Before it was even published, Jan Tomasz Gross' Fear incited fears that Poland's reputation in the world would be tarnished based on the book's reinforcement of stereotypes of Poles as anti-Semites
Polish Cover of On Fear by Jan Tomasz Gross
The anticipation of Fear created a neurosis of sorts in both literary, political and social spheres across the country and the Polish diaspora all over the world. The Polish edition of the book was released in 2008 under the title Anti-Semitism in Poland Shortly After the War. History of a Moral Collapse - a year and a half after the release of the book in the United States. The English-language version replaced "after the war" with "after Auschwitz", already giving it a sharper undertone. Still, the U.S. subtitle "An Essay in Historical Interpretation" was admittedly more neutral. Yet in many ways, the Polish edition proved on the surface more controversial than the original - to begin with, it did not include the introductory chapter describing general situation in the post-war Poland. The author considered it unnecessary since it covered issues obvious for Poles. However, having been accused of not providing adequate context for the described events, Gross came to a conclusion that he overestimated how well Polish readers were informed of wartime and post-war circumstances.
The book picks up where Gross' Neighbors left off. His historical examination starts off from the question of why Poles who had saved Jews from extermination during the war were still trying to keep their actions secret after the war had ended. Jan Tomasz Gross, in reading testimonies of those who were saved, couldn't understand such a contradiction. He came to the conclusion that it was fear that weighed upon post-war relations between Jews and Poles. Both sides were susceptible to these fears. Jews feared returning to their old towns, because there was neither place, nor tolerance for them. "So, you are still alive?" is what they heard as a welcome when they returned, laced with a distinctive tone of disappointment.
They feared to lay claim to their houses, already occupied and adapted by their former neighbours. They feared to demand their possessions, because somebody else owned them. They feared to leave their hometowns by trains because Jews were often chased away from the carriage, without their luggage, opting for more unfamiliar, but surely more safe, settlements in the regained territories, often many miles from home.
Poles, as Gross states, feared to lose the so-called post-Jewish property they'd acquired. The author highlights the fact that this term was also applied to property owned by those Jews who survived the war, came back to their hometowns and could lay claim to their possessions. In theory…Fear of their appalling deeds being brought to light was sensed by the blackmailers, denouncers, and collaborators with the enemy forces, pejoratively called szmalcowniks. However, the historian claims that anxiety was expressed by a larger number of Poles, who did not offer help or remained indifferent towards the extermination. For them, living Jews were evidence of their crimes, witnesses. To confirm his theory, Gross quotes Tactitus: "It belongs to human nature to hate those, whom you have injured".
The author of Fear provides various signs of anti-Semitism. The spontaneous reactions of people towards their neighbors, who'd been miraculously saved. Discriminatory practices at official institutions. Instinctive dislike observed in children. Violence, robbery, rape common at that time. Sudden bursts of hatred: anti-Jewish rallies in Kraków and Rzeszów, or the pogrom in Kielce on July 6, 1946, where forty persons were killed. And the society's inappropriate, according to Gross, response to the events in Kielce, in particular from the side of the Catholic Church hierarchy. What is more, the author also analyses the stereotype of so-called żydokomuna, or "Judeo-communism", which is used as an excuse for hatred. Gross attempts to prove that it is nothing else but a groundless myth.
The public debate has not been as heated as the one sparked off after the publication of Neighbors. However, substantial criticism provided by historians, who both approved and disapproved of Gross's book, was published in a fair-sized book Wokół 'Strachu'" / "On 'Fear' released in 2008 by the Kraków-based publisher Znak.
Those in opposition to the book joined forces and pronounced him the main agent of Jewish anti-Polonism. They lodged a notice of offence to the public prosecutor for "slander against the Polish nation". However the public prosecutor found no grounds to institute the proceedings. As a counterbalance Fear, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance published a book by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, a historian living in the United States, entitled Po Zagładzie" / "After the Holocaust. At the book's promotional events, Chodakiewicz claimed that Gross does not belong to the world of science but to that of pop culture, comparing him to controversial singers like Poland's Doda. The Chairman of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, Janusz Kurtyka, called the author of Fear a vampire of historiography. A journalist for Radio Maryja and the Nasz Dziennik daily, Jerzy Robert Nowak made a great tournée around the country parading his disdain of Gross. The Kraków Metropolitan Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, who publicly criticised Znak for publishing the book, organised his own rallies at churches and parish houses, during which anti-Semitic manifestations took place.
The most serious response to Fear, postponed in time out of necessity, were scientific research on post-war anti-Semitism conducted by, among others, the Centre for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Books confirming and describing Gross' premise are also in the works, by the likes of Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski.
Author: Andrzej Kaczyński, February 2011. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, March 2011.