Princeton Shoa scholar stirs new Polish debate
Jan Gross riles Poles with grim account of wartime pilfering
Holocaust historian Jan Gross says he expects his writings on Polish anti-Semitism to be controversial.
February 16, 2011
Jan Gross, a Princeton University historian whose writings on the Holocaust have triggered intense debate in his native Poland, is causing controversy once again, even before his latest work is published.
Polish and Catholic critics are rushing to refute the central thesis of the new book, Golden Harvest, that thousands of Poles stole valuable items from the graves of Jews killed during World War II. Danuta Skora, a director at his publishing house, said she had been receiving complaints for weeks from those who claim Gross has an anti-Polish bias. Poland’s state Institute of National Remembrance is preparing a response.
“Somehow the manuscript of the book got out about a month before the book was published and a truncated discussion began to appear,” Jan Gross told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 11 phone interview.
“I sent the manuscript to colleagues to ask for comment, and somebody let the details get out. I gave an interview to a journalist and it kind of filtered out. What can I say? It happened. I didn’t do it deliberately,” he said.
Cowritten with his wife, Irena Grudzinska Gross, the Polish-language book is scheduled for publication in Poland on March 10. Its English-language version will not be released until September.
Irena Grudzinska Gross is an associate research scholar in Princeton’s Department of Slavic Literatures and Languages.
The centerpiece of the Grosses’ thesis is also the book’s cover photograph. According to Jan Gross, it shows Polish peasants digging through skulls and bones at the Treblinka death camp in search of gold and other treasures Nazi executioners might have overlooked.
Gross insisted that Golden Harvest “is really a small book that was written around a photograph. There was no dramatic or very extensive research that goes with it. There were a lot of published stories in Poland with incredibly penetrating articles based on archives in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Majdanek [concentration camp] historical archives.”
Publisher Henryk Wozniakowski told the Associated Press that the book aims to make the public aware of “cruel and often difficult facts” and “challenges our collective memory.”
It is not the first time Gross’s work has angered some Poles who chafe at allegations of their country’s historical and possibly ongoing anti-Semitism.
In 2001, his work Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland argued that a July 1941 massacre of some 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne was committed not by Germans but by Polish civilians of the town. Although an investigation conducted by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance supported many of Gross’ conclusions about the massacre, critics said the detailed story was “deeply unfair to Poles,” according to Welsh historian Norman Davies.
Five years later, another of his books, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, was both praised and attacked for accusing Poles of continuing anti-Semitic acts after the end of World War II.
Gross told NJJN he expects his latest work to be criticized.
“By now when I write a book on this subject it has the ability, as had my two previous books, to create debate,” he said. But, he said, many Polish investigators have backed his findings.
“There is a good group of Polish historians who for the last seven or eight years have published first-rate studies. Historians write books that remain a niche where only other historians read them. They don’t become issues in public debate. But somehow my books were recognized and they got into public debate,” he said.
Outside of the widely discredited world of Holocaust deniers, said Gross, most atrocities from the Shoa are accepted as historical facts. But there is still much room for research.
“It is always a question of how many people were involved, was it exceptional behavior on the part of bandits and misfits you could have found anywhere, etc. There are a lot of details to be ironed out, and that is the issue that is challenging,” he said.
Gross said he considers current-day anti-Semitism in Poland “a complicated story.”
“The word ‘Jew’ is derogatory, and it has been universalized,” he said. “There are references to ‘Jews’ very often when it is specifically thrown out as a slur. The most conspicuous and frequent context in which you see swastikas and other Nazi symbols is when soccer fans of one team scream about another team. I don’t know how it got into the soccer context, but that is where it happens most often. It is not about anti-Semitism in support of Hitler. It is about idiocy.”
About Jan Gross
Jan Gross was born in Warsaw in 1947. His mother, who was active in the Polish resistance during the war, helped his father, who was Jewish, survive the Nazi occupation. They married after the war.
As a student at Warsaw University he was involved in the dissident movement of 1968. He was expelled from the university, arrested, and jailed for five months. As a result of his political activities and because the Polish government was at the time allowing the emigration of “people of Jewish origin,” he left the country with his parents, arriving in the United States in 1969.
In 1975 he earned a PhD in sociology from Yale University. In addition to teaching history at Princeton, he also taught at Yale and New York University.
In 1996, Gross was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, recognizing his role in furthering cooperation between Poland and other nations.