OXFORD, OHIO-In 2001 I
had the opportunity to visit Poland
for a little over a week. Overall, I much enjoyed the visit, but I am still haunted
by one disturbing image from the trip. At various times during my stay in Poland,
I noted the same crude piece of anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on walls. It was
a picture of a gallows with a Star of David in the noose.
One reason that I am troubled by the graffiti is the fact
that so many Jews were murdered in Poland
during the time of the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s. Present-day Poland
has a very homogeneous population that includes only a tiny number of Jews. For
the people spreading the graffiti, wasn't the Holocaust enough? Why is there
still so much anti-Semitism in this place?
Looking for a way to understand what I had seen in Poland,
I made a point of attending a lecture on Polish anti-Semitism presented at MiamiUniversity on March 19, 2007, by PrincetonUniversity sociologist and
historian Jan T.
Gross. In this lecture, Professor Gross described the findings that are
detailed in his book entitled Fear: Anti-Semitism in
Poland after Auschwitz (Random House, 2006).
The Holocaust in Poland
Gross, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the United
States in 1969, is an expert on the era of
the Second World War. He began his lecture by providing a brief overview of how
the Nazi "Final Solution" was implemented in different parts of Europe.
He explained that in Western Europe, where the Nazis
discreetly wanted to hide their plans to exterminate the Jews, the Holocaust
involved a process of separating the Jews from the rest of the population,
branding them, and then shipping them away to the death camps. Because of the
efficiency of government bureaucracies in countries like Holland
this process still resulted in a huge death toll. Gross noted, for example,
that over 70 per cent of Dutch Jews were killed.
In Eastern Europe, on the other hand,
the situation was different. For one thing there were many more Jews, partly
because their ancestors had sought refuge there centuries before from
anti-Semitism in Western Europe. These Jews tended to be
less affluent, less assimilated, and more traditional than those in Western
Europe, so they were easy to identify. Moreover, in the Nazi
ideology, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were
viewed as subhuman, people fit to be slaves. The Nazis were not so concerned
about what uncivilized Slavs thought about their extermination plan. And so in Eastern
Europe, they followed a policy of direct violence against Jews.
Among the nations of Europe, the
experience of Poland
in the Second World War was unique in certain respects. Caught between ruthless
and power-hungry governments in Germany
and the Soviet Union, Poland
suffered tremendous devastation from the hands of both sides, even though it
mounted a heroic resistance. In addition, Poland
had the largest Jewish population of any European country. Before the war there
were 3.5 million Jews in Poland,
a number at the time exceeded only by the U.S.
Jewish population. Polish Jews lived mainly in cities and towns, where they
comprised a third of the urban population.
and the Soviet Union made an agreement to divide up Poland,
and the majority of Poland's
Jews lived in the Soviet section. But in 1941, the Nazis moved east to take
over more of Poland,
and Jews were the group that suffered most from the Nazi onslaught. The Nazis
murdered large numbers of Jews openly, in full view of the rest of the Polish
Professor Gross explained that the Nazis also provided
plenty of incentive for the Poles to join them in killing Jews. One of the main
inducements was economic. At a time when working class Poles were suffering
great privation, a third or more of the houses in their towns were suddenly
being vacated. When Jews from some town were killed, looters in that town
swooped in to grab their belongings. Soon many Poles viewed the belongings of
the Jews in their towns as a resource to which they were entitled. Some even
asked their Jewish acquaintances to give them particular items, anticipating
that these Jews would soon be killed anyway and would surely rather have their
belongings claimed by people they knew rather than by the Nazis.
But how would the belongings of the Jews in a particular
locality be distributed? As it turned out, the
strength of a person's claim to such goods was often judged to be roughly
proportional to the amount of assistance that person had given the Nazis in
killing their owners. This provided incentive for Poles to help the Nazis.
Sadly, in some towns the Poles, though under no direct
compulsion from Germany,
rounded up and murdered their Jewish neighbors. For example, on July 10, 1941, the Poles in the town
killed all of the Jews in their town-some 1600 people-in the space of a single
day. Gross has written a book about this incident (Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Princeton University Press, 2001)
that sparked a lively debate in Poland.
It had commonly been thought that the Polish role in the Holocaust had been a
largely passive one, but the story of the Jedwabne
massacre suggests otherwise.
Opportunistic theft of Jewish property continued throughout
the war and into the period of Soviet domination that followed. Some Poles even
searched sites where many Jews had been murdered-the death camp at Treblinka,
for example-hoping to find some treasures that had been left behind.
Unwelcome After the War
Over ninety per cent of Polish Jews were killed during the war, but
there were a few hundred thousand survivors. Many of the survivors were people
from Soviet-occupied territory who had been sent to the Soviet interior early
in the war. Ironically, their lives had been saved by the fact that they had
been forced to move. There were also some Jews who had been hidden successfully
by kind Polish neighbors, and others who had managed to survive the Nazi death
camps. After the war, the survivors headed home to see what might be left of
their families and possessions.
When these Jews arrived back in their hometowns, their
experiences were very similar. They were generally told that they were not
welcome. They would be in great danger if they stayed, so they should leave right
away. Many returnees took the hint and headed to refugee camps in Germany
supervised by the Allies. From there they moved on eventually to places such as
the U.S., the
new state of Israel,
Canada, and Australia.
Those who tried to stay and start new lives faced many
obstacles, including job discrimination. It was often impossible for Jewish
children to attend the public schools because of the severe harassment they
would face from the other students. (Children who were born during the Nazi
period had internalized the message that Jews were less than human.) Some Jews
tried to seek help from the courts and other government agencies, but the
judicial system and local bureaucracies often proved to be unresponsive, even
though the postwar government's official policy was one of nondiscrimination.
Jews who returned to Poland
also faced the very real threat of violence. Anti-Jewish riots erupted in Rzeszów (June 12, 1945), Kraków
(August 11, 1945), and Kielce
(July 4, 1946), sparked by false rumors of Jews kidnapping or killing Polish
children. In the Kielce
pogrom, at least forty Jews were murdered.
Because of the anti-Semitism in Poland,
the vast majority of the Jews who returned to Poland
after the war did not stay very long. Sixty years later, the number of Jews in Poland
is estimated to be only around ten thousand or so.
postwar anti-Semitism was most prevalent among working-class people. The
intellectual elite in Poland
viewed this phenomenon with shock and dismay. Since the Polish people had
endured so much at the hands of the Nazis, one would think that they would look
sympathetically on another group that had suffered even more. Instead, there
was widespread antipathy toward Jews. What were the reasons for this strange
antipathy? Why had the victims become victimizers? It was these troubling
questions that led Gross to write Fear.
Professor Gross stated that there is no evidence that Poles
before the war were any more anti-Semitic than the people in the U.S.
or other western countries. He believes that the hostility toward Jews in the
aftermath of the war was motivated by fear-thus the title of his book-and
As we have noted, many working-class Poles had aided the
Nazis in wiping out Jews and had subsequently appropriated both the material
possessions and the social positions of those Jews. To these Poles, the Jews
who returned after the war were an unwelcome reminder of what they had done.
The presence of these surviving Jews created a very awkward situation. It
raised the possibility that the Poles might be called into account for their
crimes and perhaps be forced to relinquish their stolen goods and enhanced
status. Seeing these Jews, who had lost everything during the war, also
reminded them of how vulnerable they themselves still were in a country that
was quickly being taken over by the Communists. Poles reacted to this awkward
situation by strongly encouraging the returning Jews to move on.
Gross's analysis also helps explain a related postwar
phenomenon: the fact that Poles who had helped Jews during the war did not want
their good deeds to become publicly known. For one thing, the knowledge that a
certain family had helped Jews during the war made that family a more likely
target of burglary, because neighbors often assumed that those who had aided
Jews had received some material reward as a result. In addition, the presence
of these "righteous Gentiles" was a source of further guilt for their
neighbors. The fact that some had not participated in the killing reminded
those who had assisted the Nazis that other choices had been available to them.
Although almost all of the Jews left Poland,
memories of the Polish role in the Holocaust have remained. Anti-Semitic stereotypes
and conspiracy theories abound in Poland,
perhaps as a way of coping with lingering guilt and unresolved issues from the
Nazi period. This lingering guilt may help explain the strange
"anti-Semitism without Jews" that I observed during my visit in 2001.
Gross has written that "the rhetoric of Jewish conspiracy permeates
political discourse in Poland"
(Fear, p. 30). He cites a 2004 opinion poll in which some forty per cent
of those surveyed believed Poland
was controlled by Jews.
The Depths of Human Nature
Professor Gross noted that Poland
is far from alone in having difficulty coming to terms with its role in the
Holocaust. A number of other European countries have also been struggling with
all that happened during the Second World War. Gross believes that facing the
truth is an important part of the healing process and hopes that his research
will help Poland
with that process.
At the close of his lecture, Gross commented that Poland
is also not alone in the nature of its national sins. He pointed to the events
surrounding the breakup of the former Yugoslavia
as a more recent example of a situation where people whose families had lived
as neighbors for many generations turned against each other in violence.
Gross's analysis was a great help in providing some context
for the garish graffiti I saw during my visit to Poland.
His lecture brought to mind a familiar passage from the prophecy of Jeremiah:
"The heart is deceitful above
all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer.
Jeremiah's words, spoken some 2600 years ago, remain true
today. As Prof. Gross mentioned, Poland
is not more evil than other countries. The events of the Holocaust illustrate that
all of us are capable of great evil given the right set of circumstances.
Without God, the condition of sinful humanity is indeed "beyond
One of the deceitful aspects of the human heart is our
tendency to deny or excuse our sins. Poland's
anti-Semitism illustrates this tendency. Poles will not find peace and healing
until they admit the truth about their past and turn in repentance to Jesus of
Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah and Savior of all mankind. The same is true for
all of us. The only cure for our spiritual sickness lies in the atoning,
healing sacrifice of Jesus the Jew.