Prof. Jan Gross is a Princeton University historian who dialogued with Holocaust professor Deborah Lipstadt at the YIVO Institute on the evening of May 8. He has gained fame and notoriety from his research on violent Polish antisemitism, during and after World War II.
Gross pointed out that rural shtetl Jews were more exposed to the Nazis during the war and to Polish violence after the war, than the more assimilated and mixed Jewish population in big cities. Polish liberal intelligentsia often helped their Jewish friends and relatives. But in the countryside, returning Jews in particular were threatened and victimized by whole communities of Poles who shared a material interest in keeping the Jewish properties that they had seized.
There was a decree issued by the Polish government in exile in London to compensate losses and return properties to Jews, but contacts in the Polish underground reported back that this wouldn’t happen. It wasn’t clear to me if they were reporting a fact or indicating an intension, but I think it was the former.
Lipstadt emphasized the fact that the Holocaust was the doing of the Germans, not the Poles. Gross mentioned that in some cases, known antisemites acted on behalf of Jews. In these instances, he speculated that there was a contradiction between their abstract hateful notions about Jews and the flesh & blood reality of individuals in dire need who were in front of their eyes.
Many in the audience were frustrated by the speakers because they wanted the Poles to be condemned more uniformly than the speakers were willing to. Several brought up the noxious role of the Church. Gross and Lipstadt were not really making excuses for the clergy or other Poles, but they were historians plying their trade in citing nuances and making distinctions. There were those in the audience who did not understand what professional historians properly do.
Interestingly, Gross’s latest book, “Fear” – which depicts the widespread Polish persecution and murder of Jews after WW II – sold 80,000 copies in Poland during its first six weeks of publication early this year. In traveling in Poland, he said that he was often congratulated for his work by people he encountered. He also had to put up with an attempt to prosecute him for “anti-Polish” slander.