A Polish Historian's Accounting of the Holocaust Divides His Countrymen

Archiwum Prywatne, Agencja Gazeta

In the area of the former death camp at Treblinka, Polish militia members came upon people plundering jewelry from murdered Jews.
June 25, 2012

Most academic historians labor in obscurity. But in Poland last year, a Princeton professor's slim volume of Holocaust history became a controversial best seller. The publisher, Znak, saw its e-mail addresses bombarded, its business threatened with a boycott, and the area by its office graffitied. At a news conference, the publisher's own executive director proclaimed herself opposed to the book's publication and apologized to offended readers.

Such is the radioactive celebrity of Jan T. Gross, whom one Polish critic has called "a vampire of historiography." Mr. Gross's latest book, just released in English by Oxford University Press, investigates a sensitive topic: how Poles colluded in the pillaging and murder of Jews "at the periphery of the Holocaust."

Its title, Golden Harvest, stems from a cover photograph that purportedly shows Polish peasants who have been digging through remains of victims killed at Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews were gassed and cremated, to find gold or valuable stones neglected by the Nazis.

From there, Mr. Gross narrates events beyond the barbed wire of Nazi death camps. He describes Poles hunting Jews down, extorting money from them, massacring them, and profiting by taking over their jobs and property. Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the war began, and about 90 percent had perished by its end.

"There was a sense of satisfaction that was quite widespread that they are being eliminated from Polish economic and social life," Mr. Gross says in a phone interview from Kraków, where he is teaching a summer course for Princeton students. "When given the opportunity, a large number of Poles participated in victimization of Jews."

Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross, the author's ex-wife, picks up a familiar theme. Mr. Gross's 2001 book, Neighbors (Princeton University Press), forced Poles to reckon with their history by reconstructing a 1941 massacre in the tiny town of Jedwabne. Nearly all of its Jews were killed on one day—some 1,600 people knifed, clubbed, and burned alive in a barn. Mr. Gross documented that it was Poles who carried out this crime against their neighbors, not the Nazis who had been held responsible in official Polish history.

The controversy turned "Jedwabne" into a household word in Poland. Lech Walesa, anti-Soviet icon and later president of Poland, dismissed Mr. Gross as "a mediocre writer ... a Jew who tries to make money."

Notoriety at Home

Mr. Gross was born in Poland, in 1947, to a Christian mother and Jewish father. As a university student in 1968, he protested against the Communists and ended up in jail. He managed to leave Poland, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University and later migrating to departments of political science and history.

The white-haired, New York-based writer, 64, enjoys a level of notoriety in his native country that lacks any analogue among American historians. When word gets out that he is publishing a new book, anxiety spreads about what dirty laundry he will expose this time. His writing gets discussed on prime-time TV.

Mr. Gross "polarizes public opinion probably more than anyone else outside of the political world," says Jan Grabowski, a Holocaust historian who splits his time between the University of Ottawa and Poland.

His books have struck such a nerve because they cut against the national narrative that Poland is exclusively a victim of history, not a victimizer.

President Obama recently experienced the tenderness of this topic firsthand when his reference to "a Polish death camp" touched off a diplomatic fracas, with irate Poles protesting that Nazis set up the camps on their land.

The Polish people experienced World War II as a debacle that brought the horrors of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. In 1940, Soviet secret police executed at least 25,000 Poles and buried them in mass graves in the woods near Katyn and elsewhere. Meanwhile, at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians died at German hands during World War II. Occupying Nazis terrorized the intellectual and ruling sphere of Polish society, killing those elites and sending them to concentration camps. When underground fighters revolted in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, German forces laid waste to the Polish capital.

"And suddenly, here comes Gross, who says ... we did not walk on water," Mr. Grabowski explains. "And there were three million of our co-citizens who have been murdered in our midst—and let's look at what were our Polish reactions. What was the participation, or the role, played by our fathers, mothers, and grandfathers? This is something that strikes at the very core of nationalistic belief in innocence. ... He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly."

After Neighbors appeared, a two-year government inquiry largely bore out Mr. Gross's account. But he continued to poke his finger into Polish eyes. In 2006 he published Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. The book charged Poles with persecuting Jews who survived the Holocaust, focusing on a 1946 pogrom in Kielce that arose after an 8-year-old boy went missing.

In response, the archbishop of Kraków faulted Mr. Gross's publisher for waking up "demons of anti-Polishness and anti-Semitism," according to The Washington Post. Polish prosecutors announced that they were considering charges against Mr. Gross for "slandering the Polish nation," an offense that carried a maximum prison sentence of three years. They never brought a case, but during this period Mr. Gross reportedly took to wearing a hat to mask his identity on the street.

Story in a Picture

The photograph that inspired Mr. Gross's new book was an accidental result of that controversy. After he had remarked on the practice of digging for valuables in the remains of Treblinka, Polish journalists traveled to the area to interview locals in the vicinity of the camp. In 2008 the Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily newspaper, published an article about the digging, illustrated by a striking photo acquired from a local man who used to run the Treblinka museum.

"I was just absolutely stunned by this photograph," Mr. Gross says. "It exemplified a conflation of killings and pillage that characterize the attitude of European societies toward Jews during the war times."

The out-of-focus photograph, apparently shot in the mid-1940s, evokes a classic scene: "a group of peasants at harvest time after work, resting contentedly with their tools behind a pile of crops," to quote the opening of Golden Harvest. A closer look reveals what is actually laid out before them: "skulls and bones." It turns out they have been scavenging for valuables among the remains of Holocaust victims.

That, anyway, is how Mr. Gross interprets it. Others raise doubts. Konstanty Gebert, a Gazeta Wyborcza columnist, calls the image controversial. "The photo either represents diggers or people who were collecting human remains for future disposal," he said in The Jewish Daily Forward last year. Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat, a historian at the University of Warsaw, told the newspaper, "Jan Gross used the picture as his primary evidence. And we know little about its origin."

Mr. Gross acknowledges that much is unknown about the photo. But he describes such postwar digs as commonplace, and amply documented. In Golden Harvest, he quotes one writer who visited Treblinka in 1945 with a delegation organized by a commission investigating Nazi crimes. She depicts shovel-bearing plunderers everywhere and refers to the "Gold Rush in Treblinka."

The claim that people in the photo might simply have been cleaning the area strikes Mr. Gross as groundless. For years no one attempted to preserve Treblinka, an attitude that was part of a broader postwar abandonment of these sites that Mr. Gross calls "scandalous." It wasn't until the late 1950s and 60s that efforts were made to preserve the former concentration camps, he says.

In any case, Mr. Gross's tale spans much more than the digs.

He describes how villages near concentration camps profited handsomely from trade with camp guards, who were flush with money and valuables.

He describes how Jews trying to escape deportation from cities found themselves preyed upon by ubiquitous schmaltzowniks, blackmailers who extorted money from them in exchange for not disclosing their locations to the Germans.

He writes about how Jews hiding in the countryside were denounced and murdered because local people wanted to plunder their belongings. He compares these killings—done openly, with the participation of local elites—to lynchings.

Golden Harvest goes far beyond Neighbors, reporting that crimes such as the Jedwabne massacre occurred in some two dozen villages and towns of one region alone. In total, perhaps "several hundred thousand" Jews may have been killed by fellow citizens in the prewar territory of Poland, according to the book.

Like its predecessors, Golden Harvest has drawn the ire of major public figures in Poland. Critics say it paints an incomplete, and exaggerated, picture. What about the danger Poles faced in helping Jews? What about the heroism of the 6,000 Poles honored for saving Jews? How can Mr. Gross—schooled as a sociologist, not a historian—justify his sweeping statements?

"Gross presents extreme behavior of some demoralized persons as behavior of the whole community," Tomasz Nalecz, a historian and adviser to Poland's president, Bronislaw Komorowski, argues in Time magazine. "Hyenas are everywhere. But the Polish society passed extremely well the test, which was the war. I am not ashamed of Poles."

One difference distinguishes the debate over Golden Harvest from Mr. Gross's earlier times in the spotlight. Now, he is not alone.

In the wake of Neighbors, other historians have investigated Polish-Jewish relations. A few weeks before Golden Harvest appeared, Mr. Grabowski published Judenjagd: Hunting Down the Jews, 1942-1945, which largely corroborates Mr. Gross's findings. The book, out in Poland and now under contract with Indiana University Press, he says, focuses on one county where several hundred Jews went underground after the deportations of 1942. It concludes that, in the vast majority of cases, Jews were caught or denounced by locals. Help, if offered, "was based most often on hefty payments."

The work brought Mr. Grabowski a dubious honor. He, too, found his name on an e-mail hit list. Outraged Poles swamped his university account, he says, with "large files telling me what a bastard I am."