by Doug Ward

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 Miami University on March 19, 2007, by Princeton University 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 and France, 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.


Initially Germany 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 population.


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 of Jedwabne 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.



Poland's 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 guilt.


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. 17:9)


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 cure."


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.


Issue 23


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
30 Mar 2007, 13:49.