Their Memory, Our Disgrace

Jan Tomasz Gross’s books remind us of the common belief that the extermination of jews was beneficial for Poles. That is why they are so controversial.

“It’s good that Hitler killed off that Jewish rabble.”

Is there anybody who has not heard these words at least once in their life? Agreed, there are some who have not and in Germany, they call it “the blessing of late birth.” I, however, have often heard old peasants freely say what they consider obvious, but what we as young people, could hardly utter: that the extermination of the Jews was beneficial for us as Poles.

Nobody has ever counted how many Poles live in former Jewish homes, on old Jewish properties. Nobody has ever asked how they feel living in the shadows of the murdered. Allegedly, the inhabitants of the so-called “Recovered Territories” sometimes feel uncomfortable living in formerly German homes. Yet, they seldom feel remorse; at the end of the day it was the Germans own fault, wasn’t it? However, what should the people who live in formerly Jewish houses do? That is the case with the inhabitants of practically every Polish city in the Masovian and Podlaskie provinces. How does one persuade oneself that there is nothing bad about it at all?

The easiest way out is to blame the Jews. There is a whole set of anti-Semitic prejudices readily available. If this is not enough, one can also deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Jan Tomasz Gross, a New York University professor little known in Poland at that time, in the preface to his 1998 book Upiorna dekada (The Ghastly Decade), mentioned survey results from 1993 in which respondents were asked the question: “Do you think that the Jewish nation suffered the same, more or less during the war compared with the Polish nation?” The majority (53 per cent) of the one thousand Poles who took part in the poll answered “as much” or “less.”

Gross remembers being deeply shaken by these results. How come that half a century after the war the majority of the Poles cannot make out the difference between the undeniably dramatic fate of their compatriots and the systematic extermination of the Jews? How is it possible for 6 per cent of the respondents to claim that the Polish nation suffered more, for 32 per cent to hold that both nations suffered the same, for 12 per cent to think that it is hard to compare, and for 3 per cent to state that it is hard to tell?

One might try to put it down to ignorance. An acceptable answer, provided that the survey was carried out with the inhabitants of Pernambuco. We, however, live in a country which has been inhabited by Jews for one thousand years; a country whose capital, during our grandparents’ lifetime, had the second largest Jewish population after New York; a country that was the scene of the extermination of the majority of European Jews during the last great war. Thus, one cannot put it down to ignorance, but a “conspiracy of silence” as Jan Tomasz Gross observed 13 years ago. Then he decided to end the conspiracy.

The book Upiorna dekada. Trzy eseje o stereotypach na temat Żydów, Polaków, Niemców i komunistów 1939–1948 (The Ghastly Decade. Three Essays on Stereotypes about Jews, Poles, Germans and Communists 1939–1948) was released by the Cracow-based publisher Universitas in 1998 in such a tiny release that all the copies would fit on the desk at which I am sitting and writing these words. Despite this, it sold so poorly that I easily acquired a copy in the spring of 2000, the same time when Gross’s next book, Neighbors, hit bookstores. Its publisher, Pogranicze, printed so few copies that, when a national debate about the massacre in Jedwabne, which Gross had written about, was started by Gazeta Wyborcza with Jacek Żakowski’s article in autumn 2000, for over a dozen weeks one was unable to buy the book anywhere. Thus, the text that was being discussed was unknown to almost everyone. Something similar happened to Fear, Gross’s later book. Now, history repeats itself with the publication of Złote żniwa (Golden Harvest).

The thesis he advances in this book is the Poles’ co-responsibility for the Holocaust. This comes as no surprise to anybody who is familiar with the author’s earlier publications. After all, Gross’s first important text on this topic, the essay “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej… Ale go nie lubię” (“This One Comes from my Homeland… But I don’t Like Him”) was first published in the Polish émigré quarterly Aneks in 1986, a quarter century ago. However, the publication of Neighbors in 2000 was his first text to shake Poland.

It is worth considering why this happened. Why did being reminded of a massacre committed during the war by the inhabitants of an almost unknown town near Łomża cause so much concern, incrimination and shame to millions of Poles?

It is even stranger, as crimes against Jews carried out by Polish communists recalled by Piotr Gontarczyk in the publication Polska Partia Robotnicza. Droga do władzy 1941–1944 (Polish Worker’s Party: On the Way to Power 1941–1944) soon afterward, met with no response. Virtually nobody felt offended by the disclosure of the information that, in December 1942, a troop of the Gwardia Ludowa (People’s Guard) under the command of Grzegorz Korczyński—later the minister of defense, who was responsible for the massacre of workers on the Polish coast in 1970—robbed and murdered over a hundred Jews in Lublin province. In total about several hundred Jews, among them many children and women, were killed at the hands of various communist groups in this region.

Gontarczyk’s descriptions of the crimes committed by the members of communist guerrilla groups are no less shocking than those we know of from Neighbors. Both strike us with terror, but only the latter, the descriptions of the Jedwabne massacre, makes us feel uncomfortable. We condemn the crimes of the People’s Guard, but we do not feel any connection to them. They were communists; we do not hold any responsibility for their deeds.

Why, then, can’t we similarly dissociate ourselves from the criminals– because they were criminals indeed– who gave Jews away for money or murdered them in the woods? Why can’t we tell ourselves apart from the village riffraff who dug up the graves of victims looking for gold teeth and valuables? Why?

Because there was too much of it. Communist guerrillas, whose main occupation was robbing manors and villages, murdering independence fighters and handing them over to the Gestapo; or espionage and sabotage in favor of the Soviets; constituted only a small fraction of the population of occupied Poland. The modern left does not feel any extent of responsibility for their crimes, and justly so. Thus, there is no significant social force that finds itself directly affected by this problem.

The situation is quite different in the case of the szmalcowniks (Jew-blackmailers) and Jew-killers. Dozens of testimonies recorded during the occupation of Poland, some of them in form of Armia Krajowa (The Home Army) reports, show that denouncing Jews was an epidemic so common that it became a threat to the Polish resistance: it occasionally happened that szmalcowniks handed Jewish Home Army soldiers over to the Germans. What is more, this activity has never been decidedly condemned by Polish society.

The approval for such behavior is sometimes explained away as anti-Semitism. However, in reality, the anti-Semitic stereotypes were a useful justification for this approval. Its main cause was the common opinion held by greater population of occupied Poland, namely, that the extermination of the Jews would eventually pay off for the Poles. This view was shared not only by the rural poor, but also by urban intellectuals, independence fighters and ordinary bandits. Of course, it wasn’t shared by everybody. The problem is, however, that those who thought differently and expressed their convictions by helping the Jews were few and far between.

“Wait,” some might say, “helping the Jews was punishable by death.” Indeed, as was helping the resistance fighters, illegally slaughtering animals and listening to the radio. If Poles had cared about these regulations, the Polish resistance would have been about as numerous as the Czech one and the inhabitants of the so-called “Aryan” side of Warsaw would have starved the same way as those imprisoned in the Ghetto. However, for some reason, the majority of the Poles strictly abided by only one Nazi regulation: the prohibition against helping the Jews. This is the way things were and those who don’t believe this should try to carry out the following thought experiment.

Suppose an old school mate, whom you haven’t seen for twenty years, is knocking at your door. He’s dirty, a little bit lousy, and you’ve never really liked him anyway. Now he is asking you to let him live in your home, feed him and care for him for who knows how long. Any volunteers? Oh, helping him is punished with death.

Of course, there will be some brave, decent people, who will decide to save the Jews in spite of this. However, the majority of us make decisions that don’t bring us glory; most heroes lie in cemeteries, don’t they?

The problem is that it is impossible to promote a feeling of national unity if the people cannot be proud of themselves or at least their history. Instead of facing the horrible truth about the group we are part of, we prefer to pretend that all evil is the work of others: communists, peasants, outcasts and Jews.

Neighbors came as a shock because it accused one whole local Polish community, not merely a part of it that could be renounced by the majority later on. For this reason it concerned all of us, there was no escape from it. There are only two ways of dealing with such trauma: we can accept the guilt of the community that we are a part of and repent, or break ties with the community by saying: it doesn’t concern me. Or we can be unable to handle it.

As is the case with most of us.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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