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Aftershocks

In Fear, a scholar chronicles the slaughter of Polish Jews in the postwar years

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz
By Jan T. Gross
Random House, 303 pp., illustrated, $25.95

Happy are the writers whose books create a stir. Some just make money, but others make a difference in the world. President Lincoln famously greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of ``Uncle Tom's Cabin," as ``the little lady who started the big war." Stowe's novel did not, of course, start the Civil War, but it did contribute to the growing anti slavery sentiment in the United States in the years preceding it.

Jan Gross's 2001 book, ``Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland," can lay claim to a comparable achievement. Gross, a native of Poland and a professor at New York University, brought into public view a horrifying massacre that occurred in a Polish village in July 1941, shortly after the German Army invaded the town . The most shocking fact was that those who murdered the Jews of Jedwabne were Polish. The Polish villagers killed their Jewish neighbors and took over their property -- with the approval and encouragement of the Nazi occupiers .

When Gross's book was published in Poland, in 2000 , it caused a huge uproar . One positive result was the creation of the Institute of National Memory in Poland. Its first task was a full investigation of the massacre, which not only bore out Gross's account but showed that Jedwabne was one of many towns in the region that saw similar massacres throughout the summer of 1941.

In his new book, ``Fear," Gross takes on an equally painful subject: the violence of Polish popular anti-Semitism in the immediate postwar years, when the few Polish Jews who had survived returned to their native towns. Gross tells a devastating story of non-welcome: In 1945-46 approximately 1,000 Polish Jews were murdered. This led to a wave of Jewish emigration , so that by the late 1940 s only about 100,000 Jews were left in the country (the prewar number was 3 million). Their number was reduced even further in 1956 and 1968, when new and less violent forms of anti-Semitism erupted. Today, very few Jews remain in Poland; but this did not prevent 40 percent of respondents to declare, in a 2004 poll, that the country was still ``governed by Jews."

Gross focuses on the famous pogrom of July 4, 1946, which took place in and around the city of Kielce. During an entire day, ``ordinary" Kielcians stoned and murdered their Jewish fellow citizens, on the declared grounds that the Jews in a shelter for returning survivors had ``captured Polish children for blood transfusions in order to fortify themselves." As Gross notes, this medieval fantasy of ritual murder was merely a pretext: Many Jews who had nothing to do with the shelter were dragged from their homes and killed, including a woman and her baby who were driven to a forest and shot in cold blood by a small group of men. After stripping her of her few belongings, they went out and had dinner. ``Only a shared understanding that Jews could be killed with impunity" can account for the story of these particular murders, Gross concludes. When, a few days later, some of the murderers were tried and executed (most went unpunished), workers in nearby factories went on strike to protest the executions.

All this makes for deeply depressing reading. But equally depressing are the analyses Gross devotes to the responses to Kielce by the Catholic Church and by the Communist-dominated government of the time. Cardinal August Hlond issued a statement a week after the pogrom deploring the ``event" but leaving out all mention of Jews and anti-Semitism. Only one Polish bishop, Teodor Kubina, condemned the massacre in explicit terms -- and he was reprimanded by all the other bishops for undermining the unanimity of the church's position . The moral failure of the Polish clergy during those years is among the most distressing facts to emerge from Gross's book.

Gross devotes a long chapter to dismantling the myth that Communism in Poland was a Jewish phenomenon. There are still historians in Poland who explain Polish anti-Semitism on those grounds, but Gross shows that, if anything, the Jewish population was largely anti-Communist, before and after the war. A number of highly placed Polish Communist leaders in the postwar years were Jews, but by then Stalin had turned deeply anti-Semitic and the Jews were soon purged from leadership positions . These facts will do little to persuade those who equate Jews with Communism, but they do their part to set the record straight .

Most provocative is Gross's explanation for the virulence of Polish anti-Semitism in the postwar years. Neither the Judeo-Communist myth nor the ritual-murder myth can be a real explanation, he says -- they were pretexts, not causes. Nor is the long history of Polish anti-Semitism a sufficient cause to explain the outbursts of violence. Rather, he proposes that the only plausible explanation ``was embedded in the society's opportunistic wartime behavior" -- in other words, Poles murdered Jews after the war not because the Jews had done them harm, but because they had done the Jews harm. By participating in the persecution of Jews during the war, and by taking over Jewish property after its rightful owners were murdered, the Polish townspeople had created a situation for themselves in which fear and hatred of the returning victims were the inevitable psychological reaction.

There is something too pat about this explanation . It seems obvious, and Gross himself documents, that long-lived stereotypes and myths also contributed to the violent anti-Semitism of the 1940 s. But his suggestion that contemporary Poles must face up to the harm they themselves inflicted, and to the profit they derived from the disappearance of millions of Jews from their midst, is powerful and necessary. As for what can be done about the persistence of anti-Semitism in Poland, that is a matter to ponder.

During Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit, the chief rabbi of Warsaw was attacked by a man shouting ``Poland to the Poles!" the day before he accompanied the pope to Auschwitz. Yet, for all his sadness at Auschwitz, Pope Benedict did not take the opportunity to condemn anti-Semitism . One can only hope that this important book will make a difference.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is a professor of comparative literature at Harvard. Her new book is ``Crises of Memory and the Second World War."

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