Australian Institute of Polish Affairs

Keynote Address for Symposium: “Why Poland?” – Professor Martin Krygier

Symposium “Why Poland? Facing the Demons of Polish-Jewish History”, Melbourne, 28 October 2012

“Lifting the Burden of the Past” – Keynote address by Professor Martin Krygier. 

When Adam Warzel asked me for a title, I gave him this one, but I can’t pretend I had pondered its few words for very long.  On reflection they deserve a second look.  What burden?  Why ‘lift’?

The first question is easier than the second.  Everything that occurred during the Holocaust will burden anyone who tries to come to serious terms with it.  It was unimaginable to anyone before it happened, perhaps even to those who came to perpetrate it.  It was, as numerous accounts make plain, incomprehensible to those who suffered it; they simply couldn’t believe, even conceive, what was happening.  And though we know a great deal more about it now than any individual could then, a great deal of it remains, and probably will always remain, impossible to understand, to get the measure of.  For it’s not just a matter of the millions of lives ended, and millions more scarred forever, torn up, ruined.  It is the evil at its heart.  Human history is not an overwhelmingly happy story, and atrocities are available in virtually any time and any place.  But an enterprise on this scale, with its demonic malevolence, and such overwhelming consequences, is extremely rare; perhaps, as many believe, uniquely so.  As Jan Gross has observed, ‘The Holocaust of the Jews constituted a truly radical breakdown of European civilization, and we do not know how to face up to it.  We did not know then, and we are still at a loss at present.’[1]

Anyone will come away from even cursory exposure stunned, shocked; to say the least, burdened.  All the more so those who were connected to what happened then and there, whether directly through having suffered it or indirectly through family, ethnic, religious or national association.  And so today’s symposium.

Moreover, connected with that burden, there is another, born of relations between two major victims of that fiendish enterprise, Jews and Poles.  Poland was the centre of Jewish life for centuries, more Jews lived in the same territories as Poles than they did anywhere else, and both peoples were victims of the Nazi onslaught, both murdered in their millions by the Nazis.  This might be thought to put them on the same side, but they still carry another burden: many Jews believe that Poles too were their mortal enemies during the Holocaust, and many Poles find that impossible to accept, even to understand.  Often, what one believes, the other rejects in principle; frequently without a second thought, sometimes without any thought at all.  This does not make for fellow-feeling or for that matter burden-sharing.

So much for burdens.  What about ‘lifting’ them? I could have used other words: ‘shedding’ for example, or even ‘escaping’.  But as James Baldwin, quoted on the symposium flyer rightly says, ‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.’  Such traps are not easily shed, still less escaped.  One might speak of ‘shifting’ the burden, but to whom would you shift it?  Who else should carry it?  So I chose lifting.

But who would do the lifting? It is up to those who feel the burden, us ourselves; no one else.  And this suggests something much more onerous.  Such a burden is not simply picked up and thrown away.  It’s heavy and it’s collective; not easy to lift on your own.  Many hands are needed.  The hope of bringing together a symposium like this is that we – Poles, Jews, Polish-Jews (for we can’t forget that there were many and still are some who feel themselves to be both; some of my best friends …), and indeed anyone who feels the burden – can find ways to join in that common task.  Of it we can truly say, as Rabbi Tarfon famously taught the Jews, ‘It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task.  Yet, you are not free to desist from it.’

And so we might try together to lift this burden a little – not to shed it, to escape it, nor to shift it – today.  What might that involve??  I don’t pretend to have an answer; but civilized discussion of these painful and unsettling matters, of a sort that AIPA has long encouraged, is clearly a necessary part of it.

A discussion necessarily has more than one party, and it is a peculiarity of their engagement, as distinct from a monologue, a harangue, a tirade, a shouting match, that participants treat each other – their beliefs, their arguments, their evidence – with at least presumptive respect.  What might that involve, particularly when passions are high and moral energies charged?  In this context, all participants must be willing and open to considering and to re-considering what happened in the genocidal past, in the light of established and new information – some of it only recently uncovered – and plausible conjectures.

For such consideration and particularly reconsideration will often involve questioning our long-established, even some of our deepest, presumptions, in light of new evidence and argument.  That can be difficult painful and at times profoundly unsettling, but it is indispensible.

It is too easy, even comfortable, to stick like glue to clichéd stereotypes which purport, with a derisory word or phrase, to explain everything.  Yitzhak Shamir’s claim, for example, that ‘every Pole sucked anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk’ might be a simple guide to navigating the world, but it’s not a reliable or even an intelligent one.  Adam Michnik’s three volume edited collection of Polish writings, Przecziw antysemitizmowi, [Against Antisemitism][2] each of 8-900 pages testifies to that.  On the other hand, there were reasons why Michnik was moved to publish the collection: not only to display the existence of civilised Polish voices attacking antisemitism, but equally to resist the noise from other voices, both from when there were millions of Jews in Poland and even now, when there are very few left.  The volumes are against something, after all, something which was very real in Poland’s history, particularly the history of Poland in the half century before the Holocaust.  Even today, we should bear in mind the observation of the distinguished Polish historian, Jerzy Jedlicki, that ‘the demons of antisemitism in central Europe don’t have to be woken; they’re not asleep’[3].  Poles need to reflect, more seriously than some do, that something has caused many Jews to share Shamir’s belief, or something like that, and Poles of good faith should allow themselves to ask what that might be.  Many never do: Instead, more than a few believe that Jews control the world, hate Poles ‘with their mother’s milk’, use their control to slander Poles, or that Communism was fundamentally a Jewish movement, Żydokomuna – these are just four common examples.  That Jews are child murderers, or Christ-murderers is beneath dignity even to mention, but according to a survey conducted 10 years ago by Professor Ireneusz Krzeminski, 11.6% of Poles, every ninth citizen, believe the second claim[4].  These stereotypes are not merely inaccurate, some of them crazy; they are dangerous.  If one believes them one can consider doing things to one’s mythologized foe, or justify things done to them, that one wouldn’t think of endorsing without the help of such vulgar stupidities and myths.

What might the sort of consideration and reconsideration I’m talking about involve?  Like many of us who feel impelled to wrestle with these matters, I’m not a specialist.  I rely on secondary sources.  Even if it were otherwise, no one is in a position definitively to reconstruct that vast and shattered mosaic of millions of bloodied pieces that make up the history of the War and the Holocaust in Poland.  The past is not an open book, particularly this past, where so much of the evidence, like so many of the participants, has been systematically (and unsystematically, randomly) destroyed, and much of it was not released until communism collapsed.  So I will limit myself to suggesting a number of facts that seem to me need to be acknowledged by all participants to these discussions, whatever they come to conclude about how they add up.  Some of them will be hard for Jews to accept, others for Poles, still others for anyone at all.  They are my best attempt, however, to state some facts that seem to me incontrovertible on the basis of the evidence with which I’m acquainted, even though there is bitter controversy about some of them, and even more about what to make of them.

An overarching consideration is this: context matters.  I mention six partly exculpatory certainly complicating elements of the immediate context, that Poles rightly stress.  A more comprehensive and framing analysis would have to canvass many more including some, such as widespread anti-Semitism in Poland, that would have to reach far back into the past and point in very different directions.

First, inhabitants of what Timothy Snyder calls ‘the bloodlands’[5], prominent among them the citizens of Poland, both Poles and Jews, suffered from atrocities without precedent and almost beyond comparison, from the double occupation of Soviets and Nazis, and from the Nazi War and Holocaust.  Well over 5 million Polish civilians were murdered in that war, millions more had their lives dislocated by poverty, plunder, starvation, sundry other forms of abuse and, in the course of all this, unabated terror.  No country west of Poland suffered anything of this magnitude.  No one seeking to come to terms with these events should ever minimize the scale and the all-saturating significance of the suffering of both peoples.  Non-Jewish Poles sometimes feel that the ordeals of their nation come to be forgotten or blurred, put aside, when we focus on the Shoah.  No account that ignores the horrors inflicted on Poland and all its Poles can be taken seriously.

Second, there was no Polish Quisling, Petain, Tiso etc.  Before the War the Nazis tried assiduously to forge an alliance with the Poles, but as the American historian, John Connelly had commented, ‘[i]t has been said many times before but bears repeating: Poland was the first country to say no to Hitler.’  It might be true that the Polish leaders didn’t get a second chance, but they didn’t ask for one either.  Instead, they chose exile and staged an organized resistance without parallel in Nazi-controlled Europe.  And, Connelly again: ‘what is remarkable in comparative perspective is still how little Polish society aided Germany’s war effort.  Other east European states such as Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Romania became Germany’s allies and sent divisions of soldiers to fight the Soviet Union; they passed their own racial laws and in some cases delivered Jews to Germany.  Other nations, such as Latvia or Ukraine, were not granted states, but also fielded police and military units to fight for the Nazis’ cause, including their war against the Jews.  Even Serbia and the Czech lands had collaborationist regimes.’[6]  This is one reason Poles are justifiably outraged by talk of ‘Polish concentration camps.’  They were in Poland, but they weren’t Polish.

Thirdly, as Jan Pakulski has stressed to me and partly as a result of what is mentioned above, ‘Polish society was nearly “decapitated” by 1942.  The joint operations by the Nazis and the NKVD (Intelligentzaktion and AB-Aktion, Katyń, etc.) resulted in a very effective “liquidation” of the Polish elites and the top echelons of the intelligentsia.  The society was deeply traumatised, but also deeply demoralised.  Karski mentions the collapsing social and moral order, banditry (rozbój), robbery, and village gangsterism.  In the absence of social and legal constraints, lawlessness and demoralisation were widespread and tolerated by the occupiers, who often directed its edge against the hiding Jews and the underground activists.  This is not a justification (nothing justifies such conduct), but an additional explanatory description.’[7]

Further, Snyder has pointed out that ‘among the western Allies, only Polish authorities sought to take direct action to halt the killing of Jews.  By spring 1943 Żegota was assisting about 4000 Jews in hiding, and had forged tens of thousands of documents for Jews seeking to flee.  The Home Army announced that it would shoot Poles who blackmailed Jews.’[8]  When the Home Army learnt that gassing of Jews had begun at the end of 1941, as Snyder points out, ‘they transmitted to London the documentation about the death factory at Chełmno that had been gathered by the ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum.  This led to BBC broadcasts about the mass extermination of Polish Jews.  The Polish government in London, though always presenting Jewish suffering as part of a larger story of Polish martyrdom, gave the mass murder of Jews as a reason for the British and the Americans to carry out retributions against German civilians.  In vain: the Germans were not shamed by the publicity, and the Western allies took no meaningful action’.[9]  And, as Poles have long and rightly reminded us, despite the most draconian penalties for aiding Jews, as a result of which anyone helping a Jew risked their own lives and those of their families, Poles are the most numerous among those honoured by Israel as ‘righteous among nations,’ indeed they amount to a quarter of all those so honoured.

According to the historian David Cesarini, between July and September 1942, 20,000 Jews escaped during a deportation from the Warsaw ghetto.  They vanished, he says, into Christian Warsaw.  ’20,000 people! Every one of these was helped by someone on the Aryan side.  That’s truly an astounding figure.’[10]  And a good share of the small percentage of Jews who survived did so as a result of acts of disinterested benevolence, even heroic selflessness by Poles[11], some of them involving the ultimate price: sacrifice of self and family.  Even the dark stories found in recent books from the Centre for Holocaust Studies are lightened and softened from time to time by examples of simple human kindness shown by individual Poles to individual Jews.  Several are recorded in one of the most recent and painful studies by Engelking, with the title It’s such a beautiful sunny day.  The fate of Jews seeking rescue in the Polish countryside, 1942-45[12], particularly low-cost short-term acts of sporadic, individual kindness.

Fifthly, whatever Poles did or didn’t do to Jews was marginal in relation to and in comparison with what the Nazis did.  The bulk of Jews murdered in the Shoah were the deliberate victims of Nazi extermination policies, planned by Germans and implemented by them, with the help of a fair number of guards and others from neighbouring countries, notably Ukraine and Lithuania.  The Nazis planned the systematic extermination of all the Jews in the world, executed the plan in a very short space of time, and at least with European Jews they almost succeeded.  In relation to all that, the Polish criminality of which Jan Gross writes in Golden Harvest, as his detractors rarely notice but he repeatedly points out, was marginal by comparison with the systematic murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis:

We must always remember that the catastrophe of European Jewry was caused by the Third Reich, which conquered most of the continent and eventually proceeded to murder all the Jews within its reach.  All the interaction between the locals and the Jews, however violent, was but a supplement to – a small fraction of – the main disaster which befell the Jews at the hands of the Germans.[13]

Of course, as Gross also emphasizes, this supplement was nevertheless of dramatic importance because it happened in circumstances when Polish Jews could survive only with the assistance of Poles.[14]  And finally, if Poles often behaved badly towards Jews, so did citizens everywhere else in Nazi occupied Europe, many in countries under incomparably less strain; as Gross also emphasizes, ‘Opportunistic complicity with anti-Jewish Nazi policies was a universal phenomenon in occupied Europe – as much an experience of Jews and their neighbors in Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna and Salonika as it was in Warsaw, Wilno, Riga, Minsk, Tarnopil and Lwów’[15].  Little consolation there for anyone in particular, but it must affect the terms in which we try to understand what happened.

None of these are small matters, and Poles are right to insist on them.  And they can rightly be proud of many acts of courage and decency by their compatriots, in the most testing of times.  But if they are, then if only as a matter of logical consistency, not to mention moral decency, they must deal honestly and seriously with evidence that not all was heroic.  For notwithstanding that the fates of Poles and Jews were shared and entangled throughout the war, they were not the same.  Nothing matched the fate of the Jews.  Poles have sometimes failed to appreciate that, and some indeed have denied it.  But though both Poles and Jews were victims of the Nazis, their situation was asymmetrical in two key ways.

Firstly, Poles as a nation were not slated for immediate liquidation; Jews were.  All Jews found by the Nazis faced certain death, unless they escaped.  Poles did not, even though some two million of them were in fact killed.  And Nazi efforts throughout Europe to find Jews to liquidate were systematic, relentless and unforgiving.  90% of Poland’s Jews and 2/3 of the Jews of Europe had been killed by the end of the War; some 6-7% of non-Jewish Poles.

Secondly, and in consequence, the small numbers of Jews who had escaped Nazi annihilation in Poland[16] could only survive the War with Polish help; the reverse, of course, was not the case.  Poles came to have a terrible if unsought power over Jews.  If they abused it, for whatever reason, the consequences were fatal for Jews.  Poles had options, among them to help Jews, do nothing for them, or to destroy them; Jews did not.  The controversies that have raged for a very long time, and with more vigour and more evidence available since the collapse of communism and particularly over the past ten or so years, have to do with how Poles exercised their options.

It is interesting to note how discussions of these issues have progressed over the past 60 years in Poland.  For a long time, there was nothing said publicly.  The Shoah was not a theme of memory of the War anywhere until the 1960s.  But at least after the anti-Semitic purges of 1968 and in many respects earlier, the Communist government insisted on de-Judaizing the War; plaques at Auschwitz, for example, spoke of millions of Polish citizens and others murdered there, nothing about Jews murdered, there and everywhere, because they were Jews, not citizens.  The authorities appear to have been assisted by regular Polish historians, many of them non and anti-communist, who also had far less to say – indeed virtually nothing – about betrayals by Poles of their Jewish fellow-citizens than they did about Polish resistance to the Germans, even where both things were happening in the places they studied.

As our knowledge of what happened has increased, more has come to the surface and the story does not get prettier.  In Campo dei Fiori of 1943, Czesław Miłosz charged Poles with indifference to the fate of the Warsaw ghetto dwellers:

In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
One clear spring evening
To the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
The salvos from the ghetto wall[17],

The charge was explored and repeated in Jan Błoński’s essay of 1987, hugely controversial at the time, Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto [Poor Poles look at the ghetto][18].  And clearly there seems to be overwhelming evidence that large numbers of Poles, to put it most gently, lacked feelings of solidarity with the fate of the Jews, even where they may have wished them no ill.  Even were that the worst that can be said, it had terrible consequences.  It left Jews in what Engelking calls a ‘human desert’, which she explains as having two aspects: ‘helplessness, hitting against people, their fear or lack of willingness to help, and the necessity of unceasing effort,’ and also ‘a psychological dimension – a fruitless search for compassion, hope, faith from another person … experience of the deepest suffering and existential loneliness.’[19]  And as she also emphasizes, while Polish Jews could expect the worst from Germans, they expected more from Poles with whom they had lived often on cordial terms, sometimes for generations.  They thus were all the more devastated when they found their pleas rejected and their fates sealed.

But that, of course, is not the worst that has been alleged.  The last 10 years have been dominated by Jan Gross’s trilogy, Neighbours[20] in 2000, Fear in 2006, and Golden Harvest last year.  These three books have generated an avalanche of polemics and also a new wave of scholarship, some of which I’m drawing on today.  Indeed, the whole debate on what happened in Poland during the War has been decisively reframed and redirected by the appearance of Gross’s writings over the past 10 years.  Apart from the predictable popular reactions to his conclusions, his books have led to further such explorations and the whole ground of serious historical debate has shifted in an astonishingly short time.  Who now denies that Poles were responsible for the murder of Jews in Jedwabne?  Who believed it 11 years ago?  What strikes me is the extent to which the common ground among serious historians has shifted in these past merely 10 years.  That is a remarkable event.  Many facts, which were the subjects of enormous controversy when Gross first asserted them, are now simply accepted as true, even if interpretations are still debated.

Even within Gross’ trilogy and its reception, there is a dark progression.  Neighbours, after all, was about the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of one small town by their Polish neighbours.  When Gross’s readers were forced to confront the reality of Jedwabne, many of them retreated to insist that the massacre had nothing to do with Poles in general, but was the work, under the pressure of hostile forces, of the traumatized people of a small benighted village, whose elites had been wiped out by the occupying forces, at a particular stressful moment of double Soviet/then Nazi occupation, and not even all of them but particular low life.  And anyway hadn’t the Jews collaborated with the Soviets?

Now we know there were many more villages involved at the time, some two dozen, ‘with thousands of victims’[21], over several months.  And yet, as Gross has noted, though these murders were known at the time to have occurred, ‘None of this had entered into the historiography of the period’[22] until after Neighbours was published.

Gross’s next books made it even more complicated to emphasize the pathological uniqueness of Jedwabne; Fear because it dealt with theft and killings after the War,  and Golden Harvest, buttressed in recent years by detailed works from the Centre for Holocaust Studies in Warsaw (e.g.  Engelking, Skibińska, Grabowski[23]),since they allege and document murders, blackmail, extortion, denunciation, betrayal, and plunder of the living and the dead[24], occurring on a large scale in many parts of Poland.  Indeed, Gross has argued that the ways in which these things occurred, and the ways in which ordinary people responded to and participated in them, suggest that they were not exceptional.  They were not predominantly the work of lowlife, outcasts, szmalcownicy but of all sorts of ordinary, often prominent, members of local communities, many respected at the time and never penalised afterwards, from the ‘blue police’ (granatowa policja) and Baudienst workers, to Volksdeutsche, to partisans, to members of the Home Army, to mayors, to local notables of many sorts, to firemen[25], even children[26] and counts.  Gross thus compounded what many critics took to be his sin in even raising the issue in the first place.  And yet much that he alleges appears to have been confirmed in one micro-study after another that has appeared in the past few years.

What makes these revelations so unsettling is that none of the contextual truths I began with seems to remove their sting.  It is true that nothing like what happened during the War between Poles and Jews happened before, or indeed afterwards (though something horribly reminiscent, and without the excusing conditions of Nazi occupation, happened in Kielce and other towns in 1945 and 1946).  More than that, as Gross stresses, we must remember that ‘while the crimes of Polish neighbours were opportunistic, Poles did not seek the opportunity to commit them.  Those crimes would not have taken place but for the circumstances created under Nazi occupation.  Poles did not want the Nazis to occupy their country, and they did everything possible, with commendable bravery, to stave them off.’[27]

But this leaves at least two ways of interpreting wartime crimes by Poles against Jews, both of which probably share some of the truth of the matter.  On the one hand, the horrific context almost certainly terrified everyone and degraded many, destroyed moral bonds and sense of common humanity, to generate behaviours that the same people would never have been driven to in normal circumstances.  On the other hand, however, such conditions provided opportunities to do what one may not have done in other times, simply because the opportunities did not exist.  What is being revealed by recent scholarship seems consistent with both these explanations, and others.  Engelking is particularly interested in motivations for inhuman acts, and she finds several: ‘First of all fear, but also greed, hatred, and ordinary human vileness (zwykła ludzką podłość)’.[28]  She judges some of the late cases of wydawanie, where Poles exposed or gave up Jews to the Nazis, to incarnate pure evil, ‘and that is not a matter simply of the absence of goodness, but of real, substantial, deep and embodied evil.’[29]  The result was the Jews’ terror of Poles that Engelking describes as ‘the most clear, maybe fundamental, trait’[30] of those seeking to survive during the ‘third phase’ of the Shoah.

It is, after all, one thing not to help someone because to do so would risk your own and your family’s life, though even here one needs to reflect on Gross’s question[31] echoed by Grabowski, ‘Why was there no lack of people willing to join the [Underground] conspiracy, or act in other ways that equally earned the death penalty, and yet it was so terribly hard to find protection for the Jews?’[32]  One reason, for which there is a good deal of evidence, is that apart from the Germans, Poles hiding Jews had to fear denunciations from their Polish neighbours.[33]  Another, for which evidence is also plentiful, is a lack of felt solidarity with Jews.

In any event, whatever the answer to that question, it is something else to hide families while extorting money from them and then throw them out when the money runs out.  Yet hiding Jews for money was common, and extortion and expulsion or denunciation when the money was gone, we know, also.[34]  And enthusiastic collective, public, co-operative, well-known, apparently guilt-free and certainly unpunished hunting of Jews – Judenjagd – publicly denouncing them and Polish neighbours for hiding them, asking them for their possessions on the ground that they would soon be no use to them, robbing them, blackmailing them, torturing some, raping some others; these were not behaviours even the Nazis required, and they were often carried out in the absence of Germans.  Nor was enthusiasm in carrying them out lacking.  We have evidence of all these things in precisely that period of the War, ‘42-45 when the only people who could save Polish Jews, and at times those whose complicity was necessary for their destruction, were Poles.  Typically, of course, it was the Nazis (aided by the Polish ‘Blue Police’[35]) who exterminated Jews, but how did they find them?  This is the question repeatedly asked in Jan Grabowski’s microscopically precise and relentless book, Judenjagd.  The Nazis needed to be told and, it appears that donosy (denunciations), wydawanie (betrayals), – not only of Jews but of Poles prepared to help them – were not in short supply.

Again, it is marvellous that more Righteous among Nations came from Poland than anywhere else; less so to learn that that some lived in fear, and others lost their lives precisely because, of donosy from their Polish neighbours.  What can we make of the fact that many of those who survived went to great lengths after the War to conceal their wartime heroism from their neighbours, and other surviving righteous ones became outcasts in post-War Poland, when their heroism was revealed?[36]  Nor is it happy news to read passages from Poles, some of them the staunchest resisters to the Nazis, that say nevertheless Hitler did one good thing: destroy the Jews.[37]  As Engelking records Jewish reactions to expressions of such sentiments: ‘they were not only evidence of hatred, lack of heart, but also evidence of a complete breaking of bonds of brotherhood or citizenship, confirmation of the expulsion of Jews from the human community.’  And recall the hostile reception that Jews received when they returned to their pre-War homes, whether in Kielce as Gross has reported it, or in many other towns; they received, reports Paweł Śpiewak, ‘a clear signal: we don’t want you here’.[38]  As Snyder observes, ‘it was very dangerous to be a Jew in postwar Poland,’ and the force of that observation is scarcely cancelled when he goes on, ‘though no more so than to be a Ukrainian or a German or a Pole in the anti-communist underground.’[39]  That laconic qualifier leaves unsaid that Germans had just destroyed Poland, often with the help of Ukrainians, and the communist government was doing all it could to exterminate the anti-communist underground.  And it might be untrue: according to Śpiewak, double the number of young Jews were killed after the War than young Poles,[40] this when there were very few Jews.  He says there is no doubt that they were killed for what they were, rather than anything they did.

These are terrible facts.  Of course all our evidence is fragmentary, episodic.  How could it be otherwise?  In the face of that irreparable deficiency, what should later burden-bearers do? One convenient route for deniers is that exemplified by Keith Windschuttle[41] in this country: not accept anything as fact, beyond what has been witnessed and documented by eye-witnesses.  Apart from the old allegedly Stalinist-era wisdom – he lies like an eye witness – this is a policy only apt for someone determined to avoid inconvenient sources of information.  Given the circumstances in which wartime atrocities occur, and given the nature of the Shoah, we are not always blessed with the sorts of evidence – confessions, signatures, eye-witness testimony – that deniers like to insist upon.  Many alleged events were precisely of the sort that encouraged, and occurred in circumstances that allowed, obliteration of evidence and amnesia.  Does that mean that what was erased didn’t happen? Again, our most direct evidence comes from survivors, but they were a small minority.  How do we try to understand the experience of those who were not so lucky?

Given the extent to which the horrors of war and extermination were so often undocumented for many, usually the worst of reasons, Gross has argued powerfully that we need to attend to how people responded to, talked about, the specific atrocities that we can document.  Were they shocked?  If it was known that neighbours were killing Jews or denouncing their neighbours, was this treated as abnormal or as the way we do things here, and now?  Were perpetrators marginal men, pre-war criminals, lumpen, or were they prominents, or from every social sphere?[42]  Were they ostracised or supported by surrounding populations?  Were their acts condemned or socially accepted?  What should we make of the fact that many people who saved Jews during the War sought to conceal or deny it in front of their neighbours afterwards?  What does that tell us about the nature of prevailing social norms?

Of course, if we forget that all these things happened in the satanic circumstances of a satanic war launched neither by Poles nor Jews but by their common enemies, any moralising we do will be contextless and hence frivolous.  On the other hand, if we assume that immediate circumstances and criminality are enough to account for all these crimes, without a thought for the pre-existing group-based chasms and antagonisms between millions of ordinary Poles and Jews, we again ignore crucial and deeply embedded elements of context.  These were unlikely suddenly to have become irrelevant to what people thought and did under pressure to make terrible choices, and sometimes offered unprecedented if also terrible opportunities, in these darkest of times.

And so here we are, faced with a tortured and traumatic past, agonizing for everyone doomed to have suffered it, and painful for all of us who, in whatever ways, feel connected to them.  They – we – would want there to have been no suffering, or to be able to look back at our compatriots’ deeds with nothing but pride.  Alas, that is not our world, and so we are left with our burden.  We will not lift it by ignoring distinctions, contexts and circumstances, or dismissing with one pejorative word whole nations caught in terrible times.  Nor by denying that those with whom we identify did anything but good.  Instead, we need to try to be prepared to interrogate our assumptions, study the facts, and face what we find with honesty, compassion, and fellow-feeling for those who suffered, those who helped them when they could, and even perhaps for those who chose or were driven, for whatever reasons, to contribute to that very suffering.

There is evidence that this is happening today in Poland, to an unprecedented extent, with the opening of archives, the Centre for Holocaust Studies, and the building of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.  Indeed with the proliferation of historically novel discussions such as this.  Paradoxically if fittingly, much of this salutary development appears to have been stimulated by Gross’s much reviled work.  It also suggests a growth of maturity in Poland on this subject, which is recent and salutary.

If we here can emulate such changes, and encourage the consideration and reconsideration of which I spoke at the beginning, then whatever we come to learn and need to face about our past, we will at least have acted well in the present.  And that might lighten our burden a little.

*  I am grateful to the organizers of this symposium for provoking me to read and think more about these matters.  Also to those who commented on my text, none more than Staś Hempel, who read it closely, commented insightfully, and provided bibliographical and scholarly back-up of the highest order.  To take these comments into account, the present text differs in several places from the original delivered at the symposium.


[1]  Jan T. Gross, Fear, Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. An Essay in Historical Interpretation, New York 2006, p.  249.  Published in Polish as: Strach. Antysemityzm w Polsce tuż po wojnie.  Historia moralnej zapaści (Fear, Antisemitism in Poland Just After the War. A History of Moral Collapse), Kraków, 2008.

[2]  Adam Michnik (ed.), Przeciw antysemityzmowi (Against Antisemitism), Kraków, 2010.

[3]  ‘Tylko tyle i aż tyle’ (Only This Much and as Much as This), in Mariusz Gądek, ed., Wokól Strachu, Kraków, 2008, p.185.

[4]  Cited by Michnik, op.cit. Vol. 1, p. xii.

[5]  Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, New York, 2010.

[6]  John Connelly, ‘Poles and Jews in the Second World War: the Revisions of Jan T. Gross,’ Contemporary European History, volume 11, 2002, p. 652.

[7]  Personal communication.

[8]  Timothy Snyder, p.292.  I don’t know what this order amounted to in practice.

[9]  Timothy Snyder,  ‘Jews, Poles & Nazis: The Terrible History’, a review of Christopher R. Browning, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labour Camp, Norton, 2010, and of Żydzi w powstańczej Warszawie (Jews in Insurrectionary Warsaw, 1944), Warsaw, 2010, New York Review of Books, Vol. LVII, No. 11, 2010, p. 44.

[10] David Cesarini, quoted in Piotr Zychowicz, ‘Polacy nie odwrócili się od Żydów’ Rzeczpospolita, 8 December, 2009.

[11] Jan Grabowski, Judenjagd. Polowanie na Żydów 1942-1945. Studium dziejów pewnego powiatu (Jewhunt. Hunting for Jews 1942-1945. A Study of Events in a Certain District), Warsaw, 2011, p. 149.

[12] Barbara Engelking, Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień… Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942-1945 (It’s such a beautiful sunny day… The fate of Jews seeking rescue in the Polish countryside, 1942-45), Warsaw, 2011, pp. 35, 46, 51, 61, 77, 80, 84, 95-7, 105 138-39.

[13] Jan T. Gross, Golden Harvest, Oxford 2012, p. 68.  First published in Polish as Złote Źniwa, Warsaw, 2011, p.114, where the point is made even more emphatically.  (‘nigdy dość tego powtarzać’: this can never be repeated too often)

[14]  Gross, Golden Harvest, p.69; Złote Źniwa, p.115.

[15] Gross, Fear, p. 249. See also Grabowski, p. 169.

[16] Ironically, several hundred thousand Jews taken from Poland were saved from the Nazis by being imprisoned, in the Soviet Union, though huge numbers were killed there too.

[17] Czesław Miłosz, Campo dei fiori (1943), transl. by Louis Iribane and David Brooks, from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), New York, 2001, p. 33.

[18] Jan Błoński, Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto [Poor Poles look at the ghetto], reprinted in Michnik, op.cit. Vol. II, pp. 1076-1090.  English translation in Polin, Volume Two, 1987, pp. 321-336.

[19] Engelking, op.cit. p. 259.

[20] Jan T. Gross, Sąsiedzi. Historia Zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka, Warszawa, 2000.  Printed in English as Neighbors, The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, 1941, Princeton, 2001.

[21] Gross, Fear, p. 54.

[22] Ibid. p. 181.

[23] Barbara Engelking & Jacek Leociak, Getto warszawskie: Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście, Warszawa, 2001.  English translation by Emma Harris published as The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, New Haven and London, 2009; Barbara Engelking, “Szanowny panie gistapo”. Donosy do władz niemieckich w Warszawie i okolicach, 1940-1941 (“Dear Mr. Gestapo”. Denunciations to the German Authorities in Warsaw and its Environs, 1940-1941), Warszawa, 2003; Barbara Engelking, Jest taki piękny słoneczny dzień …, see note 12, above; Barbara Engelking & Jan Grabowski, Żydów łamiących prawo należy karać śmiercią! „Przestępczość” Żydów w Warszawie 1939-1942 (Jews Breaking the Law are to be Punished by Death! “Crimes” of Jews in Warsaw 1939-1942), Warszawa, 2010; Alina Skibińska, Źródła do badań nad zagładą Żydów na okupowanych ziemiach polskich. Przewodnik archiwalno-bibliograficzny (Sources for Research on the Holocaust of the Jews in the Occupied Polish Lands. An Archival-Bibliographic Guide), Warszawa, 2007;      Alina Skibińska & T. Markiel, Jakie to ma znaczenie, czy zrobili to z chciwości? Zagłada domu Trynczerów (What Meaning Does it Have, Did They do it out of Greed? The Destruction of the Trynczer Household), Warszawa, 2011; Jan Grabowski, Barbara Engelking, Alina Skibińska, Dariusz Libionka, Jacek Leociak, Wojciech Burszta, Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz & Krzystof Persak, Zarys krajobrazu. Wieś polska wobec zagłady Żydów 1942–1945 (An Outline of the Landscape. Rural Poland and the Jewish Holocaust 1942-1945), 2011; Jan Grabowski, Ja tego Żyda znam! Szantażowanie Żydów w Warszawie 1939-1943 (I know that Jew! Blackmailing Jews in Warsaw 1939-1943), Warszawa, 2011; see also Alina Skibińska & Jakub Petelewicz, Udział Polaków w zbrodniach na Żydach na provincji region świętokrzyskiego (The Participation of Poles in Crimes Against the Jews in the Świętokrzyski Region), in Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały (Holocaust Studies and Materials), 2005, No. 1.

[24] Gross, Golden Harvest; Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 116.

[25] Grabowski, Judenjagd, pp. 77-79.

[26] Engelking, słoneczny dzień, p. 178.

[27] Gross, Fear, p. 249.

[28] Engelking, słoneczny dzień, p. 259.

[29] ibid. p. 151.

[30] ibid. p. 131.

[31] Jan T. Gross, “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej …”, ale go nie lubię (He is from my Fatherland, But I do not like him), in Michnik, op.cit. Vol 2, pp. 1014-15.

[32] Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 154.

[33] See Yisrael Gutman & Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims. Poles and Jews During World War Two, New York, 1986. Also Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 154, p. 163.

[34] Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 136.

[35] Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 105 ff.

[36] Gross, Fear, p. xii.

[37] Paweł Śpiewak, Żydokomuna, Warszawa, 2012, p. 195.

[38] ibid. p. 191.

[39] Snyder, 352.

[40] Śpiewak, p. 196.

[41] See Keith Windshuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847, Sydney, 2002; and Martin Krygier, ‘The Character of the Nation,’ in Civil Passions, Melbourne, 2005, pp.92-113.

[42] Grabowski, Judenjagd, p. 91.

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