Sociologist, political scientist and historian; lives in the United States. Author of Neighbours. The Destruction of Jewish Community in Jedwabne and Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Born on August 1, 1947 in Warsaw.
In his writings, Jan Tomasz Gross treats the subject of Poland's most recent history, also through the broader scope of Central and Eastern Europe. Over the last decade two books by the author have been devoted to the Polish-Jewish relationships have given rise to nationwide historical debate.
These debates concerned sensitive issues that have been repressed from the collective memory - issues which have proved difficult to deal with, yet which have brought along a number of important and constructive standpoints. Some of those involved in the debates targeted not the books, but rather the author himself. Instead of focusing on the polemics of the works, they have been aimed at discrediting the writer himself by questioning his Polish origins, loyalty towards his homeland, searching for gaps in his biography, his academic background, honesty and independence in terms of research in order to challenge the credibility of his writings.
Gross was born on August 1, 1947 in Warsaw His father, Zygmunt Gross, an attorney-at-law who was renowned for courageous defence of such important figures as Władysław Bartoszewski and Stanisław Mierzwa. His father, who was born into a family of assimilated Jews living in Kraków, was also an activist for the Polish People's Party at political trials during the Stalinist era, later an associate professor of law at the Polish Academy of Sciences, as well as an avant-garde composer. His mother, Hanna née Szumańska was born into a family of gentry, was a liaison at the Information and Propaganda Bureau of the Central Headquarters of the Home Army, and after the war worked as a translator of classical French literature. She saved a number of Jews from extermination, including her future husband. Her first husband, Stanisław Wertheim, editor of one of the Information and Propaganda Bureau's newspapers, was shot at the Pawiak prison after being denounced by the caretaker.
During his first year at secondary school Jan Gross - together with Adam Michnik, who was a year older - established an interschool Club of the Contradiction Seekers, which was of a self-taught character, affiliated with the Crooked Circle Club. Similarly to the Crooked Circle Club, it contested the political system of the People's Republic of Poland. In 1965 he entered the University of Warsaw; studied physics for a year, and then moved to the sociology department. Gross belonged to many informal discussion groups and seminars run by dissident professors outside the university. They produced many future leaders of students protests and activists of the democratic opposition. Gross belonged to a group of commandos, who opposed the monopole of the official youth organizations in shaping academic life. In January 1968 he participated in the manifestation organised after the final show performance Adam Mickiewicz's The Forefathers at the National Theatre, following its censorship by the government. He was among the initiators of the University of Warsaw students' rally organized on March 8, 1968 in support for Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer, expelled from the university for political reasons. Later, Gross was one of the leaders of the student protest movement.
He was imprisoned for five months for participating in the events of March'68. In his well-documented monograph devoted to the commandos, Andrzej Friszke shows that Gross behaved impeccably during the investigation and trial (Anatomia buntu / The Anatomy of Rebellion, Kraków 2010), whereas during the debate over the book Neighbours critics accused Gross of informing on his friends during the trial. In 1969 Gross and his parents emigrated to the United States in order to escape anti-Semitic persecution.
Jan Tomasz Gross earned his PhD in 1975 from Yale University in New Haven. He worked as an assistant professor at the Yale University until 1984 in the field of Social Studies and Soviet Studies. From 1984 to 1992 he was a Professor of Social Science at the Emory University in Atlanta, and from 1992 to 2003 of Political Science and European Studies at New York University. Gross has been awarded scholarships by the Fullbright, Guggenheim, Hoover and Rockefeller Foundations. He has also served as visiting professor at the most prestigious American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia, as well as universities in Paris, Vienna, Kraków and Tel-Aviv. Since 2003 Gross has been working as a Professor of History at Princeton University, where specialises in the history of the World Wars of the 20th Century.
In his scientific research and lectures, Gross has focused on the issues of Poland and Central Europe. In the United States this subject has not been a priority in historical studies, however, thanks to Gross's commitment Polish studies have been present at four large American universities for 35 years. Gross wrote his PhD dissertation on Polish society and underground state under the Nazi occupation. Then, he conducted unprecedented research on the so called Anders's collection (named for the Lieutenant-General Władysław Anders, born August 11, 1892 and died May 12, 1970, who served as a General in the Polish Army and later in life a politician with the Polish government-in-exile in London) in the archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, which consists of documents of the Polish Army in the East and diplomatic agencies of the London-based Polish government in the Soviet Union. On their basis, Gross described the 1939 invasion and subsequent sovietisation of the Eastern territories of the Second Republic of Poland. Published by prestigious university publishers, two of his books devoted to Poland under two occupations were pioneers on the American market of historical publications. Gross and his wife Irena Grudzińska-Gross published documents selected from the Hoover Institution archives (memories of Polish children deported to the Soviet Union and testimonies of the soldiers of the Anders Army – former exiles to Siberia,) in a moving book W czterdziestym nas matko na Sibir zesłali / In 1940, Mother, They Sent Us to Siberia. Its London edition was distributed by the Polish underground in 1980s. The children's memories were also used by Gross in his book written in English about war seen through the children's eyes. These works brought him a great (but short-lived) recognition among Polish-Americans.
As there was a lack of contact with his home country, Gross kept in touch with the circle of March'68 Polish emigrants. In 1984 he co-established the emigrant political quarterly Anex. In 1976 he launched fundraising efforts to help the workers in Radom and Ursus. He supported the Workers' Defence Committee - KOR and published several articles in the American press regarding Polish democratic opposition. Gross' writings were published in Anex and samizdat collections. After 1989 he visited Poland on numerous occasions. He participated in Polish academic life and at that time his academic background raised no disputes among the Polish historians. In 1996 Gross was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit from the Republic of Poland (awarded to foreign citizens as Gross did not hold a Polish passport at that time). In 2009 he received the official approval of his Polish citizenship, which had been illicitly revoked in 1969 by the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland.
In the mid-1980s, Gross started to explore the history of Polish Jews. As he averred in Upiorna dekada / Ghastly Decade, he had omitted this subject in his earlier works devoted to the German and Soviet occupations. In 1986 he published an essay in Anex (no. 41 – 42) entitled Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej... ale go nie lubię / This One Comes From My Homeland …But I Do Not Like Him. In this essay, Gross touched upon the subject of anti-Semitism common among the Poles during the war who regarded the Jews as the 'others'. Such attitudes followed those exhibited by the Germans during the genocides of World War II. He also described the informers and collaborators with the Nazi, pejoratively called szmalcownik, who put so many more lives in danger in return for cash and goods. Half a year after Gross's publication, Jan Błoński published an essay devoted to similar issues - albeit less radical in judgement in comparison with that of Gross - entitled Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto / Poor Poles Looking at the Ghetto (Tygodnik Powszechny, January 11, 1987). Błoński's publication stirred heated discussions within Poland, while few readers had access to the emigrant periodical Gross' text was published in. The essay was later published in 1998 as a collection. The volume, entitled Ghastly Decade also consisted of two other essays. Ja za takie oswobodzenie im dziękuję i proszę ich, żeby to był ostatni raz / I Thank Them For Such a Liberty and Ask Them Not To Do It Again, describing the reactions of the Jewish community to the so-called first Soviet occupation (1939 – 1941) and revising the opinions of the Jews as cordially welcoming the Soviet's invasion of Poland and their collaboration with the Communists. Cena strachu / The Cost of Fear was about ant-Semitic incidents in post-war Poland and Jewish defence strategies.
In 2000 Gross published a book entitled Neighbours. The Destruction of Jewish Community in Poland. On July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne near Łomża the Jews were summoned or brought by force to the market square of the town. After a few hours of insults and physical violence, first a smaller group consisting of mostly young and strong men was brought outside town, and then the remaining Jews were also sent outside town to the fields near the Jewish cemetery. The first group was murdered with knives and sticks. The other Jews were urged into a barn and burned alive. The perpetrators were Poles from Jedwabne and nearby villages. Two weeks before the massacre took place, the town had moved from Soviet hands into to German. However, on that particular day there were only several military officers in town who did not take any action. A day before, a few officers had arrived in town who most probably incited the Polish inhabitants to undertake the massacre and promised them impunity. The property of the murdered Jews was plundered, and their houses taken. Similar pogroms took place in other towns in the Łomża region. Gross also described another pogrom in nearby Radziłów on July 7, 1941.
In a review from American trade magazine Publishers Weekly, Deborah E. Lipstadt writes:
Rarely does a small book force a country to confront some of the more sordid aspects of its history. Jan T. Gross's Neighbors did precisely that. Gross exposed how in 1941 half the Polish inhabitants of the town of Jedwabne brutally clubbed, burned and dismembered the town's 1,600 Jews, killing all but seven.The book was greeted with a terrible outcry in Poland. A government commission determined that not only did Gross get the story right but that many other cities had done precisely the same thing. Now Gross has written Fear, an even more substantial study of postwar Polish anti-Semitism. This book tells a wartime horror story that should force Poles to confront an untold - and profoundly terrifying - aspect of their history. Fear' relates, in compelling detail, how Poles from virtually all segments of society persecuted the poor, emaciated and traumatised Holocaust survivors. Those who did not actually participate in the persecution, e.g., Church leaders and Communist officials, refused to use their influence to stop the pogroms, massacres and plundering of the Jews.
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The Institute of National Remembrance in Poland instituted proceedings regarding the Jedwabne massacre and after two years confirmed Gross's main findings: the Poles were the main oppressors who acted in line with the encouragement and permission of the Germans. Further research performed by the historians of the Institute of National Remembrance showed that aside the massacres in Jedwabne and Radziłów in summer 1941, the pogroms and mass murders of Jews took place in more than twenty towns in the Łomża and Podlasie regions. The local Polish citizens participated in all of them. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the massacre, the Polish authorities organized a celebration. On the spot of the execution, a monument was unveiled and President Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologized in front of international participants for the massacre on behalf of those whose hearts are affected by it. The issues raised by Gross in Neighbours have been the subject of a general debate and controversy that has continued over the years.
In 2008 Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz was published. According to Gross, the reasons for the post-war outbreak of a violent anti-Semitism among the Poles was the sense of guilt for their attitude towards the extermination of Jews during the war and the fact that they benefited from it in a material sense. Many Poles took over Jewish property. Polish society was infected by Nazi ideology (there is no place for Jews here) and practice (Jews can be chased away and murdered). Fear offers an analysis of various signs of hatred towards the Jews, including pogroms, describing the huge massacre that took place on July 4, 1946 in Kielce, when 41 people were murdered. Most of the facts that Gross reinterprets have already been described in other historical materials. What is new here is the reconstruction of the post-war experiences of Jews, the majority of whom emigrated from Poland. Some have criticised Fear for limiting its scope to anti-Semitic incidents in a narrow analysis of the reasons behind the post-war outbreak of anti-Semitism and for its seemingly groundless generalisations. And yet, many have admitted that the subject is worth discussing. The debate, however, was dominated by an attitude of justification, such as These were the Jews who persecuted Poles through the Polish Communist Secret Police - UB and a strategy of invalidation: It is not about the historical truth but the basis for the reclaim of Jewish property. There was even a complaint lodged against Fear as being 'anti-Polish', however, the Public Prosecutor's Office dismissed it as groundless.
Gross' next book, written in collaboration once again with his wife Irena Grudzińska-Gross was published by the Znak publishing house in March 2011 in Poland. According to the publisher, Golden Harvest is a compelling and striking story of human greed. Written as a historical essay, it gives an account of peasants who pillaged the mass graves of Jews buried at the sites of historical pogroms, such as Treblinka. The book was inspired by a photograph of a group of men standing before a great pile of human bones. According to Gross, we see a bunch of peasants standing atop a mount of ashes. These are the human ashes of 800,000 Jews gassed and cremated in the Treblinka extermination camp between July 1942 and October 1943. The claim is that the men were digging through the remains in order to find any valuables that the Nazi executioners may have overlooked. The book alleges that many Poles profited from robbing the graves of massacred Jews in the decades following the war, which has inspired another wave deal of controversy and protest, particularly from Poles and Polish-Americans who refute this version of events, calling it false propaganda that not only vilifies Poles, but also fuels restitution claims from Jewish survivors. The American edition was published in March 2012 by Oxford University Press.
Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk commented on the controversy soon after its publication, saying "The Germans got rid of the ashes, thereby ridding themselves of the guilt and cleansing themselves. We had lived with the Jews for centuries and now we live with their ashes, with their spirits, and this is how it will be until the end of the world. It is quite possible that we will never come to terms with it."
Andrzej Kaczyński, January 2010. Edited by Agnieszka Le Nart, February 2011. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, February 2011.
Jan Tomasz Gross
Jan Tomasz Gross
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