Comments on the Reception of Jan T. Gross' Latest Book in Poland

07. Sep 2011

Dr Błażej Brzostek is historian, an associate professor at the Historical Institute, University of Warsaw. He has published numerous articles on twentieth-century social history of Poland, Romania and Central-Eastern Europe. Recently he published a book on Warsaw and Bucharest development in 19 and 20th century.

Jan Tomasz Gross, sociology professor at Princeton, wanted to shock opinion makers in Poland. Admittedly, this shock was not going to be the first one and the tectonic structures it revealed were already well known. The failure to shake this time around, however, in no way reduces the specific gravity of the subject.

Renewed Threads

Gross's disturbing book Neighbours[1] from ten years ago analyzed events in a small town called Jedwabne where, under German occupation, Polish inhabitants carried out a pogrom against their Jewish neighbors in 1941. It provoked heated discussions in Poland - and led to considerable discussions worldwide. In Poland, the significance of this small book was, above all, that it raised doubts about the traditional image of "Polish fate" in the 20th century centered around the idea of "living through war". Doubts regarding this image of "Polish fate" have quite a substantial history: in all likelihood they already emerged in the fifties with loud reckonings both in films and among journalists. The discussion was multifaceted and interesting at that time, particularly since the main focus in communist Poland was on the heroic attitude attributed to the Polish collective as a whole during the war years and German occupation. The discussion was hence intra-Polish in which moments of hopeless resistance in September 1939 and the Warsaw Uprising had their fundamental significance. Regardless to what extent Neighbors revealed new facts and circumstances (Tomasz Szarota drew attention to the much longer albeit hardly known tradition of Polish research in this area), it was Gross who gave impetus to the debate that far exceeded the accepted categories of previous decades. We may say that The Neighbors became the symbol of the public reassessment of the myth of "the nation of victims" and to some degree led to the acceptance of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust. It also shifted the topic of the discussion of the occupation from Polish - German to Polish - Jewish relations. 

It was not difficult to foresee that an emotional barrier would emerge between the followers of the traditional interpretation of history, in which only a narrow stratum of Polish "scum" cooperated in the Shoah, and the adherents of historical reassessment, for whom the problem was considerably wider. This barrier has indeed proven difficult to overcome. Gross's style of writing with its tendency to generalize and provide artistic approximations, certainly contributed to this - and so did his polemic temperament that inclines him to engage in public debates. These debates became ever more contested, starting with the baseness encouraged by anonymity on online forums and ending in the Joachim Lelewel Hall, the main building of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where ten years ago a highly memorable debate took place between members of the Warsaw intelligentsia. 

The most recent book of Gross is co-authored with Irena Grudzinska-Gross and got published at the beginning of 2011. It renewed many of the threads of that debate. "Golden Harvests". What happened at the margins of the Jewish Extermination should be seen as an historical essay. The Grosses were motivated to write it by a photograph published in Poland several years earlier that had not provoked any response at the time. It shows quite a large group of men and women in peasant clothing, held under guard by Polish soldiers and arranged for a photograph by a pile of bones and skulls. The Grosses devoted some space to the analysis of the photograph which they understood as a picture taken of Polish farmers in the heat of the moment: we see here farmers after the Second World War digging up the ground where the Treblinka camp had been, looking for valuables amongst the remains of its victims. This photograph provided the inspiration to think about the relationship of the Poles - and to a lesser degree that of the other nations of occupied Europe - to their Jewish fellow citizens, who had been pushed by the German occupant into a subhuman role. The Grosses multiply the examples of blackmail, of the taking advantage of Jews in hiding for material gain as well as of handing them over to the police or killing them in order to gain their property but also of the plundering of Jewish burial places and the collective graves of Holocaust victims. They regard these events as "the norm" in the Polish countryside - the mere use of the expression "the norm" provoked an acute reaction to the text. 

The response to Golden Harvests shows several characteristic features. First, the debate started even before the actual publication since the text already circulated in electronic format for some time and could thus serve as the basis of its first reviews. Second, the dynamic of these debates was linked as much to the book as to public remarks made about it. The Grosses did not avoid this but these remarks rather strengthened the transmission of some of their theses. Third, Gross is a well-known personality and his strongly charged public image meant that the reception of the book was to a large degree also related to his person. Last but not least, and this should be seen as one of the positive factors, the reactions to their theses increased the interest in the simultaneous publications of other Polish historians. Such was the case with Jan Grabowski's book "Judenjagd. The hunting for the Jews 1942-1945. The study of the history of a certain district" published by the Warsaw Centre for Research on the Jewish Extermination publishing in 2011, as well as Barbara Engelking-Boni's "It's such a beautiful day ... The fate of Jews seeking rescue in the Polish countryside 1942-1945". Both of these very well-documented historical works hampered the work of the critics of Grosses's book as they corroborate the basic message of Golden Harvests while lacking its essayistic casualness.

A Variety of Responses

Reaction to Golden Harvest were quick and acute, and mostly set in motion the familiar mechanisms of collective mentality. More reflexive reactions belong to a minority - as is usual in these kinds of situations. This itself impacted on the method of the Grosses in formulating their views: a method wounding for those cultivating a picture of innocent Polishness formed over decades or perhaps centuries. The monumental picture of Polish history shaped in this great story is about the persistence of the community in spite of oppression, about its acts of heroism and collective sacrifice. It cannot seem to tolerate being confronted with stories of mass abjection and shameful events. The majority of the responses belong to two fundamental groups: one can be called traditional and the other revisionist. Both of these kinds of responses can be found in most public discussions in Poland - and not just in relation to historical issues. 

At the extremes of the former, traditional responses there were foreseeable and banal reactions of a nationalist type. They were characterized by an a priori negation of the contents of the Golden Harvests. The name of the author had the effect of a red rag to a bull: reactions to "Gross's new lies" were aimed as much at the person of the author as the views of the researcher. Gross was in effect called "non-academic". He was supposed to be disqualified by his lack of historical education or activity in some foreign academic culture (his participation in its "degenerated" strand, as one of its polemists stated) and his base motivations (supposedly he is in it for the money, which is quite easy to earn in the service of international "anti-Polishness"). It is worth noting that references to the author's Jewish heritage appeared in some of the less popular media as well as some of the internet discussions (in cartoons Jan Tomasz Gross was depicted wearing a skull-cap) though these did not enter the more important currents of the debate. 

Among the traditionalists, an alternative volume with the very suggestive title Golden Hearts or Golden Harvests, took a more important place. This collection was put together by well-known rightist historians Marek Chodakiewicz and Wojciech Muszyński and also got released in Warsaw in 2011. It received a favorable review in an influential Warsaw daily.[2] The general aim of their volume was to maintain the current conception of Polish - Jewish relations during the Second World War: the Polish people were meant to be impotent in the face of unprecedented German anti-Semitic terror while an important part of them behaved heroically and risked everything to hide and save Jews. Even before the publication of Golden Harvests, a historian from the abovementioned ideological camp, Piotr Gontarczyk published a review in which he completely denied the competence of Gross and accused him of manipulation - supposed done to blacken the history of occupied Poland.[3] Around these opposing attitudes profuse commentaries gathered, including in the national media: they show intellectuals critical of fixed convictions about Polish history. As historian Jacek Grabowski said in one of the television discussions (and let us not forget that that Gross largely based his work on his research) the effect of Golden Harvests ought to be "the raking over of our patriotism". In other words, it could lead to the tossing out of the martyrological model. In an article published[4] in a small arts journal, outstanding anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, however, made the accusation that over the last few year the "nation's educators" created history politics on state support and have shaped an image of the past that readers have grown used to. She believes that this elite conformism as well as the insufficient humanist practice amongst historians can be linked to the domination of hackneyed and false models. In this context she regards the attacks on the author of Golden Harvests and its publishers as proof of the continuity in Polish taboos and as providing considerable potential for the aggressive public rejection of any reconsideration of accepted schemes.

It is worth paying separate attention to reactions not fitting into any of the above-mentioned categories. Even before Golden Harvests was available at the shops, the largest Polish daily[5] published a text titled "Poor Poles at the harvest". This article was written by Warsaw-based historian Martin Zaremba (b. in 1966), who specializes in the social history of Poland in the 20th century. In public debates Zaremba does not hide his positive evaluation of the role played by the Grosses: he view it as giving rise to collective self-awareness. At the same time, he is ready to acknowledge that the method they use is far from the standard "anthropological" method of analysis. He accuses them, above all, of failing to provide any cultural context and, therefore, any real understanding of the Polish peasants who took part in the awful events they describe. The Polish peasant presented in Golden Harvests is only "the rabble, the uncouth crowd", he maintains. Zaremba thus argues that relying on the research results on the cultural and material situation of rural Poland would have improved the quality of analysis. He also considers the effects of the existential threats of the occupation and the resulting narrowing of the perspective on the world, and pays attention to the general brutalization of behavior and banditism in the countryside that affected various social groups and not just Jews in hiding. 

Less than a month after the publication of Zaremba's article, the same newspaper[6] published a far more critical review by Paweł Machcewicz, a historian belonging to the same generation who serves as the director of the Second World War Museum currently being developed in Gdańsk. In his "Engaged history" Machcewicz maintains that Gross ignores the context of occupation and thereby presents the attitude of Poles to the Jews as if it was an autonomous area, which leads him to commit the fallacy of presentism. Above all, Machcewicz aims to undermine the value of the "moral shock" method he attributes to the Grosses. According to him, this method leads to results opposite to those intended, i.e. to defensive reactions and the rejection of the whole message. "It is very unproductive and predictable. I am convinced that it does not lead us either to the truth or to any kind of authentic, cleansing emotions", Paweł Machcewicz concludes his article.

Translated by Joanna Hanson


  1. Jan Tomasz Gross, Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka, Warsaw: 2001. The next equally sharply debated book by Gross was Strach: Antysemityzm w Polsce tuż po wojnie: Historia moralnej zapaści, Warsaw: 2007 (for the first American publication, see Jan Tomasz Gross, Fear: Anti-Semtism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation, Princetown, Oxford: 2006).
  2. See Piotr Semka, O czym Gross nie wspominał [What Gross didn't mention], Rzeczpospolita (31 March 2011).
  3. See Piotr Gomtarczyk, Fachowcy od wszystkiego [Experts on everything], Rzeczpospolita (7 March 2011).
  4. See Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Historia jako księgowość kreatywna [History as creative accountancy], Dwutygodnik. Strona kultury 52 (2011).
  5. See Marcin Zaremba, Biedni Polacy na żniwach, Gazeta Wyborcza (14 January 2011). 
  6. See Paweł Machcewicz, Recenzja ostatecznej wersji "Złotych żniw": historia zaangażowana, Gazeta Wyborcza (11 February 2011).

Related Links

A Documentation of the Debate at the German online magazine Sehepunkte

Press Review of the Polish Debat about Gross´ Book "Fear" in TRANSODRA online