Warsaw in 1947 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. “I was raised in the milieu of the secular liberal intelligentsia,” he said. “It was an incredibly interesting period to grow up in. The most unpleasant period of Stalinism took place when I was a small child, so we benefited from a liberalization of the communist regime.”

Gross participated in the student protests of 1968, which were spurred by the free speech movement sweeping through neighboring Czechoslovakia, and ended up in jail for five months. After his release, he and his family decided to emigrate to the United States.

“One could emigrate by declaring oneself to be a Jew,” he said. “They would deprive you of Polish citizenship as a result of it and give you a one-way travel document saying, ‘The bearer of this document is not a Polish citizen,’ and then you could go.”

Yale University offered him a fellowship to study sociology; he earned his Ph.D. there in 1975. After teaching at Emory and New York universities, he joined the Princeton faculty in 2003.

This semester Gross is teaching a graduate seminar on the end of communism with Professor of History Stephen Kotkin and a friend from Gross’ college days, Adam Michnik, a major figure in the Polish dissident movement of the 1960s, who is a visiting professor at the University this spring. Michnik also has joined Gross and Professor of History Andy Rabinbach to teach an undergraduate seminar on intellectuals in 20th-century European politics.

Gross recently discussed how Polish citizens treated Jews returning to their homes after the Holocaust, how the Catholic Church dealt with anti-Semitism after World War II and the way his new book is likely to be received in Poland.

Your 2000 book “Neighbors” opened furious debate in Poland and elsewhere about the way Poles treated Jews during World War II. Now that some years have passed, can you assess the impact of that book?

From the point of view of scholarship, the consequences were very good. The Institute of National Memory published two volumes — about 1,500 pages — of documents and studies related to Jedwabne that created a basis for new research on the issue of Polish-Jewish relations during the war. Several things that had been unspeakable before in Poland are now common currency, and a lot of researchers are doing fantastic work about that period. The publications were a companion effort to the legal inquiry that Poland initiated into the murders at Jedwabne, which in the end did not produce any indictments for those involved.

You have followed up with a book that examines Poland after World War II. What do you reveal in “Fear?”

Anti-Semitism in Poland after the war is not something that comes as a surprise, but the extent of it has not been widely communicated. What developed after the war was a consensus between the Poles and the communist authorities that getting rid of the Jews was desirable. Of course there was a long tradition of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. But the character of post-war anti-Semitism came out of what happened throughout Polish villages during the war.

The local Polish population moved in to occupy the social space that opened up because the Jews were being murdered in the Holocaust. Because of that, the return of the Jews was simply unacceptable. In a village where 500 Jews had lived before the war, two or three showed up after the Holocaust, and the Polish family that ended up in possession of their house asked themselves, “Why should we give it back?”

You write about a Jew named Jochweta Rozenstein who filed a lawsuit after the war against a Polish citizen. The suit says, “During the occupation of 1942, I left for safekeeping with citizen Ludwika Chrapczynska in Ozarow two eiderdowns and four pillows. Citizen Chrapczynska refuses to return my property. ... “ It amazed me that something like that could happen — and that you found a record of it.

During the war a lot of Poles had stood before the question: Am I going to help this person who is trying to run away? Or am I going to take advantage of a situation where I can enrich myself, not necessarily by killing anybody but by refusing to pay back a debt or by not returning a piece of property?

The aspect that was incredibly upsetting to me was the degree and ferocity of anti-Semitism after the war. It was so profound. A lot of Jews who came back to their villages were killed. In Kiecle and its vicinity some 80 Jews were killed on July 4, 1946, in the largest peacetime pogrom in Europe in the 20th century. It started when a false story circulated through the town that Jews had kidnapped a Christian boy and ended with a mob descending on the Jewish Committee’s building, where local police and army soldiers joined the crowd in shooting and beating the Jews.

There was a perception at the time that the Jews sided with the communists after the war. The Poles had a phrase — Judeo-communism — that promoted the view that the Jews and the communists had some sort of natural affiliation, and therefore anti-Semitism after the war was really a consequence of the imposition of communism. I find that view to be completely unjustified.

The Polish people were subjected to the anti-Jewish fervor of the Nazis all through the war. Did Poles start to internalize the Nazi propaganda about Jews?

No, it has nothing to do with adopting Nazi opinions because the Nazis were totally and ferociously anti-Polish. They persecuted the Poles. So anything the Nazis did, the local Polish population would do the opposite. That’s why the Polish backlash against the Jews after the war was tremendously surprising. It had to do with a number of people being by then invested in the absence of the Jews. They derived some benefit from it, and they wanted to keep it that way.

You also write about how the Catholic Church turned its back on this virulent anti-Semitism after the war. Are you anticipating another tempest when the book comes out in Poland?

The Catholic Church was completely insensitive, uninterested and in denial about what was happening to the Jews after the war, and speaking about it openly will evoke quite a response.

There is now a process in Poland of struggling over the interpretation of the past — the politics of history, if you will — so the book comes at the time when it will fit into debates that are already going on about the communist past. I’m sure it’s going to stir up a lot of debate.

What do you hope to accomplish by unearthing these transgressions so many years later?

Historians write about the past as best they understand it. I am not telling things in “Fear” that were unknown. I am merely putting them together differently, and by doing so bringing up a mirror, if you will, to help a community that I care about to look itself in the eye.

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