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Kielce and fear

[An abridged version of this text appeared in the Polish periodical, Rzeczpospolita, on 20 June 2001.]



A series of little volumes in cartoon format introduces American readers to influential thinkers and ideas - e.g., Freud for Beginners. Jan T. Gross's Neighbors is a kind of caricature of this series. Thus, not long ago the Holocaust industry acclaimed a massive but worthless book by Daniel Goldhagen entitled Hitler's Willing Executioners. Gross's slight volume amounts to a Goldhagen for Beginners. Resembling Hitler's Willing Executioners in ways small and large, Neighbors bears the unmistakable imprint of the Holocaust industry. By Holocaust industry, I mean those individuals and institutions exploiting the Jewish genocide during World War II for political and financial gain.

Like Goldhagen's book, Neighbors is replete with glaring internal contradictions. In one place Gross reports that Poland's postwar communist regime prosecuted Poles "who engaged in the murder of Jewish people," even torturing the perpetrators to extract confessions. (1) In another place he maintains that killing Jews "was not an offense that would warrant stern prosecution by a Stalinist judiciary." (2) In one place Gross credits himself with the novel discovery that perpetrators of the Holocaust used, in addition to modern technology, "primitive, ancient methods and murder weapons." (3) Yet, three pages later he quotes from a prominent memoir published years ago that perpetrators of the Holocaust used "pitchforks and kitchen knives."(4) To account for the Polish perpetrators' motivation, Gross alludes in the same paragraph to both Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. (5) Is he unaware that Browning and Goldhagen reached diametrically opposed conclusions? (Unlike Goldhagen, Browning did not believe that anti-Semitism alone explained the murderous deeds of ordinary Germans.) To document the vicious anti-Semitism of ordinary Poles during the war, Gross cites the recollection of a Polish Jew persecuted as a boy "by a flock of women who could just as well have left him in peace."(6) Yet the actual testimony, quoted at length in the corresponding footnote, emphasizes that the Polish women were not "driven by pure resentment or hatred" but rather panicked when the Jewish boy "had suddenly fallen into their laps."(7) In his book, Gross calls Jedwabne a "pogrom," "bloody pogrom" and "murderous pogrom."(8) In an article after the book's publication, however, he protests that "what happened in Jedwabne was genocide. It cannot be called a pogrom."(9) To increase the value of his research findings, Gross inflates language. By inviting ridicule, however, his exorbitant rhetoric debases memory.

Absurd formulations also dot the pages of Neighbors. Gross maintains that Holocaust survivor testimony casts Jewish suffering in a too positive light. "It is all skewed evidence, biased in one direction: these are all stories with a happy ending. They have all been produced by a few who were lucky enough to survive." (10) This is laughable. Do the testimonies of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi brim with joy? The banal complements the bizarre. "Nazism," Gross muses, "is a regime that taps into the evil instincts of human beings." Recalling Poles who collaborated first with the Soviets and then with the Nazis, Gross offers the profound reflection that some people are political opportunists. He goes on to ground this phenomenon "in the logic of incentives one encounters within the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century."(11) Yet, political opportunism is hardly peculiar to these regimes. Gross needn't have looked further than his own colleagues at New York University like Professor Tony Judt who moved from fashionable leftism to fashionable anti-Communism as the winds shifted in American cultural life. (12)

Gross's book is standard Holocaust industry literature. Two dogmas inform this literature: 1. The Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; 2. The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational Gentile hatred of Jews. Neither dogma withstands scholarly scrutiny. Both, however, are politically useful: unique Jewish suffering confers unique Jewish moral entitlement; and, if Gentile hatred of Jews is irrational, Jews bear no responsibility for this animus.

"This is a rather typical book about the Holocaust," Gross begins, "for, as is not true of historical studies we write about other topics, I do not see the possibility of attaining closure here." Being part of the Holocaust, Jedwabne is, "at its core, a mystery." Unlike atrocities elsewhere, we can only proceed "as if it were possible to understand." (Gross's emphasis) (13) Indeed, Gross repeatedly emphasizes that it took him fully four years to grasp the "factuality" of what happened. (14) In Jedwabne, up to 1,600 Jews were slaughtered by their Christian neighbors. In Rwanda, more than 500,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors. Rwanda, however, is comprehensible: it's not The Holocaust.

The central thesis of Hitler's Willing Executioners is that the German people's irrational hatred of Jews - sometimes "latent," sometimes "manifest" - was the main cause of the Nazi holocaust. All Hitler did, according to Goldhagen, was "unleash the pent-up antisemitic passion." Gross similarly depicts Jedwabne. Although on "good terms with the Poles," the Jews of Jedwabne were "always mindful of a latent hostility...among the surrounding population" nurtured by "medieval prejudice about ritual murder." (15) Suddenly, in July 1941, this latent hostility turned lethal. With the Nazis' role "limited, pretty much, to their taking pictures," the "Polish half of a town murder[ed] its Jewish half" for "God-knows-what" reasons. (16) As with Goldhagen, Gross's account is a monument to question-begging. Why, for example, did this homicidal impulse burst forth in July 1941, but not before? Gross himself observes that "nothing of the sort has been recorded" in modern Polish history. (17) Indeed, by casting Jedwabne within the ahistorical framework of the Holocaust industry - a categorically unique event in which Gentiles exterminate Jews for unfathomable reasons - Gross precludes meaningful insight.


Although it briefly aroused passions in Germany, Hitler's Willing Executioners left no enduring mark. Germans were confronting their "Jewish question" long before Goldhagen, and his book contributed nothing new. It seems, however, that Poles haven't come to grips with their "Jewish question" and Gross did unearth some new material. The shock and sensation which Gross's book evoked in Poland suggests that Poles have been in denial about ugly aspects of their past. Thus, however incomplete and ideologically tainted, Neighbors has the potential of stimulating a useful and necessary debate in Poland. Yet, this potential might be squandered due to the issue of Holocaust compensation. Instead of firmly separating the question of anti-Semitism from compensation, Gross knots them together. With Gross's blessing, Neighbors has become another weapon of the Holocaust industry in the shakedown of Poland. Tragically, the outcome of Poland's soul-searching will likely be a revival of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In a recent article, "Mrs. Marx's Pillow," Gross alleges that Poles connect his book with Holocaust compensation because they "spontaneously associate Jews with money." (18) Yet, a chapter of Neighbors is devoted to "Who took over the property?" Gross's elevation of this question to a "big subject" is puzzling since he reports that it didn't command attention from Jewish survivors. (19) Here Gross falls into another one of his contradictions. We have seen that Neighbors portrays Jedwabne as an incomprehensible event where Poles slaughtered Jews for "God-knows-what" reason. In this chapter, however, he suddenly discovers that "the desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews...was the real motivating force." (20) But why then is Jedwabne such a mystery? Crimes on a far greater scale have been committed for enrichment. (The colonization and expropriation of the New World and Africa resulted in the deaths of countless millions.) (20) Be that as it may, the unstated upshot is that justice requires returning the stolen property. In "Mrs. Marx's Pillow," Gross explicitly makes this case.

Gross recalls the story of a German woman whose conscience was tormented even fifty years after the war because she still owned the pillow of a murdered Jew. (21) Essentially this is, for Gross, the Polish challenge: to reconcile with its past - to atone for Jedwabne - Poland must return "Mrs. Marx's pillow." "It is only the lack of sympathy and mourning for those who were murdered ," according to Gross, that makes the property claims of Jewish heirs "so vexing and irritating a problem." On the other hand, "those who finally weep over the fate of their Jewish fellow-citizens...will...part with `Mrs. Marx's pillow' without a trace of regret." "The choice we face," he concludes, "is not difficult." Indeed it wouldn't be - if matters were so simple.

In the first place, the Holocaust industry doesn't merely want back "Mrs. Marx's pillow": it wants her whole house - and more. Although "the scale of claims is potentially huge," Gross reassures, "no one will ever turn up to claim a great deal of what remains in our hands." But the claims on Poland are not tied to individual victims or their heirs coming forward. In fact, the Holocaust industry is laying claim to hundreds of thousands of parcels of Polish land valued in the many tens of billions of dollars. Gross can hardly be unaware of this.

Meeting these colossal demands, moreover, will never achieve true reconciliation. The Holocaust industry represents neither "those who were murdered" nor Jewish survivors and heirs. It is an extortion racket wrapped in the mantle of Jewish suffering. Consider recent developments. In the name of Holocaust victims, the Holocaust industry seized control of denationalized properties worth billions of dollars in the former East Germany. The legitimate Jewish heirs are currently suing the Holocaust industry to return their properties. Nearly all the monies in the Swiss banks settlement will go not to Jewish survivors or heirs but into the coffers of Jewish organizations. In the German settlement, the Holocaust industry will also almost certainly keep most of the monies designated for former Jewish slave-laborers.

While Gross acclaims Poland's "joyful new reality" in which American lawyers "help" settle Holocaust property claims according to the rule of law, even the conservative, pro-business Wall Street Journal denounces these same lawyers as "The New Holocaust Profiteers." (22) (To be sure, the Journal only attacked the Holocaust lawyers after they began targeting big US corporations like IBM.) Gross contrasts Poland's "joyful new reality" with the "lawlessness" of its Communist past, when "might made right." In this "joyful new reality," however, the US government, acting at the behest of the Holocaust industry, deploys the crudest strong-arm tactics to force Poland's submission. Repeating the Holocaust industry's favorite propaganda line, Gross writes that "we are dealing here with a question of ethics, and not of accountancy." In fact, we are dealing here with a question of Holocaust hooliganism, plain and simple.

Gross anguishes that "we must be prepared to give" the property back, "we will have to pay for the moral debasement of a generation of our ancestors," and so on. Who is this "we"? For the past 30 years Gross has resided in the United States. He holds American citizenship and teaches at a prominent American university. What sacrifices will he suffer if the Holocaust industry bankrupts Poland? Indeed, the US government bludgeons Poland to pay Holocaust compensation. But the US kept substantial assets of Holocaust victims deposited in American banks during World War II. Shouldn't Gross instruct his current government in morality? Clearly the US can better afford to pay Holocaust compensation than Poland. It can also better afford to pay - but hasn't - compensation to the numerous victims of US crimes, from Native Americans and African-Americans to Southeast Asians and Central Americans.

For sheer cynicism, however, Gross doesn't even hold a candle to Israel's ambassador in Poland, Shevach Weiss. In a recent interview Weiss avows that Poland's curb on Jewish property claims from before World War II "offends me as a man, as a Polish Jew, but also as a liberal and a democrat." He decries the injustice that Jews "die with a sense of being treated unjustly," that under the Communist regime "they had to make time-consuming efforts to obtain visas which the Polish authorities could refuse to give," and that now they visit their former homes and shops in Poland, but "cannot go inside." Isn't this exactly the plight of Palestinian refugees? Speaking of Jebwabne, Weiss expresses shock that Poles could kill their Jewish neighbors "and afterwards they came back to their homes, took their wives to bed, had their breakfast next day, and later still they went" to pray. Isn't this what Israelis do in the West Bank and Gaza every day? Indeed, one cannot but wonder if serving a Prime Minister guilty of massive war crimes and crimes against peace also offends Weiss "as a liberal and a democrat." (23)

Finally, Gross lectures Poles that "we must...confront our own past," and lashes out at Polish professors for their silence on Poland's anti-Semitic past. Yet, Americans must also confront their past and American professors are equally silent about US crimes. Certainly, an American professor faced far fewer penalties for telling the truth than a Polish professor under the Communist regime. The president of the New School for Social Research - right down the block from New York University, where Gross teaches - committed heinous war crimes in Vietnam. Has Gross demanded his criminal indictment? Poland promises to prosecute the Polish perpetrators of the Jedwabne massacre. Is it even conceivable that the US government would bring to justice its war criminals?

It takes precious little courage to lecture Poland on morality from the comfort of New York City. Until he applies to his current government and himself the standards he preaches to Poles, Gross's pieties don't merit consideration.
28 czerwiec 2006

Norman G. Finkelstein 



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