Jan Tomasz Gross (photo: Princeton University)
Polish–American historian and Professor at
Princeton University, Jan T. Gross played a crucial role in the process of
dealing with the past and countering distortion of the Holocaust with his
seminal books, Neighbors: The Destruction
of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, 2001); Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after
Auschwitz (Random House, 2006), and Golden
Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (co-authored with Irena
Grudzińska-Gross, Oxford University Press, 2012).
Jan T. Gross researched previously neglected
topics. Each of his books represents a different facet of the debate.
In Neighbors—which first was published in
the Polish language in 2000, and the next year in English—Gross describes an
anti-Jewish pogrom that occurred on 10 July, 1941 in Jedwabne, a small town in
Eastern Poland. Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and surrounding villages began
to herd Jews from the town to the market square. There, the Jews were beaten
and humiliated, and several of them killed. Later, all of the Jews who remained
in the market square were rushed to a single barn, which was then soaked in
paraffin and set alight. Germans were in the town, but did not directly
participate in the pogrom.
in Jedwabne (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Gross sparked a national discussion on the relationship between Jews and their
Christian neighbours, antisemitism, and wartime violence against Jews in Poland
and in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. The book also draws attention to
the story of an ordinary community in the circumstances of war, destruction and
brutalisation (Polish society itself was ruthlessly occupied by Nazi Germany
during the Second World War).
The debate divided Polish society deeply, and
the book was met with both positive and negative reactions. Hundreds of
anti-Gross publications appeared in subsequent years. Distorters accused Gross
of generalisation, exaggeration of the facts, anti-Polonism and of being unacademic.
They expressed competitive victim claims by emphasising the facts of ethnic
Poles’ suffering during the Second World War, denied the participation of
ethnic Poles in anti-Jewish violence and focused exclusively on German guilt in
the Jedwabne pogrom (selective negation).
Nevertheless, the Polish government commissioned an
investigation led by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which
confirmed that Poles had participated directly in the pogrom.
journalist, Anna Bikont conducted her own investigations and interviewed
residents of Jedwabne; in 2004, she published the book, My z Jedwabnego (‘Jedwabne: Battlefield of Memory’).
(Jewish and Christian) schoolchildren with their teachers, Jedwabne, Poland,
Wikimedia commons, source: Jewish Historical Institute)
The theatre production, Nasza klasa (‘Our Class’) about a group of Polish and Jewish
classmates and neighbours in Jedwabne since 1925 was written by Tadeusz
Słobodzianek and performed in Polish theatres. It was the first play to discuss
Jedwabne’s atrocity and was inspired by Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors.
Neighbors inspired similar debates in other
parts of Eastern Europe, including in Romania, Moldova and Lithuania—although
their historical contexts differed. In 2012, Moldovan writer, Nicoleta
Esinencu—who had learned of the Holocaust in her home country while in her late
twenties in Germany—wrote and presented her play, Clear History about Romanian dictator and ally of Hitler, Ion
Antonescu and the tragic fate of the Jews and the Roma people under his rule.
Photos: Archive of theatre “Spalatorie”,
Moldovan historian Diana Dumitru who wrote her
book about the role of local population in the Holocaust in Romania “The
State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of
Romania and the Soviet Union” (2018) said that she was inspired by Jan T. Gross’
writings and in particular his book ‘Neigbours’.
Lithuania, a famous Nazi-hunter and descendent of Holocaust victims, Efraim
Zuroff and a writer and descendent of Nazi collaborators, Rūta Vanagaitė
jointly researched and published the book, Our
People. Discovering Lithuania's Hidden Holocaust about the role of locals
in the mass murder of Jews and Lithuanian officials’ attempts to conceal the
complicity of local collaborators.
photographs: Professor Jan T. Gross sharing his experience of Polish debates
with Moldovan academics, students and members of civil society. Chisinau, 2017.
A series of events was organised by the NEVER AGAIN Association with the
support of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Moldova (photographs: NEVER AGAIN).
In 2017, NEVER AGAIN and
its partners translated and published the book, Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (2011) by
Jan T. Gross into the Russian and (partially) Romanian languages. The book
discusses the story of Polish peasants who scavenged for gold teeth and other
treasures from the ashes of the murdered Jews at Treblinka death camp. It is a
story of hatred, persisting antisemitism and greed. More: NEVER AGAIN support
Holocaust awareness in Eastern Europe. The translated book was
launched in Moldova. It aimed to inspire the Moldovan public to discuss its own
history more critically.
In the photograph: Moldovan history teacher,
Natalia Caraion from Olanesti presenting flowers to Professor Jan T. Gross
during his book presentation.
Listen to Jan T. Gross’ lecture at Moldova
State University (in English):
Lecture of Jan T. Gross at Moldova State University (with introduction of Rafał Pankowski), 14.09.17 Watch
Jan T. Gross’ presentation at the conference organised by the Liberation War
Museum (Bangladesh) and NEVER AGAIN:
debate revealed the complexity of the Holocaust perpetrated on Polish soil by
Germans, when Poles held a variety of attitudes to the Jewish fate, ranging
from compassion through indifference to hatred.
debate also contributed to changing Polish understanding of the Second World
War and of society's need to remember the Holocaust from the perspective of its
debate contributed to reconciliation between Poles and Jews in post-Communist
Poland. Many Poles began to look critically at aspects of their past and
debate increased the number of initiatives directed at constructing a pluralist
and historically conscious society in Poland.
Questions for Critical
1. How do human
relations change in wartime, and what impact can it have on minorities?2. How can new research be helpful in
the process of dealing with the past and how can it contribute to critical
debates? What challenges might that entail?2. What would such a debate mean in
Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, with their diverse populations and where
there are many ‘neighbours’? Can such a debate
counter distortion of the Holocaust and other atrocities?