The Polish publication of “Fear” by Jan Tomasz Gross has not only thrown a spanner into the works and caused an almighty stir in the media but has raised a big old question mark over the future of Polish-Jewish relations. I have not read the book and so this post is not an analysis of the book but a short discussion of history and our relationship with history.
In any analysis of history, we must first have enough wits about us to sort the real facts from pseudo-facts, quasi facts, rumour and hearsay. A useful distinction is what we might term ‘objective’ facts, ‘subjective’ facts and ‘popular’ facts. For example… The Germans started World War II – an objective fact. Germany (in the guise of Hitler’s Third reich) declared war on (the Second Republic of) Poland – an objective fact. The Nazis built the concentration camps – an objective fact. The WWII Germans were evil – a subjective (and popular) fact. The Poles did nothing to help the Jews – subjective fact. The Jews were the richest class in Eastern Europe – popular fact. The Jews owned all the gold in Eastern Europe – popular fact. This mix of fact and fiction flows into popular consciousness on a daily basis, colouring and distorting our view of history, creating stereotypes and fueling racism.
Point of Reference
History is all about perspective but this is also its fundamental problem. General facts and generalisations often fall into the ‘subjective’ and ‘popular’ facts category. What is believed to be true by certain groups (or even individuals) can often spread and become a ‘truth’. The claim that the Poles did their utmost to save the Ashkenazi Jews is subjective, as is the claim that the Poles were as guilty as the Germans in the extermination of the Jews. Understanding perspective is all important here. Sweeping generalisations are both misleading and dangerous (as I have mentioned before).
Value of Discussion
However, what Gross’ book has achieved is bringing the problem of perspective out into the open. There WERE hordes of Polish people who did absolutely nothing to help the Jews during the war. Moreover, they helped in their extermination. Gross’ book will allow historians (and more importantly, average Poles) to review their mythologised view of WWII. Yes, many Poles DID help the Jews during the war (with Poles being the most numerous among the Righteous Among the Nations in the Yad Vashem). But on the other had, many Poles helped the Germans. Sad but true.
“Fear” is an important publication. It will allow us all to separate the objective facts from the subjective facts and popular facts. Why did so many Polish people help the Germans in the extermination of the Jews? Did they see it as revenge? Did they feel disenfranchised by the would-be ‘richer’ class of Ashkenazi Jewry? History shows that Poland did more than most countries to help the Jews settle into European society so how did it ever come to this? Why, after WWII, were so many Polish people anti-semitic? Or was it just racism? Or simply “barbarism” as famous Jewish-Polish activist Marek Edelman calls it? History demands discussion and dialogue.