Gross versus the facts
("Zycie", 1 February 2001) - selected fragments
full polish version
translated by: Mariusz Wesolowski
The first installment of translations.
Piotr Gontarczyk
"Gross versus the facts"
("Zycie", 1 February 2001) - selected fragments
"One of the most important sources for Gross's findings has been the materials from the investigation conducted by the Security Office (UB) in 1949.
It is important to know that some of the people who were subject to this investigation later on in the courtroom gave completely different testimonies, stating that the previous ones had been forced out of them them by beatings... In the context of the realities of the 1940s in Poland, such recanting was an act of courage. Futile, alas; having the choice between the testimonies coerced during the investigation and the ones from the courtroom, Gross chose those that better fitted his conclusions, i.e., the former.
The second source of knowledge of the author of "Neighbors" is reminiscences of Holocaust survivors.
It has been already stated many times that these testimonies were gathered after the war by various historical committees which sometimes cared less for the truth than for some political and propagandistic agendas. People familiar with these sources know that they often contain a huge emotional baggage and hasty opinions resulting from dramatic experiences. Yet other accounts, especially the ones deposited after the war in the United States, seem to be not descriptions of the past but just pretexts to present their authors' dislike or simply hostility toward Poland and the Poles, commonly known as antipolonism.
This extremely complicated and varied problem Gross has summed up in two sentences: "Of course, every witness can be wrong, and every testimony, if possible, should be compared with the knowledge obtained from other sources. But we have no reason to suspect the Jews of any ill-will toward their Polish neighbors [sic]" (page 18 of the Polish edition). Such statements simply avoid the issue at hand. What's also interesting, Gross not only didn't keep the necessary objective distance to the testimonies used by himself, but also - contrary to his own postulate - didn't attempt to compare them with other sources. The results are clearly visible in numerous fragments of "Neighbors".
On page 49 [of the Polish edition], in one of the quoted testimonies, there appears the bishop of Lomza who, in exchange for material benefits, had promised the Jews that he would prevent the pogrom. The context of this event is unpleasant because the prelate accepted the tribute (silver candlesticks) but did not keep his promise. The author of "Neighbors" did not even give the name of the said bishop, not to mention any attempt on his part to investigate that occurrence.
It is very unlikely that the then-bishop of Lomza, Stanislaw Lukomski, could take any bribe from the Jews. Not only for ethical, but first of all for technical, reasons. During the entire Soviet occupation he remained in hiding, returning to his palace... in August 1941. Hence the visit of the Jewish delegation to the bishop, which - according to the testimonies quoted by Gross - has taken place "some time" before the Jedwabne tragedy (in the first half of July 1941), is very unlikely to have happened, just like many other events described in "Neighbors".
...Gross's book is based on a poor and biased selection of sources. This applies mainly to the problem of Polish-Jewish relations in Jedwabne and the environs during the Soviet occupation. The author of "Neighbors" stated that he had found only one (!) testimony related to this subject, so he drew the conclusion that nothing significant had happened during that period between the local Jews and the rest of the population.
It is pointless to list here literally hundreds of documents which univocally contradict such a conclusion. The article by Prof. Tomasz Strzembosz, recently published in "Rzeczpospolita", is an excellent refutation of Gross's theories. More interesting, in the context of the structural analysis of "Neighbors", there seem to be observations about the specific methodology used by Gross in his employment of sources. On page 32... the author... referred to Michal Gnatowski's work "W radzieckich okowach...". Gross did not mention, however, that this book contains interesting information about the feelings among the Polish population in the Jedwabne region, derived from Soviet documents. We find there, for example, the words of one Jan Gosek who on October 20, 1940, stated: "Now we have here a Jewish empire. They are being elected [to official positions] everywhere, and the Pole is like a horse, only he is pulling the cart and only he gets the whip" (page 159 of Gnatowski's book).
On page 21 of "Neighbors" there is a brief note about the results of Gross's research in the archives of... the Hoover Institution. Gross writes that he has found there "...three general remarks about the Jews in Jedwabne suggesting their overeagerness toward the new regime" (page 31). He also added in a footnote: "Mention of Jews in Jedwabne, in which, by the way, no specific persons are named, can be found on pages 14, 45 and 99 of the typescript about the Lomza district".
Well, we have to state that nothing is correct here. The documents contain not general remarks but specific descriptions, they are much more numerous and appear on many other pages as well, and they give specific information about specific persons. [an example follows.] There are more such examples. They prompt us to ask a question: How come in books and documents known to Gross there obviously are sources which his book says don't exist?
The absence of a discussion of Polish-Jewish relations under the Soviet occupation constitutes one of the greatest shortcomings of Gross's book. And these relations were very tense. The picture presented in the preserved Polish (and also some Jewish!) testimonies is rather dramatic: the humiliating treatment of Poles, denunciations to the NKVD, participation in the Soviet repressions of the "red militia" consisting of Jews from Jedwabne. There are also descriptions of the instances when Jews ripped off the clothes of their Polish - nomen-omen - neighbors who were being deported to Siberia. The problem seems to be truly important, and it cannot be limited merely to the distorted perception of the Poles. According to the latest findings of the Byelorussian historiography - based on the extant documents from the 1939-41 period - the Soviet administration, especially in the economic sector, contained a high percentage of Jews, sometimes exceeding 70%. It is worth remembering that often the Jews took over the positions of the arrested or deported Poles. Evgenii Rozenblat, a historian from Minsk, stated that the participation of the Jewish population in the establishment of the Soviet rule had been so substantial and visible that the definite increase of anti-Jewish sentiments among the Poles was only a consequence of their rejection of communism.
It seems that in the Lomza district - due to the highly developed national consciousness among the local Poles and the absence of other minorities - the Soviets relied heavily precisely on the Jewish population. In other parts of the Eastern Borderlands the situation was more complex (because of the interplay of three nations: Poles, Jews and Byelorussians/Ukrainians); here the subjective perception of reality was more distinct: we, the Poles, the conquered population; they, the communists, the persecutors and their helpers, Poland's traitors, the Jews. We know from numerous testimonies that, after the experiences of the years 1939-41, a substantial portion of Polish society simply seethed with hatred toward the Jews. It would be worthwhile to analyze what role such emotions have played in the minds of not only Poles, but also Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians after the arrival of the Germans.
I fully share the opinion that even the Jewish participation in Soviet repressions cannot be used as an excuse for the [Jedwabne] crime. But the point is not to "excuse" anybody. The duty of a historian is to investigate the circumstances which had taken place - chronologically and logically - before the described event. Otherwise any conclusions about the genesis of the events at Jedwabne will be left dangling in the air, without any serious scholarly foundations...
Many facts described by Gross can be considered dubious. In other cases, in which a cautious approach would be most advisable, ... the author of "Neighbors" uses presumptuously the words "probably" and "must have". Some of his statements seem to be just an outflow of ignorance or prejudice mixed up with a swarm of shallow stereotypes.
Such, for example, is the fragment on page 29, where (on the basis of another testimony of dubious value) the author states that in the prewar Jedwabne the parish priest accepted material benefits for stopping an impending - according to rumors - pogrom. The taking of tributes/bribes by Catholic priests (see the case of bishop Lukomski) became in Gross's book a sort of norm. However, it is worthwhile to quote the description of the method by which the author of "Neighbors" has verified this information:
"This episode fits perfectly into the norm of the Jewish fate ... the endangered community ... accepted as absolutely natural the fact that in such a situation the secular or religious powers had to be given protection money" (page 29).
Such proofs, i.e., the verification of facts through one's own imaginings, I consider incompatible with a sound historical methodology...
Other bits of information given by Gross are more serious. For example, on page 53 he holds that the town council of Jedwabne had... signed an agreement with the Germans re the murder of Jews. The source of this story is a relation of a person who had heard about it "from some people". This is not the first time that Gross presents sheer gossip instead of facts. What's interesting, he supports this practice with a thesis that the lack of better information about the whole thing shouldn't trouble us too much:
"Our ignorance about the precise content of the agreement doesn't make a big difference. Some kind of agreement between the Germans and the immediate organizers of the Jedwabne murder, that is, the town council, must have been concluded" (page 53).
A statement that something must have happened even though we know nothing about it does not fit even in the widest definition of scholarly methodology. Just like so many other yarns by Gross.
It is a platitude to say that Poles and Jews - as any two nations - differ from one another, if only by culture and religion. In Gross's historiography, however, these differences are much deeper: Different are the criteria of judgment, different are civic duties and different are responsibilities. This inequality holds even in the discussion about the common past... Ethnic criteria also apply to Gross's methodology: "...Our initial approach to every testimony coming from a near Holocaust victim should change from sceptical to affirmative. Simply because if we accept the fact that the contents of such a testimony have really happened, and that we are ready to acknowledge the error of such evaluation only after finding convincing proofs to the contrary, we will save ourselves from many more mistakes than the ones we have committed by taking the opposite stance." ("Neighbors", page 94.)
In short, a testimony from a Holocaust survivor has to be automatically trustworthy... Other testimonies - not so.
Gross's postulates run contrary to the most basic rules of the historian's craft. The latter insist on an objective analysis of each and every source, the ethnic origin of its author notwithstanding...
The inequality of the two nations in Gross's historical narrative is very obvious: Whatever bad has been done to Jews by some group of Poles, he turns this event into a universal paradigm, surrounded with quasi-religious theories and mystical judgments. In "Neighbors" we thus read about "the participation of the ethnically Polish population in the annihilation of Polish Jews" (page 95), and about "the responsibility of the Polish society for the magnitude of the crime of the Holocaust" (page 19)...
A completely different style of narrative applies to the other side. There are no simplistic generalizations or hasty moral verdicts there. There is no mention of collective responsibility, either. Every single motif which could become uncomfortable or not fit into the "oppressor-victim" dichotomy is either minimalized or completely skipped. Just like, for example, the question of Polish-Jewish relations in the Soviet-occupied Eastern Borderlands. And this is the rule in Gross's writing.
Already in "Upiorna dekada" he mentioned the issue of Jewish participation in the communist terror apparatus. This is a delicate question because, according to the available statistics, persons of Jewish origin constituted over 30 percent of the functionaries in the central office of the Ministry of Public Security. If Gross applied here the same tools which he applies to the Poles, this could turn into a horror (the responsibility of the Jewish society for the crimes of communism, etc.).
In this instance the author's approach is much more balanced: "The statement that a disproportionate number of Jewish Communists worked in the political police does not yield itself to a clear interpretation"("Upiorna dekada", page 93). Instead of trying to figure out the meaning of this, let's quote the final sentence of this argument: "In the light of this knowledge [i.e., the contemporary knowledge about communism, PG], therefore, to the question why Jewish Communists were present in the security apparatus, the only sensible answer may be: and why not?" ("Upiorna dekada", page 94). The very strange style of the narrative, combined with the evident lack of accountability for his words, makes numerous fragments of Gross's books ambiguous, unintelligible or totally devoid of any scholarly characteristics...
The picture painted in "Neighbors" is truly unsettling. It seems that the Poles are Nazi collaborators who sign an agreement with the Germans regarding the murder of Jews. The Germans want to save a few Jews but the Poles disagree and in a bestial way murder almost all their Jewish neighbors. And, generally speaking, the only place to provide shelter for the Jews against the bloodthirsty Polish mob was the Nazi gendarmerie post. In fact, there should be no question about the criminal nature of Poles, since their spiritual guidance was in the hands of Catholic priests. Gross mentions only two of them, and they are both common criminals...
The author of "Neigbors" has used an extremely poor and tendentiously chosen selection of sources, nor did he undertake a critical analysis; he constantly introduces into his books ill-founded statements and facts; he omits or mangles whatever doesn't fit his preconceived theses; he constructs a historical narrative on the basis of stereotypes, prejudices and common gossip; in his reasonings he doesn't observe the rules of logic and/or scholarly objectivity; finally, he pronounces arbitrary metaphysical-ideological opinions which have no scholarly basis whatsoever.
Because of all these shortcomings, Jan Tomasz Gross's book cannot form the foundation of any serious discussion about Polish history in general, and the crime in Jedwabne in particular.
Piotr Gontarczyk

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