The Killing After the Killing

Mourners at the burial of victims of the Kielce pogrom, Poland, July 1946
Mourners at the burial of victims of the Kielce pogrom, Poland, July 1946

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Reviewed by Elie Wiesel
Sunday, June 25, 2006

FEAR

Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz

By Jan T. Gross

Random House. 304 pp. $25.95

In 1996, Poland's Prime Minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, invited a Jewish American writer to speak at a commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. The speaker reminded his listeners that if Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor were German initiatives, the killers this time on the ground were Polish, their language Polish and their hatred entirely Polish. He took advantage of the occasion to demand that the Polish government remove the crosses and other religious symbols that, by chance, he had seen a few years before strewn in the ashes at Birkenau, where almost all the burned dead had been Jews. The next day, virulent, deplorable -- essentially antisemitic -- attacks appeared throughout the Polish press.

I was that speaker.

Some time later, the great Israeli historian Israel Gutman spoke to me briefly about the Jedwabne pogrom, in which virtually all of that small Polish town's 1,600 Jewish residents were killed in a single day in July 1941, and a new and important book, Neighbors , by Jan T. Gross, whose revelations about Jedwabne promised to embarrass Poland and jolt the conscience of the world.

A professor at Princeton now, Gross is a Polish Jew who knows his subject. Neighbors -- a book of high moral quality -- described the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne as not carried out by Germans but by native Poles. Published in English in 2001, it had formidable impact in America and elsewhere.

One can easily predict a similar effect and success for his new work, Fear . You read it breathlessly, all human reason telling you it can't be so -- and the book culminates in so keen a shock that even a close student of the Jewish tragedy during World War II cannot fail to feel it.

Bitterness, envy, murderous rage: Everything that is low, primitive, vile and ugly in the human animal is laid bare and analyzed on these pages. Reading this book -- repugnant and revolting as it can be -- one is seized by an impulse to close it and say: No. It is not possible for so many human beings to have loosed their savage hounds on fellow human beings -- men, women, children, all of them innocent and defenseless in a place that was just waking from a long nightmare.

Fear is a word we use often in reference to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes; it is, for want of a better term, employed inadequately to speak of the Holocaust. In a dark time, on a continent overcome by the din of triumphant Nazism, fear gripped the occupied countries and all nations in Germany's shadow; but, mostly, fear gripped the Polish people, whom Hitler wanted reduced to slavery, and the Jewish people, singularly destined for isolation, humiliation and total extermination. Had these last two communities acted logically, they might have understood that they faced a common enemy and worked to combine their strengths to help each other. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Gross describes how Warsaw's onlookers watched young Jewish fighters throw themselves from burning windows during the pathetic yet glorious ghetto uprising in 1943, then applauded when German soldiers set upon them below.

But in this strongly sourced work, another fear emerges. It is that felt by Jews, not during Poland's occupation by the Nazis, but afterward, even as the country was being liberated by the Red Army.


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