In Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, Princeton University professor Jan T. Gross chronicles the shocking individual and collective violence of native Poles against Jews after the Holocaust and how the Polish secular and religious authorities were actively complicit in this destruction. Gross organizes his important book into three major subsections. He first deals with Polish postwar anti-Semitism before one of its most horrifying manifestations: the Kielce pogrom. He then examines this dehumanizing pogrom and its ugly results. Finally, he studies Polish anti-Semitism after Kielce, relates it to communism, and confronts readers with his troubling conclusions.
Gross wisely sets his argument in a human context when he cites that more than 90 percent of Polish Jews (three million people) were killed in the Holocaust, as well as “more than half of [Poland’s] lawyers . . . two-fifths of its medical doctors and one-third of its university professors and Roman Catholic clergy.” After the Nazi murder of about six million European Jews, it is truly incomprehensible that Polish citizens, not Nazis, chased away or destroyed those few Jewish survivorstheir own countrymenwho miraculously survived the extermination camps.
The “unwelcoming of Jewish survivors,” as Gross terms it, was sometimes subtly but more often overtly violent. Returning Jews were stunned at the animosity that awaited them in the hateful “greeting,” “So . . . you are still alive?” Anti-Semitism had metastasized like a cancer. Warnings not to speak loudly in Yiddish became threats to depart Poland quickly, along with beatings, torture, and murder. Many surviving Jews moved to postwar Germany, which was safer for them than their homeland. Right after the war, predatory Poles dug up death camps like Treblinkla and Belzec, hoping to find skulls with gold teeth that the Nazis had missed. Even in death, Jews were regarded by townspeople as fair game for plunder.
The nonchalance of postwar anti-Semitism is shocking. Looking to rent an apartment that was vacated by murdered Jews, a woman was told, “You could have killed 10 Jews and you would have gotten a house.” Prosecution of crimes against Jews was inept and apathetic since witnesses were not deposed and refused to testify against their neighbors. Redolent of those Swiss banks that after the war would not release deposits of people who were gassed and cremated unless the beneficiaries could provide a death certificate, a Polish functionary would not help a Jewish returnee unless she had a non-Jew to vouch for her identity.
Jews were systematically denied food, property, official papers, and employment and were excluded from public schools. Jewish children were selected by Boy Scouts for beatings and torture. In an allusion to longstanding and malignant Church teachings, one young beating victim wrote, “After all, I was a God killer. . . . I was crying because a great and undeserved injury had been done to me. . . . I knew that I had not killed Jesus.” Another child’s terrifying question encapsulated this entire orgy of hate: “Mommy, was it a human being that was killed or a Jew?”
In Rzeszow in June, 1945, barely a month after the Holocaust ended, a nine-year-old girl was savagely murdered, a Jew was falsely charged, and mass hysteria set in; it was a “ritual murder,” said the mob, performed by “Jews who needed blood [transfusions, to fortify themselves] after returning from camps.” This modern-day variation on the ancient, baseless superstition that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood to make matzo incited mobs to beat Jews and destroy their property. The falsely imprisoned Jewish suspect was tortured and humiliated with, “Cannibal, murderer of Polish children.”
The Kielce pogrom happened July 4, 1946, when an eight-year-old boy disappeared from his family for two days to visit a friend who had a cherry tree. His drunken father told police that the boy had been kidnapped by Jews; when his son returned, healthy and with cherries, the father encouraged the boy to say that he was held by Jews in the basement of the Jewish Committee Building; ironically, the building had no basement.
Undeterred by the truth, rumors swelled and crowds grew. After one innocent Jew was beaten by police, crowds threw rocks at any suspected Jews they could find. Police and military yanked innocent Jews from...
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