History is Gross (Part I)

FearThe 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.

Historical Facts

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.

Open Dialogue
“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.

17 thoughts on “History is Gross (Part I)

  1. Indeed, history demands discussion and dialogue but it also demands objectivness. The number of Jews killed by Poles as given by Gross is about 1500, whereas Chodkiewicz (“After the Holocaust”) proved the number to be 500-700. The question is how many of these victims where ONLY the victims of anti-semitism and not the victims of other reasons (e.g. sentences executed on the orders of the Polish Underground Army). The rule of objectivness also demands to mention the number of Jews who survived the Holocaust with the help of Poles. The number of Jews who fled from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Aryan part of the city is said to amount to 25 000. Who else could organize such a huge operation taking into consideration the fact that relatively a few Jews stayed on the Aryan part of Warsaw? Even though we cannot count the total number of Jews saved by the Poles, there are numbers between 50 000 and 120 000. We must not forget that any help given to a Jew by a Pole meant a death sentence of the whole family. Therfore, I would be very careful to say in this discussion rised by “Fear” that MANY people helped the Germans in the extermination of the Jews.

  2. Sebastian, this is a problematic and difficult discussion. On the one hand, we need to be objective but on the other, the figures quoted in various sources cannot be taken as real or genuine.The sad fact is that we will never know the true scale of the murder and of the heroism during WWII. My post is neither object defending Poland or attacking Poland, simply asking for dialogue.

  3. I am inclined to believe anything Marek Edelman says. And in this instance not just because I admire him so much. It was the same for the Germans. German antisemitism was nothing special when one considers the rest of Europe. Poles on the other hand could be considered a Jew-lovers when one considers history. Yet in a short space of time, the not particularly antisemitic, and very civilized Germans managed to perpetrate on of the greatest crimes in history. How could such a thing be possible. “Barbarism” is the answer. Human capacity for violence and the excuse Nazis gave them made it possible. WWII was a barbaric time. People who lived in such fear were capable of unspeakable acts.
    Mr. Gross’ book may be important is is also flawed is many way. One can not write a history of two peoples while considering only one side and without making an effort to understand both. His conclusions, it is clear, were made up before facts were considered. The issue is to important to be left to those with an agenda.

  4. Was the Shoah film, by Claude Lanzmann, 1985 showed here ? If yes, what were the reactions ? I found it helps understanding of how jewish extermination happened … A kind of “real politik” analysis of why was jewish extermination mostly located in Poland drives to : it was in Poland because the more numerous Jewish minority was here… And the question of were Polish people better than the others in helping Jewish to survive ? The answer is nearly common to all nazi-occupied (or allied) European countries (except probably, Bulgaria and Danmark, where political decisions created a protection for jews), some people really helped, others were indifferent/occupied to survive themselves and others were actively anti-semitic or nazi-supportive and helped the other side… exact figures (and names) we will probably never know, and we have to live with that… but trends can be analysed by historians (objectivity being a difficult art).

  5. Shoah was pretty much condemned by Poles as a biased and anti-Polish, some have said its incomplete as it failed to deal with the context of the Holocaust.
    Poland had within its Underground State an official organization dedicated to helping the Jews, called Zegota. In Poland any help given to Jews (even just feeding them) was punishable by death, and several thousand Poles were killed just for that. That is not to say that all Poles helped or even cared about the Jewish plight. Several were also condemned and executed by the Armia Krajowa for helping the Nazis in the slaughter of the Jews. What I object to is the fact that some groups and individuals try to portray Poles as especially antisemitic, and somehow complicit in the Holocaust. Poland was not, nor is, a land of Jew loving angels, but throughout its history, including WWII, it treated its Jews better than most. There was a reason that other than the US, Poland has the largest Jewish population.

  6. … Thanks for the information around the reaction to the film. My memories of this film (I saw it as a western teenager in the eighties), was that it stressed on the point that how much guys next door were those people who were around, how siderated they had been by the horror they even couldn’t conceive, how humanly ununderstandable all this slaughter has been before it was publicly known, explained and testified and a view of how horrible it could had been (i.e. : worst over anything I’m able to imagine)… no rememberance of something against anybody, but only of some keys explaining how it happened … I understood the treatment of complicity in the film as “would it have been really different if it all took place somewhere else ?”, and I didn’t feel the film was driving to an affirmative answer… maybe a personal bias in understanding !

    1. Well we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about that. We see ourselves as victims of WWII, to be told that we were just bystanders, or even participants comes as quite a shock. There was/is a huge historical problem. Under the Soviet occupation only selected victims were allowed to be mourned, or even talked about. At first the Jewish plight was stressed by the Commies, at the expanse of the Warsaw Uprising and the others, truly patriotic victims of WWII, then after 1968, it got even stranger. There was a disconnect. As kids we were told that 6 million Jews died, but also that 6 million Poles were killed (there was mp mention of the fact that over 3 million of those victims were not goyim). Commie propaganda was really insidious. I did not learn that Janusz Korczak was Jewish till I left Poland in the mid 80’s. The differences between the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising were muddled. As a kid it was hard to tell which was which, or if there were actually 2. So its a bit of a case of overdone self pity combined with surprise that anyone else could have suffered as much, or more than us. And when faced with films like Shoah, or when we are told that we helped the Nazis, or that the death camps were “Polish,” we really get defensive, to the point of looking almost like Holocaust deniers. It will take some time for this to be resolved. And for history to be accepted as it was, Communism just fell 20 years ago, 45 years of lies and propaganda wont go away overnight.

  7. I don’t remember exactly how appears the term “Polish death camp” in the film and if it’s (or not) more offensive than the usual reference that is made in French to the Struthof death camp as to “the French death camp”, even if it’s clear for everyone that it was run by the nazis. French death camp refers to “death camp located in France”… and, in my view, Polish death camp also refers to “death camp located in Poland” not to “death camp run by Poles”… Lanzmann is french, and the film is originally in French and maybe something was lost in translation…

  8. I would go as far as making sure to call them German Death/Concentration Camps, not Nazi, its a pet peeve of mine.
    I even wrote about it in my blog.

    Dinolaure, when I mention the “Polish Death Camp” I was not talking about the film, just in general, there were several instances where that appeared, in newspapers, other films ect. In your view that may be correct as you seem to be sane and know the history of the time. However people are quite ignorant and calling them Polish is not only a lie but it hurts Poles greatly.

  9. Ok, now better understanding what’s at stake ! (yes, I’m slow !)
    I would rather use nazi death camps better than german ones : bias in the way I was taught history, was that we all believe that the death camps where all in Germany, until we truly look at a map… and I find that’s a kind of accomplishment in the perversity of the nazi system is illustrated by the fact that they put a lot of them in Poland… And I’m not sure that so many people ignore that most of the nazis were germans…

  10. If Raf does not mind then its here
    Its little blog, I have been writing (ranting) for just over a week.

    Geography is not important, at least not very much. Its only relevant in the sense that it was logical for the Germans to build them in occupied Poland for economic reasons as most of Europe’s Jews lived in or near what was Poland. However there were suggestions that they built them there because it was easy for them due to the fact that Poles did not mind. Historical misconceptions can be quite damaging. And since I am quite anal I do mind. Just like the Nazi/German or Soviet/Russian bits. Most nations have to live and accept their historical baggage. For some however, all it takes to rename themselves and they can disassociate themselves from their sins.

  11. The whole reaction around “Polish death camp” formula is a matter of human geography (not sure this is a term in use in English) : location is Poland, neighbours are Poles but murderers are mainly german nazis ; if one “forgets” the invader, one sees only the neighbours, who just were invaded… and under a hard rule… misleading for who has no clue and revolting for one’s concerned…
    “For some however, all it takes to rename themselves and they can disassociate themselves from their sins.” I’m not comfortable with this one … I think guilt is more a matter of individuals than a collective one and I’m not a fervent supporter of hereditary guilt. In my view, kids (even grown up) are not responsible for what their parents did or didn’t… But they shall not forget what was done (bad or good) or disguise what reality has been… we call it “devoir de mémoire” (litteral translation :”duty of memory”). My (restricted)imagination is unable to find a better idea to allow heirs of European history to go ahead…

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