Guilty Bystander

Book cover
Fearby Jan T. Gross

Random House. 293p $25.95


The distinguished political scientist and historian Jan Gross nails the title of his book with one word: fear. This is not the first time. In 2001 he did the same with Neighbors, another one-word title dripping with irony, because the book told the story of the July, 1941, gruesome murder of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, not by their German occupiers, as previously assumed, but by their Christian fellow villagers. This time, Gross, a native of Poland and professor of modern European politics and history at Princeton University, considers a subject that at first blush seems inconceivable: anti-Semitism after the war, after Auschwitz, after Birkenau, after the unimaginable suffering of the Jews in Poland, after the Holocaust and after the Soviet gulags.

Gross sets out to explain the circumstances, myths, stereotypes, long-seated prejudices, mob hysteria and the society’s opportunistic behavior that allowed post-Holocaust anti-Semitism to exist. It is not a book for the faint-hearted but rather, along with Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, Fear is quintessential reading so that the possibility of man’s inhumanity to man, contrary to all current evidence, should never be repeated.

Over 90 percent of the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before the war were killed during the war. The surviving Jewish population from Nazi camps and Jews repatriated to Poland from the Soviet Union were frightened, destitute, emaciated, sick and traumatized. One would reasonably expect a collective response of compassion, understanding, tenderness and assistancea sense of solidarity in suffering. Instead, the poison of an anti-Semitic ideology espoused by the dominant prewar political parties and the Catholic Church, in addition to the destabilization of Polish society after the war and the partitioning of their country by their more powerful neighbors, left little room for the milk of human kindness to flow from Poles into the veins of Jews. Routinely, returning Jewish Poles got the message that they were not welcome and that their neighbors had hoped the survivors would have perished with the multitude. Clearly, the warning was: Find another place to live or suffer the consequences.

Gross identifies three reasons that explain the anti-Semitism of Poles. First, there was an irrational appropriation of the myth of ritual murder of Christian children for the preparation of matzo. Gross retells the story of the Kielce (July 1945) pogrom to contextualize the absurdity of the myth and the power of a mob mentality to execute violence. In Kielce, an intoxicated father reported the disappearance of his son to the police. When the boy returned home from a visit to the home of a friend where he had been picking cherries, a story was concocted that he had been abducted and held in the basement of a Jewish tenement, where children’s blood was drained by Jews. Bedlam broke out. The tenement was ransacked. Jews were bludgeoned and/or murdered in the melee. The official police report accused Jews of instigating the incident.

The bishop of Czestochowa, Teodoro Kubina, spoke powerfully and unambiguously against the lie of ritual murder and the anti-Semitism that fueled the violence in Kielce, but his courageous stand was negated by the report of the official commission convened by Bishop Kaczmarek that whitewashed the episode. The opportunity to provide a moral compass for a country desperately in need of principled leadership was lost in the process. Gross carefully makes the point that the crème de la crème of Polish intelligentsia, like Bishop Kubina, reacted with unmitigated horror and disbelief to the expressions of anti-Semitism that mostly played out on the lower rungs of Polish society. But the outcry was muffled by the political machinery that left no room for the prosecution of crimes committed against the Jews.

The second myth purportedly responsible for postwar anti-Semitism was Jewish responsibility for the Sovietization of the country. This myth had its roots in the perception that Polish Jews en masse supported Communism before the war and made up the vast majority of its adherents. After the war, the myth expanded to propose that Jews would be in a privileged position in the regime to be prime beneficiaries of its bounty. While it is true that scores of Communists from Jewish backgrounds joined the movement because it wasor seemed to beethnically blind, offering opportunities for advancement unavailable to them elsewhere, the record shows that anti-Semitism prevailed and that many Jews perished under the combined assault of Hilter’s Holocaust and the Stalinist gulagsespecially after the dissolution of the K.P.P. in 1938 and the eradication of the pernicious Jewish influence in theatre, ballet, music and other cultured arts.

Blaming the Jews for Communism or for killing Christian children was a pretext framing a consistent rhetoric that obfuscated the fear that lay in the hearts of Poles and explained their postwar anti-Semitism. Fear, for Gross, is not a myth but the third and most plausible explanation for what happened to Polish Jews after Auschwitz. His analysis rests on his judgment that the collusion of ordinary Poles with the Nazi regime reconfigured the souls of Polish men, women and children and rendered them virtually in denial of their collective conscience. The presence of Jewish survivors was thus a threat that they might need to account for themselvesa fear severely mitigated if no Jews at all remained in Poland.

It is true, of course, that Poles did not want the Nazi occupation of their homeland and that they fought vigorously against it, but once it became a fait accompli, there existed an unexpected opportunity for a broad stratum of Polish citizenry to upgrade socially by looting Jewish homes. As Jews were rounded up by German occupiers, peasants with wagons waited for the moment when they could pounce and grab what was left behind. Gross concludes, then, that one of the major underlying reasons of the conflict between Jews and Poles after the war had to do with the illicit transfer of material property from Jewish ownership during the war and the resentment Poles experienced when Jewish survivors returned to make claims for what was rightfully theirs.

The book comes full circle to explain why courageous Poles who protected Jews feared retribution if their identities were revealed. If found out, these Jew-lovers would be targets for robbery, under the presumption that they had been rewarded by Jews and had lots of money, jewelry or both, safely tucked away in their homes.

The power of Fear, however, could well exceed its shock value if it contributes to jostling mind-sets that accept discrimination and prejudice of any kind and if it helps bind us together as members of one human family. Above all else, that is the strength and promise of this superb book.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Neither a self-help book nor a how-to manual, One Beautiful Dream nonetheless inspires self-reflection and offers concrete, practical lessons embedded within colorful stories and memorable scenes.
Serena SigillitoJuly 13, 2018
The author of "The Devil Wears Prada" writes a sequel of sorts.
Megan K. McCabeJuly 13, 2018
An interpretive essay and some questions for reflection on the Catholic Book Club's new selection, "Dagger John" by John Loughery.
Kevin SpinaleJuly 11, 2018
A quiet life centered on the rhythms of prayer, work and play turns out to be...rather worth it.
Gregory HillisJuly 05, 2018