People Dealt this Fate to People

Talk with Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Jan Tomasz Gross

The entire history of Poland now needs to be rewritten as a multi-ethnic history – Jan Tomasz Gross, author of ‘Golden Harvest’

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KATARZYNA ZIMMERER: In your book Golden Harvest, you write about a certain social behavior that had become the norm, namely, that under German occupation many Poles were driven by greed to rob – and in many cases murder – their Jewish neighbors. This is a very painful statement. Is “norm” really the most appropriate word to describe this phenomenon?

JAN TOMASZ GROSS: We’re helpless in the face of history and in the face of how we should speak and write about it. The main subject of our book, one supported with numerous sources, is the phenomenon – ubiquitous at the time – of Poles acting to the detriment of their Jewish neighbors. If you step back and take a broader look at the history of Europe, it turns out (and we mention this as well) that in every society under German occupation, actions of this type were socially acceptable in one form or another. The nature of German occupation differed from country to country, and thus so did this acceptance. In many cases, it ought to provoke even greater outcry than it did in Poland, as several countries, among them France, enacted anti-Jewish legislation that went above and beyond the demands of the Germans, in certain regards and to a certain extent. What we describe in our book is the ubiquity of criminal actions against the Jews. We quote the transcripts of post-war trials against those suspected of collaborating with the Germans and persecuting Jews. We explain how these events took place in practice. Most of the testimonies were given by Poles. Very few were given by Jews, because they were already gone. Most of the witnesses were people who either took part in the events directly or witnessed them. Thanks to these testimonies, we now know that there were entire groups of people who robbed and murdered

The Blue Police

More correctly translated as The Navy-Blue Police (Polish: Granatowa policja) was the popular name of the collaborationist police in the German occupied area of the Second Polish Republic, known as General Government during the Second World War. The official name of the organization was Polish Police of the General Government (German: Polnische Polizei im Generalgouvernement, Polish: Policja Polska Generalnego Gubernatorstwa). (source:

Jews, or would turn them in to the Polish Blue Police or the German Gendarmerie, who would kill them. The groups raiding Jews even included children. This was going on in plain sight and did not provoke moral outrage. The perpetrators continued to be respected citizens, sometimes even community leaders. Court proceedings show that these people were not on the margins of society. They were heads of villages and communes, commanders of volunteer fire departments, and their members. They did not face ostracism after the war. This raises the question: what words should we use to describe these practices. The word “norm” evokes positive associations. It is used to describe acceptable behaviour in social life. Its use in the context of the events described must raise doubts, and these are doubts we have discussed over and over again. The drama of this book, its basic conclusion, is that these actions against Jews were considered completely acceptable at the time, and no one felt the need to hide what they were doing. One could be a murderer while remaining a respected citizen.

Before she was exposed as a Jew hiding behind Aryan papers in Kraków, the great poet Zuzanna Ginczanka wrote in one of her final poems:

Non omnis moriar. My grand estate —
Tablecloth meadows, invincible wardrobe castles,
Acres of bedsheets, finely woven linens,
And dresses, colorful dresses — will survive me.
I leave no heirs.
So let your hands rummage through Jewish things,
You woman of Chomino, you from Lvov, you mother of a Volksdeutscher.
May these things be useful to you and yours,”
(translated from Polish by Nancy Kassell and Anita Safran - ed.)

“May these things be useful to you and yours,” in other words, what good are they to others? This notion appears frequently in the memoirs you quote: “Give me your shoes, your dress, your coat; you’re going to die soon and they’ll fall into the hands of others (Germans)”…

J.T.G.: I feel I should mention Kazimierz Wyka’s 1947 essay Life As If. I consider it the best examination of social decomposition and anomie during the war. We chose a quote from that essay as the motto of our book. Wyka writes that he understands that the extermination of 3 million Jews created a social void that somehow had to be filled, as that is the nature of things. People move into empty apartments, take over abandoned stores, workshops, and social functions. This is natural and normal. In his opinion, however, any satisfaction drawn from this state of affairs is absolutely scandalous. He quotes frequent remarks by people satisfied that the Jews were gone: “What the Germans did was obviously despicable, but we benefited from it.” In 1987, Jan Błoński published an essay in “Tygodnik Powszechny” titled “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto”, launching a heated debate on the state of Polish-Jewish relations. He wrote about the spiritual responsibility of Poles – that Polish land was soaked with Jewish blood and that tears must be shed over it, although God lovingly drew back his hand, saving us from becoming murderers. Now it turns out that we were murderers after all. This discussion isn’t just about filling the social void left behind by the actions of the Germans. We have to face the consequences of greed. Poles hid under the normative hat of “the lesser evil”, employing a simple excuse – the Jews were as good as dead, so we’d better keep their property from falling into the hands of the Germans, the enemies. It’ll be better off in our good, Polish hands. That’s why we demand to have it.

IRENA GRUDZIŃSKA-GROSS: I’m glad you mentioned the poem by Zuzanna Ginczanka. It was inspired by Juliusz Słowacki’s My Testament, a poem that our parents’ generation knew by heart. Ginczanka used entire verses from Słowacki: “I leave no heirs” is a literal quote. This 19th century piece fits in with the reality of the German occupation in a highly bitter yet ironic way. It thus inscribes its Jewish history into Polish history. What does her non omnis moriar mean to us today? What responsibility does it place on us? The point is that Polish history needs to encompass the history of Polish Jews, so that Jewish history is not written separately and so that they are not excluded from this community.

These histories are usually written separately. The decision to tell the parallel story of Polish and Jewish inhabitants of Kraków at the exhibition “Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939–1945” caused consternation among members of the programme council – which consisted of historians – and disbelief that it was even possible. Now we’re being praised for the form of narration used in the exhibition.

J.T.G.: We have been conditioned to think of these two histories as separate. I’ve written a few books on the German occupation of Poland in which I devote no more than a few sentences to Jews. It took me nearly ten years to understand just how ridiculous that was. The Holocaust is a central part of Poland’s wartime experience, one that has touched everyone in one way or another. The whole issue is obviously a much broader one. The entire history of Poland now needs to be rewritten as a multi-ethnic history. The Poland we know today, a creation of Hitler and Stalin, embodies the ideals of Poland’s National Democrats. It’s now a mono-ethnic and mono-religious country. But Poland was never been like that before! No matter how far back you go into the past, Poland was always multinational, multi-religious, multicultural, and multi-faceted. This freak state we’ve been living in since 1945 has clouded our minds. We historians used to think about the past in modern terms. That was a mistake. We are now at the start of the process of integrating Polish and Jewish history. There’s a long road ahead of us. But what’s important is that some historians have begun to realize that it’s a road we have to take.

I.G.–G.: The recent talks and discussions have made us realize something that was apparent the whole time (it’s these things that are often the hardest to notice): we are the first generation born in a mono-ethnic Poland and brought up with a new view of history. What more, we were surrounded by silence. All of Europe fell silent, most likely so that it could start a new life. It wasn’t until our generation – the one born after the war – reached adulthood that we started to rebel against our parents and their silence. Hence the events of 1968. The more time separates us from the occupation of Poland and the Holocaust – paradoxically – the more easily and fully we can speak about what happened. We know more and more facts, we’re less and less fearful of hurting the ones we love, and we’re finally abandoning this one-track mindset where you’re either Jewish or Polish.

Jan T. Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross,
Golden Harvest
, Znak Publishing House,
Kraków 2011
A question that frequently crops up during talks and discussions on Golden Harvest is whether we want Poles to finally admit their guilt. Journalists from “Rzeczpospolita” demanded that we apologize to the anonymous people on the photograph we wrote about. Danuta Skóra from the “Znak” publishing house apologized for her company’s decision to publish such a book. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. The reason why the debate on Polish-Jewish relations focuses so heavily on guilt, atonement, remorse, forgiveness, penance, etc. is probably that religion and Catholicism play such a dominating role in Poland. That’s a complete misunderstanding. The book calls for nothing more than understanding. When the history of Polish Jews finally becomes interwoven in the history of Poland, when one finally becomes an integral part of the other, that understanding will come about and will be more than sufficient atonement for what happened in occupied Poland.

J.T.G: But this understanding has to go a bit further. It’s not enough that we realise that there are almost no Jews in Poland due to the actions of Germans as well as Polish indifference. We have to react to this absence incessantly. We have to imagine those who are gone, mourn for them, light candles and leave flowers in their memory. I realized this last year on July 22 in Warsaw. At that time of the year, the city is completely engrossed in commemorating a number of different historic events. The front pages of all the newspapers featured coverage of the preparations for a variety of street events commemorating the Warsaw Uprising. There were articles about the reenactment of the Battle of Grunwald, which was set to take place three weeks later. My daughter and I visited the Umschlagplatz with a friend of mine on July 22. On that date, almost sixty years earlier, the Grossaktion was begun in the Warsaw Ghetto. During the seven weeks of its duration, 300,000 inhabitants of Warsaw were murdered, more than died during the entire Warsaw Uprising. The date wasn’t marked with as much as a single word in any newspaper. Journalist acquaintances of mine told me that they have one day they can devote to the memory of Jews under German occupation: April 19, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I’m nevertheless convinced that today’s indifference to the fate of Jews will one day become a thing of the past.

The late Maria Orwid, a professor of psychology who passed away two years ago, claimed that the Shoah must have traumatised Poles so badly that they remain unable to speak about it to this day. The healing process following a traumatic experience is very difficult and full of defense mechanisms, denial, and evasion.

I.G.–G.: Such reactions are highly typical. Avoiding the heart of the matter is one of the ways in which we react to traumatic experiences. First, there is a demand: “Prove it!”. When historians, even the ones who are very critical of us, present the evidence, the reaction is: “So what? We knew about that. Those are well known facts. Besides, my family helped hide Jews.” We hear it all the time. The people who say these things are convinced they’re telling the truth. Perhaps their family stories about saving Jews serve to shield them from the trauma of the events. It would seem that the case is closed. The Jews are gone. The Jews were exterminated by the Germans. We Poles hid Jews. We did what we could. There was very little we could do, and yet we risked our lives to do it. At one appearance at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts in Kraków, some women showed up holding a sign depicting dripping blood and the words “We – the just – loved Jews more than our own lives.” Not only did we save them, but we paid for it with our lives.

At the same time, I get the impression that the Righteous are completely absent from the pantheon of Polish heroes. We were reminded of Irena Sendler thanks to the work of a group of American schoolchildren from rural Kansas. The story of the Ulma family, who were murdered for hiding Jews, has long been known in Poland, but wasn’t until recently that the media began covering their story extensively.

J.T.G.: “The Righteous Among Nations” were people who suffered total ostracism at the hands of their neighbors. During the war, their actions were treated – with some exceptions, of course – as breaking the fundamental rule of group loyalty. They were watched very closely. When it became apparent that someone was hiding a Jew, local officials such as the head of the village would intervene and often expose the person, after which lives would be lost. Jews were always killed, and sometimes the Poles who were hiding them, as well. When the war finally ended, the very people who risked their lives to hide Jews would beg them – all over Poland, in cities and villages – not to tell anyone what had happened. If word of their actions were to get out, the local community would certainly disapprove. I found that fact so shocking that it ended up taking me quite a while before I understood that it was no isolated phenomenon. “Polityka” ran an article by Cezary Łazarewicz a few months ago in which he writes that the life of the Righteous in local communities is not the life of heroes.

A frequent justification of the indifference Poles displayed to the fate of Jews under German occupation is “We had no choice. The Nazis imposed very strict laws.”

I.G.–G.: We have an entire repertoire of placating excuses at our disposal: war is demoralizing. People dealt this fate to people – such is human nature. Poverty was rampant. Poles had no choice but to obey laws imposed and brutally enforced by the Germans. Well then why did we have the Righteous? If Poles had no choice, then why do we try so hard to emphasize the role of the Righteous? The very fact of their existence is the strongest evidence that people did in fact have a choice. It was a difficult choice, a dramatic one, but it was there. People use rational arguments to justify facts that have no justification. The poverty of Polish peasants is another issue frequently mentioned in discussions about the murder of Jews. We attempt to find rational explanations for that which should not be explained at all! We are accused of failing to depict the context of the war in our book. But that has nothing to do with it. We’re not accusing those peasants, nor are we searching for an explanation. We are merely describing behaviour that was quite common at the time, but should not be acceptable in any situation. Not everyone had to be Righteous, but they didn’t have to be murderers, either. They had a choice.

Let’s end with the inevitable question. Do you fear that Poland will experience a surge of antisemitism following the next Gross book?

I.G.–G.: If we can give any credence to the polls, antisemitism has become significantly less common in Poland since the publication of the first Gross book. We’ll see what happens after he publishes three more. But in all seriousness, the questions in those polls are posed so oddly that you can’t really be sure what it is they’re actually polling. One things is certain: the respondents know they’re being asked about antisemitism, and they know what sort of answer is expected of them. And that’s a big step forward. The other thing is that the books published so far, as well as the controversy and debates surrounding them, have begun to effect a shift away from automaticity in language. We keep speaking in divisive terms: “A Jew comes to a Polish peasant, looking for a place to hide”. We’re still not using the words “man”, “woman”, and “child”.

J.T.G.: You mean “Some people met a Jew.”

I.G.–G.: That’s what I’m talking about. On the one hand you have people, and on the other, Jews. It’s important that we talk about it this way because it shows us how people spoke and thought back then. At the same time, such statements should be subjected to comprehensive analysis. Why is it that a Jew was not considered a person at the time? The more we think about it out loud, the more we’ll understand, and the closer we’ll be to that true history. The history of a human asking another human to rescue him.

Conducted on March 19, 2011, at the Jewish Community Centre of Kraków

translated by Arthur Barys