HOMEPUBLICATIONSARTICLES"The Golden Harvest" – a review

"The Golden Harvest" – a review

In March of this year, publishing house Znak issued another book by Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska, titled “ The Golden Harvest “. The book is about what was happening at the edges of the extermination of the Jews. This book, just like its predecessors starting with “ The Neighbors “ and “ Fear “ inspired heated discussions, controversies and a great deal of interest.

Report on the Cracow promotion of the latest book by Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross.

There were multiple means used in the promotion of the book. Among these were: a live TV show with Tomasz Lis, a different show in the series “I have a different opinion”. Many articles in the press which were published ahead of the actual release of the book to the booksellers. Meetings with the authors and the ensuing discussions were also in vogue at the time. My review is that of a meeting organized by the publisher Znak on March 18, 2011 in the lecture hall of the Drama School in Cracow. Among the invited guests were: the authors of the book, dr. Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs -the director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University, father Adam Boniecki - the chief editor of the weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny”, Anna Bikont - the journalist of the “ Gazeta Wyborcza”. The moderator of the meeting was Janina Paradowska- the editor of the weekly “Polityka”. The exchange of views among the guests at the podium did not reveal any deep disagreements about the subject; however, participants in the auditorium were strongly polarized between supporters and opponents of the works of Jan Gross and specifically about his latest book. After courteously greeting the guests and the audience, the president of the publishing house Znak, Henryk Wozniakowski, editor Paradowska led off the meeting by asking: Why do we continue to scrutinize Jan Gross? Do we still know very little about our past?

Professor Jan Gross pointed out that before writing about the common Polish-Jewish history; he was conducting research about the history of Poles during the occupation. The subject of Jewish existence and coexistence in Poland during and after WW2 has been evolving in his mind for a long time and was a subject of a multi-year study. Studying Polish and Jewish history gave him a sense that the knowledge of common history is very important, that to Poles the fate of Jews is also very important and the challenge of writing about the common history requires that one eliminates artificial divisions leading to two separate narratives about that period. This approach would lead to a narrowing of the gap among various points of view and to a better mutual understanding. Poland was a multiethnic and multicultural country of many traditions. In contrast, monoethnicity was the preferred concept adopted by Hitler and Stalin. Another problem that has surfaced was how to gauge the range of antisemitic occurrences, was it the norm or just some isolated events? Were they numerous or just marginal occurrences?

Professor Irena Grudzińska-Gross argued that these events need to be viewed as the norm. The incidents of turning the Jews in to the Germans and therefore deriving from it some profit, as well as the incidents of murdering the Jewish neighbors were frequent. What is horrifying about this is that these incidents were overt and were not met with any condemnation or ostracism from the local population. Frequently these events occurred in villages and small towns with small populations where people knew each other. In such setting, stigmatizing and isolating those who committed these crimes as deviants or degenerates seems to have been an easy task. Paradoxically, however, that attitude which should have caused admiration for such noble position resulted instead in ostracism by local population. Those who cared and helped the Jews were forced to hide their activity and not to acknowledge it even after the war.

Their work, just as previous ones, has a historical dimension. It is a fact finding record of past events presented in a form of an essay. It also has a religious value - a tendency to deal with atonement and forgiveness. The fact that persecutions of Jews were not marginal events was highlighted by dr. Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs based on her own work with the Righteous Among the Nations. She has specifically isolated the different types of memory about the Holocaust using various investigative methods with a multidisciplinary approach to research the subject. She underlined the importance of the work done by Gross’ team to break up the historical mythology which did not take into account the experiences of Jews and Poles in which the suffering of Jews is hidden. The historical mythology created a black and white image in which one does not see the suffering of Jewish co-citizens thus trivializing and marginalizing the phenomenon of antisemitism and criminal behavior of some Poles toward the Jews.

Journalist Paradowska recognized how difficult it is for the Poles to accept that critical version of their history, especially since they were used to a romanticized and a messianic view of their past. In addition, they were used to a sense of being a tolerant society since it was evident by the fact that Poland was a place where the largest of Jewish populations has settled. One has to accept the fact that although the criminal behavior was mostly perpetrated by the villagers, however they are a part of the Polish society and that creates the feeling of being jointly responsible.

Anna Bikont underlined that Jews were not viewed by the population as co-citizens of Poland. Despite living in Poland for a very long time, they were not accepted into the community, they were just guests who stayed for a long time. Journalist Bikont underlines that crimes were perpetrated by citizens against other citizens and not against some foreigners.

The key question that seemed to be of great interest to the panel was the role of the church in shaping the Polish-Jewish relationship, in its attitude toward the older brothers in faith and eventually to its approach to the guilt related to Jews and their abandonment. Janina Paradowska described the topic for discussion by asking a few leading questions: what was the role of a parish priests in shaping the attitudes of the local population to providing help to Jews who were in danger and in need of a shelter? Metaphorically speaking, one asks the question: why weren’t the Jews running for shelter to the priest’s house? Why was it not a natural shelter? A place of safety where they could truly find a safe haven? Finally, what was the status of the Church as the mainstay of Polish character, the obligations that evolved from this national character and the specific responsibilities that the shepherds of faith derived as educators of people while at the same time wielding authority over the people? Rev. Boniecki gave an enigmatic answer: The parish priest was silent.

The answer does not indicate a moral surrender as was pointed out by Rev. Boniecki. It was instead a sign of a complicated situation. At times he said, silence was the best answer. At times the intervention of the priest could lead to results that were opposite of the intention. Sometimes, the noblest impulse of opposition to the acts of the Nazi’s did not guarantee success and at times may have been detrimental. As an example he cites the case of the appeal of the Dutch church on behalf of the Jews resulted in the repression against 40,000 Jews who were converts to Christianity in Holland. Similarly, the ambivalent attitude of Pope Pius XII was dictated by the concerns for those whom he otherwise would receive openly and without hesitation. It was therefore essential that the context and strategy for action was interrelated to anticipated consequences. The strategy called for maximum vigilance and cautiousness in all activities. Cardinal Sapiecha through his vigilance and cautiousness, avoiding any ostentatious actions, was able to organize help for Jewish families by generating false documents and by sheltering them in various convents. He also confronted the Nazi authorities including the General Governor Hans Frank in an outrageous manner accusing them in inebriating Polish youth with the goal of enticing them to commit acts against the Jews.

The chief editor of Tygodnik Powszechny tried to sensitize the audience to the difficulty of conducting research on this topic and of difficulties that researchers have to assume the responsibility for passing judgments on all clergy based on generalizations. He stated that all facts need to be discussed. Using abstractions removed from the context may completely distort the image of the clergy during that time. He said that one needs to take into account the circumstances even those that are difficult to grasp or measure (for example the peasant’s mentality which did not see any wrong in stripping a cadaver of his clothes or valuables since the deceased did not need any, while at the same time the lack of feelings of shame that the cadaver was being desecrated).

A different phenomenon among the Jews was the feeling of a hounded victim who had a distorted sense of reality in which he saw each Pole as a potential enemy and those who were giving help were saviors and angels. At the same time, there was the reality of a war which released from ethical control the lowest instincts. These were not necessarily motivated by the antisemitism and were not always directed against the Jews. The priests did not bless the murder of Jews or desecration of corpses. The parish was not a place to hide Jews because it would have been the first place the Germans would search. It was an act of caution rather than dislike of Jews. The church did organize help, was hiding Jews in convents or among trusted families. Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs pointed out that among those who were saved, the church and parishes are absent in their memories.

Jan Gross points out that denying access to the archives of the Vatican and of churches, prevents conducting the research on that topic. It is important to clarify all possible doubts about the role of the church because at that time, the church was the last bastion of morality and thus entailed great obligations and responsibilities.

The next topic of discussion was to understand: what was the purpose of the book written by the Gross’? Should it be treated as a historical work or as an essay whose purpose was of a journalistic nature? Jan Tomasz Gross denied that he was looking for a journalistic effect. He insisted that he wanted to show the ugly truth about people who do ugly things even if they do not need to do them. These people were not being punished for not persecuting and murdering Jews. The enthusiasm of Polish people who participated in the persecution of Jews cannot be explained by the fear of persecution by the Nazis. Many participants acted of their own free will. They derived satisfaction from catching a Jew and turning him in to the authorities. Receptions were held to honor such events with the participants in these events being lauded and not stigmatized. In contrast, the opposite behaviors such as helping a Jew were stigmatized. Many Poles who helped the Jews, were pleading with them not to divulge (even after the war) that they were helping them. Those heroes until today prefer to remain anonymous. They prefer not to talk about their actions, the choose to hide in anonymity.

Irena-Grudzinska Gross pointed out that there was a difference between the Poles and the Jews in their actions. The Poles had a choice, the Jews did not. The Poles had a choice of doing something good, helping, when helping was forbidden or to eagerly doing something bad even though doing so was not demanded by the Nazis. The proof of such a choice is shown in the diverse attitudes which led to the existence of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs pointed to the importance of this book to create a change in the Polish consciousness for which the whole problem of Polish-Jewish relationship, especially during and after the occupation is very challenging. The debate about books written by Prof. Gross is of great help to those who want to change that consciousness. Among those who are involved in this task are the researchers of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw (affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences), representatives Wspólnota Myślenice Association or the Lublin Association “Grodzka Gate – Theater NN”. To underline the importance of this problem, the Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University, referred to a great number of studies and work by Polish and foreign authors. Among those, she mentioned Professor Antoni Sułek who raised the hypothesis of rivalry of suffering during WW2. Using this concept it is easier to understand why Poles insist that they have been subjected to more suffering than any other nationality under the German occupier. This attitude leads to underrating or driving away from the memory the suffering of our Jewish co-citizens who were subjected to mass extermination.

Dr. Ambrosewicz also mentions that prof. Maria Janion has stated that the two biggest national tragedies that affected Poland were: the loss of our Slavonic identity and the muss murder of Jews after whom no one cried. We need to bear testimony to the memory of those who cannot testify for themselves. In our country, 80% of Jews have perished. This fact forces us to mourn says dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs.

Anna Bikont, in citing her own research about Jedwabne as well as research done by prof. Jan Grabowski about Dąbrowa Tarnowska, has emphasized the problem of choice between doing evil, being passive because of fear of Nazi repressions , or being helpful. The point is, that many who were forced to help the Nazis in repressing the Jews, have done it with great zealousness and with maximum effort. Rev. Boniecki agreed that the choice existed. He implied that the existence of choice may be the consequence of various attitudes which should be studied.

The moderator Janina Paradowska has asked: aren’t Poles fed up with flagellating themselves? Will the publication of the book cause a new wave of antisemitism? Prof. Irena-Grodzinska Gross answered that the intent for writing and publishing this book is to understand more, to modify the knowledge about WW2 and to better understand the events by a deeper analysis of the confrontation between the occupier and the occupied which creates conditions in which one person can benefit at the expense of someone else. The outcome of the confrontation is a complex event and difficult to study. The perspective of time will help to understand it better.

Summarizing the event, the journalist of Polityka asked: ”What have we learned from the Golden Harvest?” Dr. Ambrosewicz – Jacobs stated that the book is very important. It breaks down the taboo, it allows us to see the shadows that impact our fates, and it deconstructs various myths and demolishes the false images. If it causes a temporary rise in antisemitism, in the long run the new version of our memory will be accepted with the resulting increase in anti-antisemitism. In order for an increase of the awareness of the Holocaust, the future generations of teachers and educators must be given the essential knowledge in a systematic way produced by the researchers, added the the director of the Center for Holocaust Studies.

Anna Bikont pointed out that this new field of research until recently has been willfully ignored. It was acceptable to talk about the killings but not about plundering. This book is a step in direction of considering these new types of issues. Rev. Adam Boniecki added that Gross is touching raw nerves and can stir up a needed discussion even if he is at the “receiving end”. Irena Grudzinska-Gross sees her work as crossing the accepted boundary of permissible subjects to discuss. Since this is the first book that deals with difficult to discuss topics about what happened, it was likewise very difficult to write it. Jan Tomasz Gross pointed out that he faced difficult choices while writing the book. A historian knows how to react when he discovers terrible facts. He transfers his thoughts and knowledge onto the paper, thus achieving a sense of accomplishing his duty.

The discussion about the “Golden Harvest” will continue to generate strong emotions and certainly will sharply divide readers and all interested in the topic. Proof of the strengths of emotions was seen in the audience which listened to the discussion among the panelists in the theater hall of the Drama School in Cracow. Some attendees did not hide their outrage and were very irritated and impulsive. As it turned out, they were supporters of the League for the Defense of Sovereignty. They greeted the participants who were leaving the event with banners displaying the deserving merits of the Righteous Among the Nations. The frustration of the audience was also amplified by an obvious lack of an adversary as well as their inability to ask questions of the panelists. It is doubtful that conducting a discussion in a different format would change the minds of skeptics. I believe that a different format which was in place when "Fear" was discussed in Cracow would simply lead to rehash of same arguments, intensions to create accusations that question the substantiality of facts or present hard to verify facts based on personal experience which are at conflict with the stance taken by the Authors. There would have been a lot of invectiveness, accusations and impertinent, frequently personal allusions.

Lukasz Opozda

[The article is from the Open Political Science website www.polis.edu.pl , copyright: Pedagogic University in Cracow]

Lukasz Opozda is a graduate of the Institute of History at the Jagiellonian University, PhD student of the Instituteof European Studies at the Jagiellonian University; cooperates with the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Warsaw. Studies of interest: Polish opponents of European Integration, extreme right organizations, antisemitism, cultural aspects of European integration, tolerance, stereotypes and prejudice, xenophobia. Published among others in: European Forum, Pro Futuro, Episteme and various post conference materials.