Illustration Moa Franzén

Features the holocaust and poland From Repressed memories and Fear to an Open Society

What began in Poland, with the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s provocative essays, the most recent historical studies, and the research project initiated by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, is a new phase in the public debate about the Polish nation’s relationship to the Holocaust. What is totally new is that historians and researchers in Poland are now leading the way and providing the most difficult answers to the most difficult questions.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 33-39, 2 2011
Published on on June 30, 2011

No Comments on From Repressed memories and Fear to an Open Society Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

The Holocaust was a European phenomenon. Geographically, it began in Eastern Europe. The Jews of Vilnius, numbering 50,000 to 70,000, met their death with a shot to the head in Paneriai (Ponary), and in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine; 33,771 Jews were executed at Babi Yar in 1941.

The following year the Holocaust was transformed into industrialized murder in death camp gas chambers located on occupied Polish territory. This geographic planning was based purely on logistics. Most of the Jews to be exterminated lived in Eastern Europe, and no other country in Europe had a Jewish population as large as Poland’s. According to British historian Martin Gilbert’s calculations, a total of 7.8 million Jews lived in the nineteen countries that Hitler occupied. More than forty percent of them, or 3.2 million, lived in Poland. Six million European Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust. At most, ten percent of Polish Jews survived, mainly because they either fled to the Soviet Union or had been taken captive by the coercive Soviet machine. It is likely that only 40,000—50,000 Jews survived the war within Poland’s borders. In the country’s capital, thirty percent of the population was Jewish and in several smaller cities in the eastern parts of the country the population was 50, 60, and sometimes more than 70 percent Jewish. Thus, for three years the Polish nation became
Europe’s closest witness to the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews. Meanwhile, a significant share of the Polish people bore their own anti-Semitism to this scene in history.

When the war was over and when the cities and the countryside were emptied of the Jewish population that had, smoothly or otherwise, coexisted for centuries with the Polish people, the time had come to move from the front row seats at the crime scene into the witness stand.

The Holocaust   — this European legacy from the darkest years of the twentieth century — played out in all its essentials before the eyes of the people of the Polish nation. “To witness murder on such a scale, at such close range, for such a long time, cannot lead to simple responses”, concludes Michael C. Steinlauf, Jewish-American senior researcher at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, in his book Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. “To inquire about Polish reaction to the Holocaust is to investigate the effects of a mass psychic and moral trauma unprecedented in history”, he writes.

It is true that, before the war, anti-Semitism had deep roots in Poland. This anti-Semitism drew nourishment primarily from traditional “Christian” accusations and prejudices. Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democracy (Endecja) political camp, was overtly anti-Semitic and thus, often supported by spokespersons of the Polish Catholic Church, fomented attacks against the Jewish population by militant right-wing groups. The psychic and moral trauma to which Michael C. Steinlauf refers was emphasized and amplified by the country’s historical conscience.

The Polish people themselves were also among Hitler’s chosen victims. After Europe’s Jews — and Roma — no other nation or people were subjected to such repression and systematic murder as the Polish. An unbelievable 98 percent of Warsaw’s Jews died during the war — a staggering figure. One fourth of the city’s Polish population also died during the war — a significant figure.

I do not believe it is possible to describe, let alone understand, the public debate in postwar Poland about the relationship between Jews and Poles during World War II without taking the following into account: the anti-Semitic baggage, the trauma of witnessing the Holocaust, the repression of the immorality witnessed, perhaps even as an active participant, with respect to the actions of one’s people as well as the associated concentrated  suffering of one’s own people.

The debate   in the public sphere would certainly have been different during the 66 years since the Second World War if an open public sphere had existed. Instead of the democratic and open society essential for any free discussion and any form of historical investigation and societal catharsis, the Polish nation, like the Ukrainian and Lithuanian nations, but unlike for example the German or French, became entangled after the war in a new straitjacket: communism. The absence of open public debate in Poland, and in several other Eastern European countries, preserved the historical anti-Semitic baggage.

In prewar Poland, there was no paucity of voices in opposition to anti-Semitism. Nor was there a lack of such voices and groups after the war. In three recently published volumes, totaling over three thousand pages, Przecziw antysemityzmowi [Against anti-Semitism], Adam Michnik compiled texts written in Poland between 1936 and 2009. It is hardly surprising that more than one third of the texts were written after the fall of communism in 1989. A new historical and political sphere, an open society in Karl Popper’s sense, would be required for the Polish nation to have a chance to seriously deal with the Holocaust in its own history.

One of the   public commentators who for the past decade has asked the Polish people the hardest of all questions, whether parts of the Polish nation were not just bystanders and victims, but also perpetrators, is Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross. In his internationally acclaimed book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne (2000), Gross showed how in July 1941 some of the local population in the small eastern Polish community of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors by physically forcing them into a barn and then setting it ablaze. Although the older population was well aware of what had happened during the war, the entire city was at peace with the false inscription on the memorial erected after the war on the site where the barn once stood — an inscription proclaiming that the German Nazis had murdered the local Jewish population on this site. The contents of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book about Jedwabne came as a shock to the Polish nation. The book gave rise to intense and at times rancorous public discussion. Gross’s book was a major turning point in the whole of the Polish postwar debate on the difficult and traumatic relationship the Polish people have to the Holocaust.

In this discussion, Jan Tomasz Gross was supported by a variety of historians, publicists, and politicians, all representing the modern and open Polish society. The government-run Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) conducted a basic historical study. Poland’s president at the time, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, arranged for a replacement of the false inscription by a truthful one in connection with a joint Polish-Jewish ceremony. It is true that the discussion of what happened in Jedwabne challenged the “patriotic defenders” of the good name and memory of the Polish people; it is also true that the president’s words at the memorial service, when he apologized to the Jewish community on behalf of the Polish nation, met with harsh criticism from that part of Polish society. In light of Poland’s history over the past century, this was hardly surprisingly. What would have been surprising is if there had not been any criticism or patriotic-national accusations against Jan Tomasz Gross and his defenders.

Five years later,   when Gross published his next book in the United States, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, the national-patriotic right was in power in Poland. On April 22, 2006, the Polish Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament) held a plenary session that in modern Europe could almost be described as a curiosity. The discussion involved a proposal from the right-wing government to introduce a new article (132a) into the Polish penal code stating that “anyone who publicly defames the Polish nation for having participated in organizing or being responsible for communist or Nazi crimes shall be punished with imprisonment for up to three years”. Polish parliament member Mateusz Piskorski spoke from the podium in the Sejm about Gross’s new book, which had not yet been translated into Polish: “According to statements, this book is scheduled to be released in Poland next year and perhaps the publisher should think through its plan a few times carefully in light of the bill that we are now adopting, before deciding to publish this book here .” The bill, approved by a majority of the Sejm, was a good fit with the new nationalism launched by Jarosław Kaczyński and his party in the context of what was known as a Fourth Polish Republic, as opposed to the Third Republic established after the fall of communism in 1989.

The new rule, which came into force in early 2007, faced severe criticism not just from the collective political opposition in the Sejm, but also from civic ombudsman Janusz Kochanowski, who reported it to the Constitutional Court for judicial review. That review took place on September 19, 2008, after Jarosław Kaczyński’s government had already been forced to resign and new elections had been held for the Sejm that brought the liberal-conservative Civic Platform to power. The Constitutional Court ruled against the article, which was thus removed from the Polish Criminal Code. However, before its removal it had time to serve as grounds for one judicial inquiry, which was conducted by the prosecutor in Kraków and directed against the publisher Znak’s publication of the Polish edition of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book.

The entire incident is remarkable, reflecting how deeply entrenched the tradition symbolized before World War II by Roman Dmowski and his National Democrats is in parts of Polish society. The second and equally important conclusion to be drawn from this sequence of events is that, ultimately, neither the country’s guardians of law and order, nor the majority of Polish voters, could accept any restrictions on the open society created after the fall of communism.

In his book   Fear, Gross tried to find the deeper causes of Polish anti-Semitism after Auschwitz, based in part on the July 1946 pogrom in Kielce during which 42 Jews were murdered by Polish citizens, and based on the series of other murders and anti-Semitic actions against Jews in Poland during the first postwar years. One underlying cause, Jan Tomasz Gross argued, was the generally passive attitude of the Polish people to the Holocaust — a passivity that, after the war, gave rise to a collective sense of guilt, which in turn was partially repressed by a new hatred of the Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Gross argued that the anti-Semitic actions in postwar Poland were more strongly related to the historical narrative of the war and the relationship to the Holocaust than to the anti-Semitism that existed before the war. This thesis spotlighted the national guilt. Fear gave rise to a new discussion in Poland and it is indicative of the evolution in the public discussion over the past two decades that the tone was not as rancorous as it was five years earlier when Jan Tomasz Gross’s book about the murder in Jedwabne was published.

In a monograph, Od Shoah do Strachu: Spory o polsko-żydowską przeszłość i pamięć w debatach publicznych [From Shoah to Fear: Disputes about the past and the memory of Polish-Jewish relations], Polish political scientist Piotr Forecki describes not only the discussions that ensued in Poland in connection with the publication of these two books by Gross; he goes further back in time and explains the debate about the Holocaust and the “adaptation” of history as it relates to the Holocaust throughout the postwar period in Poland.

Professor Marek Kucia at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków has analyzed how the museum at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp has been used and perceived by the Polish public sphere in the postwar period. Kucia’s study is essential in order to understand how the closed communist system during four decades helped to corrupt the picture of what happened during the war. The title of Kucia’s book alludes directly to Emil Durkheim’s theory of how structures and external reality affect the opinions and behavior of the individual.

Auschwitz was first   built by the Nazis as a concentration camp located in the old industrial buildings in the Polish city of Oświęcim, which the Germans called Auschwitz. The first prisoners were German criminals and Polish political prisoners. They later came to be the largest group in this camp — Auschwitz I — throughout the war. Auschwitz II — Birkenau — was built on the other side of the railway, three kilometers from Auschwitz I, by the small village of Brzezinka. Unlike Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II was a pure extermination camp, built solely for the systematically industrialized murder of the Jews and Roma of Europe. The Auschwitz complex also included a forced labor camp and about forty satellite camps.

According to today’s historical knowledge, 1,100,000 people lost their lives in Auschwitz—Birkenau, of whom 90 percent — 1,000,000 — were Jews. The number of Poles who didn’t escape with their lives is estimated at 75,000 (7 percent of all those murdered in the Auschwitz complex), along with 21,000 Roma (2 percent of all those murdered), and 15,000 Russian prisoners of war (1.5 percent of all those murdered). Almost 100 percent of Russian POWs sent to Auschwitz—Birkenau were executed. Only ten percent of Jews and Roma survived. The Polish prisoners, who mainly landed in the concentration camp Auschwitz I, had the greatest chance of survival — 50 percent.

For the rest of the world, ever since the end of the war, Auschwitz—Birkenau, along with the Treblinka extermination camp, where almost exclusively Jews were murdered, has been the main symbol of the Holocaust of European Jews. The figures above provide good support for this. The situation in postwar Poland has been different.

One explanation is obviously that 75,000 Poles were murdered or died in Auschwitz and that 150,000 Poles were detained in this concentration camp; almost every fifth Pole in a survey in 1995 responded that at least one person in the family had been a prisoner or died in Auschwitz. The Polish experience stands in stark contrast to the historical memory preserved by the few Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland: two nations within the same land, the same war, with two diverse memories who were unable to meet together for free discussion until recent decades.

Marek Kucia and Piotr Forecki both describe how the memory of what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the war was deliberately misrepresented in communist Poland. In this process, the foremost victims were the Polish people. The Holocaust of European Jews, to say nothing of the Roma, was not remarkable in this interpretation of history. The almost three million Jews who met their death in the gas chambers were included in the figures for the total number of Polish citizens who died during the war. “The Holocaust”, writes Piotr Forecki, “was therefore erased from Polish history as a specifically Jewish experience”. The memorials to the horrors of war — including the current symbol for the Holocaust, the Auschwitz—Birkenau concentration and extermination camp — were designed in postwar Poland in such a way that the extermination of the Jews was subordinated to the murder of the Poles. Neither the name nor the words of the legislation that the Sejm adopted when the Auschwitz—Birkenau museum opened in 1947 reflected anything about the extermination of the Jews during the war. The museum was stated to be “the Memorial to the Martyrdom of the Polish and of Other Nations”.

When, as recently as 1967, memorial plaques in twelve languages, including Hebrew, were erected below the ruins of the crematories in the Birkenau extermination camp, the text made no mention of the Jews either. It read: “Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945.” At the opening ceremony, Poland’s prime minister Jósef Cyrankiewicz, himself a former Auschwitz prisoner, gave a speech in which he counted up the many nationalities that had fallen victim in the camp, but the Jews were not mentioned.

The exhibitions inside the Auschwitz museum were designed so that the Jews were mixed in and forgotten by naming the various barracks according to country: the Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Danish barracks. Marek Kucia notes that the communist regime probably consciously avoided the German name Auschwitz—Birkenau in the official name of the museum, which instead was called Panstwowe Museum Oświęcim—Brzezinka: “This state and national symbol was intended to underscore the Polish [people’s] group identity and was used by the communist powers to legitimize a political status quo.”

Marek Kucia notes   how this endeavor by the communist rulers to “nationalize” Auschwitz was reflected in the textbooks and guide books about the camp, which were printed by the millions. The textbooks most commonly referred to those who perished in the camp, with the exception of the Poles, in general terms such as “victims”, “prisoners” or simply “people”. “Not a single Polish textbook from this era states that mainly Jews were murdered at Auschwitz and only in a few of them can it be deduced that the Jews were deported there, and subjected to an annihilation”, says Kucia.

While school trips to Auschwitz were often included in the curriculum during these years, students rarely visited the Birkenau extermination camp. Even though half of all Poles have visited the museum at Auschwitz, by the early 1990s, according to Marek Kucia’s estimates, only one third of visitors to the exhibitions at Auschwitz I had also visited Birkenau.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that for decades, in the public consciousness in Poland, Auschwitz and what happened there during the war differed from the historical truth. The first sociological study that tried to answer the question of how respondents perceive Auschwitz was carried out in 1995. Only eight percent of respondents said that they primarily associated Auschwitz with the Holocaust of the Jews. Half of the respondents mainly associated the camp with martyrdom of the Polish people, and one fourth with “martyrdom of various other nationalities”.

While it can be understood that Poles who had lost a relative or had a relative who was imprisoned in Auschwitz would make this association, based on the study by Marek Kucia it can be concluded that in this case communist propaganda and falsification of history could become deeply rooted among the Polish people.

It was the late Pope, John Paul II, who, with strong symbolism during his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 1979, signaled a break with the official rewriting of history when he was at the memorial and first stopped at the plaque with the text in Hebrew, a text that at that time made no mention of the Jewish people: “I pause a while together with you, dear participants at this meeting, before this plaque with the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription stirs the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were destined to total extermination. This People has its origins in Abraham, who is our father in faith. Precisely this People, which received from God the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, has experienced in itself to an exceptional degree what killing means. May no one pass this memorial plaque with indifference.”

Fifteen year later, five years after the fall of communism, the memorial plaques at Birkenau were replaced. The number of people murdered was corrected to the number that historians then felt to be well-grounded and the text explicitly states that mainly Jews lost their lives at Auschwitz—Birkenau: “This place shall for all time be a constant and loud reminder of the despair of mankind. Here, the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children — mostly Jews from various European countries.”

Most Polish   visitors to the museum in Auschwitz now also see the Birkenau extermination camp. The textbooks from the communist era have long since been replaced. There is no doubt that these changes led to the beginnings of a new collective consciousness in Poland. As early as 2000, 91 percent of students who visited the museum responded that they associated Auschwitz with the Holocaust of European Jews and 63 percent that they also associated the name with the genocide of European Roma. Of course, the Polish students also associated Auschwitz with the statement that many Poles had been imprisoned or met their deaths there. What was new was that the number of respondents who associated Auschwitz with Polish suffering was lower than the number who associated Auschwitz with the Holocaust of European Jews. Almost the same proportions were obtained in a nationwide sociological survey in which an impressive 88 percent of Poles responded that they associated Auschwitz with the Holocaust of European Jews. Thus twenty years after the fall of communism the open society triumphed over the blackout of the previous epoch.

But why had the blackout occurred? And why was it accepted?

As he attempts to find an explanation, Piotr Forecki uses concepts such as collective memory and collective forgetfulness as a theoretical basis, and shows in his empirical review how, soon after the war, “a period
began that lasted several decades when the subject of Jews and the Holocaust was either effectively eliminated from public discourse and from Polish history, or,  when it was present, was falsified and distorted”.

This official concealment of Jews in Poland’s history and thus the Holocaust was rooted, according to Forecki, in the efforts of the communist regime to legitimize its power by emphasizing the country’s new ethnic homogeneity: “The foundation in the construction of the collective memory of the war was shaped in communist Poland (PRL) by the nation’s own martyrdom, heroism, and antifascism. Remembering the Polish heroes and victims was of the utmost importance.”

However, the question must be asked, writes Piotr Forecki, whether this official concealment of the Holocaust imposed from above reflected a need from below, a need of the people for collective forgetfulness. Forecki’s answer is that this was indeed the case, precisely because the communist propaganda could be “an excellent binder for the nation’s collective identity”: “Polish society wanted to forget its role as spectator to the Holocaust […]. Similarly, people wished to erase the memory of the Jews.”

Forecki is not the first Polish historian to write about this collective forgetfulness of the Holocaust and Jewish Poland. Feliks Tych, longtime director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, states in one of his studies of war memoirs from various Polish professional groups how noticeably absent the Holocaust is, even though the authors of these memoirs were “spectators” to the Holocaust. Among those who during the first years after the war already raised questions about passivity and forgetfulness were well-known authors such as Jerzy Andrzejewski, Kazimierz Brandy, Zofia Nałkowska, and Czesław Miłosz. The latter had, already during the war — in 1943 when the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was in flames — written his poem “Campo dei Fiori”, in which he chains indifference to the Polish side of the wall, an indifference which he compares to that of spectators at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome when Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake:

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori

In Warsaw by the sky-carousel

One clear spring evening

To the strains of a carnival tune.

The bright melody drowned

The salvos from the ghetto wall,

And couples were flying

High in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burn

Would drift dark kites along

And riders on the carousel

Caught petals in midair.

That same hot wind

Blew open the skirts of the girls

And the crowds were laughing

On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

“Those dying here,

the lonely Forgotten by the world,

Our tongue becomes for them

The language of an ancient planet.”


Those in Poland who spoke in the name of the exterminated Jews in the early postwar years, however, soon found themselves on the outside of official Polish society, like Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel laureate, who entered a prolonged exile. It took an open society for anyone in the public debate to grasp the final words of the poem: “… when all is legend / And many years have passed, / On a great Campo dei Fiori, / Rage will kindle at a poet’s word”. In 1987, well-known literary critic Jan Błoński wrote an article published in the liberal Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, launching the first real public debate in postwar Poland on the relationship of the Polish people to the Holocaust during and after the war. In the title of his essay, “Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto” [Poor Poles who look at the ghetto], Błoński alluded to another poem by Miłosz, “Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na getto” [a poor Christian who looks at the ghetto], also written during the war. In the text, the poem “Campo di Fiori” becomes the starting point for Błoński’s analysis and reflection. He rejects the traditional Polish “defense mechanisms” and urges his readers to try to look the truth in the eye, to purify the tainted soil and the collective memory.

Jan Błoński’s essay marked the beginning of an intense debate in the Polish media, a discussion that Piotr Forecki aptly calls a major “break point” in postwar Polish discourse on the Holocaust. It became clear, according to Forecki, that the “main obstacle for the Poles as they tackle the problem of their relationship with the Jews before the war, like the Poles’ attitude during the Holocaust, is the psychological defense mechanisms buried as codes in the collective consciousness”.

Błoński’s essay and the debate it generated did not fade until the 1988—1990 dismantling of the communist system. Consequently, new doors opened not just for the public debate; with the fall of communism in the 1990s, Jewish culture and the Jewish heritage also began to make a strong “comeback” in Poland. Moving a large part of cultural activities in Kraków outside the “walls”, to the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, which had been neglected throughout the communist period, can be seen as a symbol of the real re-evaluation of the past that has taken place since the early 1990s in democratic Poland. Today any reputable bookstore carries a significant number of books on Judaism and Jewish history in Poland. Paradoxically, there was initially no direct link between this “revival” of Jewish culture for a broad Polish “audience” and the collective historical memory of World War II, the Holocaust, or the widespread anti-Semitism in Poland during the 1930s. This “revival” was much easier to link to the history of the liberal Polish Commonwealth during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries when the Jews were expelled from Western Europe and found refuge in places such as tolerant Poland. Henryk Szlajfer found for that reason in the early 2000s that the “one-sided (read: idealized) picture of the relationship between Poles and Jews” throughout history might play an “anesthetic role” for the Polish collective memory. For many years Szlajfer’s fear seemed justified. In 2011, I think we can conclude that the reviving Jewish culture played an indirect role in revisiting the difficult questions about the Holocaust.

It is symptomatic   that the debate also often involves a “revival”. Just as Jan Błoński, in the previously cited essay from 1987, began with a poem by Miłosz from 1943, one of the starting points of Jan Tomasz Gross’s latest book is a quotation, “A gold tooth ripped out of a corpse will always bleed”, from a text by literary critic Kazimierz Wyka written soon after the war, referring to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries by the Polish population. Gross’s latest book was published last spring, at about the same time in English and Polish, with the title Golden Harvest: What Happened at the Periphery of the Holocaust.

In addition to the quotation from Wyka’s text (which could not be released in Poland until the “thaw”, after the October revolution in 1956 and then not until the mid-1980s, and which some years ago was published in a new edition), Gross begins with a photo, taken at the time that Kazimierz Wyka wrote his text. Probably — there is no certainty in this case, which has been taken by Gross’s constant critics within Poland to be a pretext for sweeping the book’s actual content under the carpet — the image represents part of the local population of villages close to the Treblinka extermination camp a few years after World War II came to an end. They sit lined up as in a photo taken during harvest time in the fields, holding axes and shovels. In front of them, meanwhile, is a rather macabre sight: human bones and skulls. It is a photo of grave robbers, perhaps up in the hills by the Treblinka extermination camp, where during fifteen months from July 1942 to October 1943, 800,000 Jews were gassed to death.

Even if the picture were taken at another extermination camp, it would change nothing in the sad drama Gross describes — nor in the argument he now presents, which is formulated more sharply than it was in his book Fear. In Fear, Gross argues that the fear and guilt associated with the Polish takeover of Jewish property was one of the reasons for the anti-Semitism that erupted in Poland after the war. In Golden Harvests, Gross first goes back to the war years and depicts the systematic takeover of both possessions and real estate from the Jewish population in the Polish countryside, villages, and small cities. He also describes how parts of the local Polish population in the small communities outside Treblinka had a kind of symbiotic relationship with the executioners inside the camps. “The theft of Jewish property and murder of the Jews are two actions that are closely linked together”, writes Jan Tomasz Gross, who also carefully points out that this phenomenon was not limited to Poland. It was more extensive in Poland only because the Jewish population there was larger than in any other European country: “How many of the six million Jews annihilated during the war throughout occupied Europe were murdered by the local population?” he asks and concludes that historians today estimate the number to be between one million and one and a half million people. Within Poland’s borders from 1939 Jan Tomasz Gross estimates that several hundred thousand Jews were directly or indirectly murdered by representatives of the local population.

The picture of reality in the Polish countryside that Jan Tomasz Gross presents in his new book thus stands in sharp contrast to the picture that prevailed in Poland for half a century of a people who suffered with the Jewish population, but could do little to help their Jewish brethren, since the Nazis could impose the death penalty for such help. Gross does not deny the heroism of those Poles who, with or without compensation, risked their lives to save the lives of Jews. These stories are well-known. Also well-known and researched, and worth noting, are the more than seven hundred Poles who were executed because they hid one or more Jews in their homes.

Jan Tomasz Gross   considers the flip side of this phenomenon and argues that the reason that these Poles, along with the Jews they chose to help, were executed was often betrayal by their Polish neighbors. He also shows how the Poles, especially during the phase of the Holocaust that Nazi Germany called “Judenjagd” — where the purpose was to locate surviving Jews in cities and the countryside as well as Jews who had fled into the woods or had found a hiding place with a Pole — actively participated in this German action.

The German occupying forces and the German Nazis orchestrated the Holocaust and are therefore responsible. Jan Tomasz Gross’s book addresses what happened at the “periphery” of this organized Holocaust. The word “periphery” should not be ascribed a purely spatial interpretation: the “periphery”, Gross writes, was also in the middle of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust; this “periphery” was actually central to those who tried to survive. This “periphery” held the only chance of survival for the fleeing Jew. Usually, he was deeply disappointed by his Polish neighbor. The balance sheet that Gross compiles is new and heartrending. This is also why the new debate is already underway — and note that it is more calm and collected than when the book about Jedwabne was published. Today, Poland has years of solid historical research in the field in which Gross puts his poker to stir the ashes of debate.

About the same time that Jan Tomasz Gross published this book, two other books were on the shelves of Polish bookstores which, based on original source research, explain the participation of the local Polish population in the murder of their Jewish neighbors in the Polish countryside. One was written by Jan Grabowski, Judenjagd: Polowanie na Żydów 1942—1945: Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu [Judenjagd: The hunt for Jews, 1942—1945: A study of events in one county]. The other book was written by Barbara Engelking, Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień . . . .  Losy Żydów szukający ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942—1945 [It’s such a beautiful, sunny day . . . . The fate of Jews seeking help in the Polish countryside, 1942—1945]. Both books were published by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, which was established under the auspices of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 2003 and is the only Polish institution dedicated exclusively to research and education about the Holocaust. The center has published a number of books in recent years. For the past six years the center has also published an excellent yearbook with studies and material about the Holocaust, Zagłada Żydów Studia i Materiały [Holocaust studies and material].This new Polish research carried out by a new generation of historians also provides a solid foundation for Jan Tomasz Gross’s most recent book about the “golden harvests”.

Jan Grabowski has been reviewing materials from Dąbrowa Tarnowska in the southeastern part of today’s Poland since 1946. His sources are the testimony of surviving Jews recorded just after the war, material largely available in the archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, German archival material, and documents from trials shortly after the war. He explains how both individual Poles and Polish organizations, such as the Polish police, participated in the hunt for Jews and in the murder of Jews.

Of the total of   239 documented murders of Jews, only seven were carried out by the German Gendarmerie on its own; that is, the Germans themselves sought out and took the lives of Jews who were hiding in only seven cases. In 84 cases, the Jews were handed over to the Germans by the local population. In six cases, Polish farmers murdered Jews on their own, sometimes people whom they had first hidden, after which they received either money or valuables in compensation. In eleven cases the Polish police murdered the Jews on their own and in 82 cases the German Gendarmerie murdered Jews that the Polish police found and handed over to the Germans.

“There can be no doubt”, writes Jan Grabowski, “that the overwhelming portion of Jews who tried to hide were discovered and murdered because of betrayal”, and he concludes: “murdering Jews was business as usual for the Polish Police (Policja Granatowa) in the Tarnów district.”

Barbara Engelking reports in her book the results of archival research relating to rural areas in the German Government-General of the occupied Polish provinces, an area of Poland that included the capital of Warsaw, Lublin in the east, and Kraków to the south. In her research, in addition to material from several trials after the war, Engelking reviewed 473 Jewish narratives recorded immediately after the war. It should be noted that 391 of them are in the Jewish Historical Institute Archives in Warsaw. Like Jan Grabowski, Barbara Engelking can provide examples in which the Polish rural population participated in the Holocaust by handing Jews over to the Germans or conducting executions. In the more than five hundred cases that Barbara Engelking examined, a total of at least 1,599 Jews were handed over for execution to the Germans and 1,015 were executed by Polish citizens.

Both Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking provide frightening reading with their macabre depictions of how Jews were first taken care of by close Polish friends and later either handed over or executed, and on several occasions Barbara Engelking approaches the question in her strictly academic presentation of how this unimaginable evil can be understood or explained. She finds no answer, but can only say that after concluding her work more questions remain than the answers she can provide.

What began in Poland, with the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s provocative essays, the most recent historical studies, and the research project initiated by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, is a new phase in the public debate about the Polish nation’s relationship to the Holocaust. What is totally new is that historians and researchers in Poland are now leading the way and providing the most difficult answers to the most difficult questions. Two decades after the fall of communism the public debate about the Holocaust and the Polish nation has progressed farther than in any country in the democratic part of Europe during the first twenty years after the end of the Second World War. Such a claim cannot be made in any other country in Eastern Europe. ≈


Olaf Bergman, Narodowa Demokracja wobec problematyki żydowskiej w latach 1918—1939 [National democracy and the Jewish question in the years 1918—1929], Poznań 1998.

Anna Bikont, My z Jedwabnego [We from Jedwabne]. Warsaw 2004

Stefan Bratkowski, Pod Wspólnym Niebem [Under the same sky], Warsaw 2001.

Adam Dylewski, Śladami Żydów polskich [In the footsteps of the Polish Jews], Bielsko—Biala 2002.

Artur Eisenbach, Z dziejów ludnośći żydowskiej w Polsce [From the history of the Jewish population in Poland], Warsaw 1983.

Barbara Enkelking, Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień: Losy Żydów szukających ratunki na wsi polskiej 1942—1945 [It is such a beautiful, sunny day: The fate of Jews seeking help in the Polish countryside 1942—1945], Warsaw 2011.

Barbara Enkelking, Jan Grabowski, Żydów łamiących prawo należy karać śmiercią: “Przestępczość Żydów w Warszawie 1939—1942 [Jews breaking the law should be punished with death: Crimes committed by Jews in Warsaw 1939—1942], Warsaw 2010.

Eugeniusz Fąfara, Gehenna ludności Żydowskiej [The ordeal of the Jewish population], Warsaw 1983.

Piotr Forecki, Od Shoah do Strach: Spory o polsko — żydowską przeszłość i pamięć w debatach publicznych [From Shoah to fear: Disputes over the Polish-Jewish past and memory in public debates], Poznań 2010.

Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The unsung heroes of the Holocaust, London 2002.

Jan Grabowski, Judenjagd: Polowanie na Żydów 1942—1945: Studium dziejów pewnego Powiatu [Judenjagd: A hunt for Jews 1942—1945: A study of the history of one district], Warsaw 2011.

Jan Grabowski, Ja tego Żyda znam! Szantażowanie Żydów w Warszawie 1939—1943 [“I know this Jew!”: Blackmailing Jews in Warsaw, 1939—1943], Warsaw 2005.

Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, New York 2006.

Jan Tomasz Gross, Sąsiedzi Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka [Neighbors: The destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland], Sejny 2000.

Jan Tomasz Gross in cooperation with Irena Grudzińskia Gross, Złote Żniwa [Golden Harvest], Kraków 2011.

Jan Tomasz Gross, Upiorna dekada, trzy eseje o stereotypach na temat Żydów, Polaków, Niemców i kommunistów 1939—1948 [Ghastly decade: Three essays on stereotypes about the Jews, Poles, Germans, and Communists], Kraków 2001.

Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, London 2002.

Agnieszka Haska, “Jestem Żydem, chcę wejść “. Hotel Polski w Warszawie 1943 [“I am a Jew, I want to come in”: Polish Hotel in Warsaw 1943], Warsaw 2006.

Cecilia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars, New York 1980.

Jedwabne, Najpoważniejszy egzamin [Jedwabne: The most serious test]. Więż. Kwiecień 4 (510), 2001.

Marek Kucia, Auschwitz jako fakt społeczny [Auschwitz as a social fact], Kraków 2005.

Agnieszka Legutko—Ołownia, Krakowski Kazimierz: Miasto rozstan i powrótow [Kraków’s Kazimierz: Town of partings and returns], Kraków 2004.

Pawel Machcewicz & Krzystof Persaka (eds.), Wokól Jedwabnego. Dokumenty. 1—2 [About Jedwabne: Documents: 1—2]. Instytut Pamięcie Narodowej (IPN), Warsaw 2002.

Adam Michnik (ed.), Precziw antyseitysmowi 1936—2009 [Against anti-Semitism 1936—2009]. I—III, Kraków 2010.

Gunnar S. Paulsson, Utajone miasto: Żydzi po aryjskiej stronie Warszawy 1940—1945 [Secret city: The hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940—1945], Kraków 2009.

Tomasz Szarota, U progi Zaglady: Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie [At the brink of the mass-murder: Anti-Semitic incidents and pogroms in occupied Europe, Warsaw 2000.

Michal C. Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust, New York 1977.

Henryk Szlajfer, Polacy — Żydzi zderzenie sterotypów: Esej dla przyjaciół i innych [The Poles and the Jews — a clash of stereotypes: An essay for friends and others], Warsaw 2003.

Robert Szuchta & Piotr Trojański, Holocaust zrozumieć dlaczego: Książka pomocnicza do nauczania historii w szkołach ponadpostawowych [The Holocaust — to understand why: a supplementary history textbook for high schools], Warsaw 2003.

Feliks Tych, Długi cień zagłady [A long day of the mass-murder], Warsaw 1999.

Robert S. Wistrich, Hitler und der Holocaust, Berlin 2003.

Zagłada Żydow, Studia i Materiały: Rocznik Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów [Holocaust studies and materials: Journal of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research]. IFiS PAN 1—6.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

  • all contributors
  • Features

    Features offer in-depth accounts of issues related to the region without prior peer-review process.

    Would you like to contribute to Baltic Worlds? Click here!