Chodakiewicz: People’s past has to be reviewed critically on individual basis

Another scientist working across the Atlantic ocean, historian Marek Chodakiewicz does not agree with the theses of Professor Jan T. Gross. His book titled “Po Zagładzie” (After the Holocaust) also appeared recently in Polish bookshops 

Rz: What is your disagreement with Professor Gross? 

Marek Chodakiewicz, a historian: I agree with him that anti-Semitism was ubiquitous. But it was universal not only in Poland, but all over the world. Only in 1960s when the cultural paradigm was redefined, a more favorable attitude arose toward minorities. 

Does the fact that back in those days in Europe there was anti-Semitic public feeling, justifies the fact that after WWII, as Professor Gross put it, we would murder our Jewish neighbors? 

We murdered? I did not participate in that. We should ask Professor Gross to avoid collectivistic generalizations. I assume that an individual has a free will. And if the individual has a free will that implies that I can be a murderer or an angel or someone in between. And only I bear responsibility for that.

Let me invoke a shocking example. Would Professor Gross state that the Jews murdered themselves on the basis of undeniable fact that quarter of a million inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto were assembled and delivered to Umschlagplatz by the Jewish police? Does it imply that the Jews exterminated other Jews? This would be a kind of madness. People’s past has to be reviewed critically on an individual basis. Based upon the sources at our disposal it is not possible to put forward and defend a scientific hypothesis as Gross did, namely that Polish Roman Catholics continued the Holocaust because of their savage anti-Semitism. There were people who murdered Jews due to savage anti-Semitism, but there were others who did that because a Jew had a nice pair of shoes. How would you classify that? 

As a robbery. But don’t you think that these two things could go together? 

Certainly I do not rule out that the bandit could be also an anti-Semite. But under those circumstances it did not matter. When you are a fan of the Polonia Football Club and you have negative opinion about the fans of the Legia Football Club then it does not mean that you are bound to set up a team immediately to murder all Legia fans. You can shout something at them, throw a stone, but you will not kill them. You can share a negative stereotype that all Afro-Americans are potential rapists of white women. But does it imply that you are obligated to hang them immediately on the trees? Cultural stereotypes have always been with us. But they are not the factors determining mass murder. The same was true about a belief that the Jews kill children to make matzos. This belief existed for hundreds of years, but before the arrival of the national socialists with their neopagan, „scientific” anti-Semitism, there was no murdering [of Jews] in Poland for that reason. 

However, in the city of Kielce people killed Jews, without following the teachings of Darwin or „Mein Kampf,” but on the grounds of a rumor that the Jews kidnapped a Christian boy. 

This was a pretext. Before WWII neither the National Democratic Party, nor any other party that invoked anti-Jewish sentiments mentioned matzo and blood. Rather, this belief functioned at the folk level. Once I researched folklore in central Poland before and during WWII. At that time, for example, common folk believed that when the moon turned red that it meant that a fratricide lived there. Or if a woman with messy hair went by a cow, then one had to throw stones at her, otherwise milk may turn sour in the cow’s udder. And certainly another belief was that the Jews killed children to make matzos, whereas the Gypsies caught children in big bags. All such beliefs have to be assessed against the background of the strange folklore that the poor, uneducated people used to explain the outside world to themselves. 

However, nobody murdered anybody because of messy hair. 

Let me repeat: after the war the issue of „matzo made of blood” became a substitute discourse, a pretext. One was not allowed to say publicly that Poland was under Soviet occupation. People were not allowed to hold any debates about communism, nor talk about Jewish participation in the communist movement. But there were other stereotypes, especially the stereotype of Jewish communists. It was enough that there was a single guy called Różański (a high ranking secret policeman of Jewish origin known for sadism – editor’s note), who was widely known, to allow the people to disregard the fact that 99 percent of the secret policemen at the county level were ethnic Poles. However, they were also ordinary bandits, people from the lower classes of the society who were not considered to be Poles, but rather traitors, peripheral people. So only Jews were left and consequently a stereotype of Jewish communists took shape. 

So these people were killed because other members of their ethnic group supported communism? 

Let me repeat once again that the Jews were killed for various reasons. Let me give you an example. A certain Jew who died in 1945 was considered to be a victim of Polish anti-Semites. I decided to check that and it turned that the guy fell down from a truck driven by a drunken Soviet man. If we used Gross research method, then in the statistics of victims of anti-Semitism you could even find a Jewish secret policeman who headed an expedition of the NKVD (Soviet secret Police – translator’s note) against the insurgents in the forest. He was shooting at the „Bury“ unit of the National Military Union and he „died on the field of glory”. 

So do you believe that Gross uses an erroneous research method? 

With reference to Poles he deploys precisely the same negative stereotypes he warns against in case of Jews. For reasons unknown he applies totally different yardsticks for these two national groups. I have to emphasize that I am not putting forward any charges against him. It is his book, and though Jan Tomasz Gross does not disclose it, it is a polemic with my book Po Zagładzie (After the Holocaust) published in 2003 (since yesterday available in the Polish bookshops, published by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) – editor’s note). 

What makes your book different from „Fear”? 

Gross, unlike me, believes that a detailed investigation, an analysis, and an examination of individual cases, in order to obtain a general picture, do not make sense. He has an a priori thesis about ubiquitous, bloodthirsty Polish anti-Semitism. This is post-modernism, which I reject. In one of critical reviews of my book in USA I was accused that I am „naively empirical”, because I constantly search in archives for some documents, and I ignore theory. 

With regard to the Kielce pogrom do you also disagree with the vision presented by Professor Gross? 

Gross applied the flawed paradigm of Jedwabne to Kielce. According to him it was an anarchic pogrom where Poles would run up and down the entire Kielce searching for Jews. My research showed that the pogrom was limited to the district of Planty, whereas in other parts of the city two or three acts of violence were recorded, viz. kidnapping and murdering a woman with a child and some murder near the railway station. 

If it was not an anarchic pogrom, then it was organised. By whom? 

In this case I can pose only certain questions. I can mention what was not written by Gross. Namely the communist authorities almost immediately created a cordon, i.e., limited the violence to the Planty district. It was extraordinary, because it was enough to enter the district, open fire at the participants of the pogrom and immediately there would be an end to the pogrom 

Another point: In a house in the Planty district where the Jewish committee was located and where the Jewish community lived there were two staircases. And the pogrom leaders who included militiamen and soldiers strangely enough forced their way up only the staircase which led to the housing units inhabited by ordinary Jews. Meanwhile the second staircase led to the housing units of the Jewish families whose members worked for the Polish [Communist] Workers‘ Party, Secret Police and militia. Nobody even touched them. And the communists had a military division nearby, they could have stopped everything. The sentries manning the military cordon refused the priests through as the latter tried to reach people to calm them down. This is just a handful of suggestions regarding the question whether it was indeed an anarchistic pogrom carried out by a raging crowd of Polish anti-Semites. 

Even if it was a set-up, then the set-up must be carried out in circumstances conducive to violence. You cannot provoke people to do something that they would not like to do. 

On this matter interesting studies were carried out on the topic of the so called psychosis of the mob. The findings are very enlightening. It turns out that most of the participants join riots, hardly knowing why and in what they participate. 

What picture of Polish-Jewish relationships right after WWII is shown by your book? 

A nuanced one. Firstly I depict a broad setting, which is the Soviet occupation and ongoing anti-Soviet uprising, which is a continuation of the anti-German uprising. While I researched this conflict I found documentary evidence to prove that under various circumstances about 700 people of Jewish origin died. 

Professor Jan Gross writes about, at least, 1500 people. 

He repeats a contrived number. At the moment we have only arrived at the stage of establishing fundamental facts. We even do not know how many Poles died during WWII. Thus the offerings of Professor Gross qualify as a cultural phenomenon rather than scholarship. 

But perhaps Polish mythicized, black and white historiography needs such a bucket of cold water thrown into face... 

There is mythology in all histories. Researchers in history – in contrast to propagandists – usually eschew mythological hero worship. On the contrary, in most cases they are self-disciplined and they try to describe the past in a calm and realistic manner. However, the question is what historical vision should be conveyed to the average representative of the intelligentsia. Let’s take the aforementioned „Bury” as an example. One could describe how he fought the Germans and the communists, and then fail to mention that he also shot down some defenseless Byelorussian cart drivers. I believe that the textbook on history should include everything. Meanwhile Professor Gross and his colleagues would like us to write only about the executed cart drivers. 

Which is the opposite of a blindly patriotic approach? 

Exactly. Certainly one could write a history of America focusing exclusively on slavery, persecution of the Blacks and women, and on anti-Semitism. But would it be a picture of genuine America? These people propose to replace, on the one hand, the communist propaganda and, on the other, the stereotypes maintained to cheer people’s hearts during the communist occupation with the opposite stereotypes. These are deceptively similar to the Stalinist propaganda that all Poles are nasty fascists and anti-Semites. And that the expiation for sins has to follow on our knees, we have to admit that we were bad and nasty and that we can be only redeemed by progress. This is not history but propaganda. 

Piotr Zychowicz, Rzeczpospolita, 31 January 2008


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