Jan Tomasz Gross
I received an email asking me what I think of Jan Tomasz Gross.
Gross is, of course, the author of "Neighbors," about the massacre in of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne, German-occupied Poland, in 1941, and "Fear," about the pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in 1946. "Neighbors" and "Fear" received a huge amount of attention in the American press and on college campuses. These did what Gross did not: they used the tragedies to label all Poles as bestial monsters unlike anyone else on planet earth. I cover this ground thoroughly in my book "Bieganski."
I've never met Prof. Gross, and I'm not privy to any intimate details about him. Everything I know about him I know from the public record, available to anyone.
First, Gross was born a Pole.
And I must pause to comment.
People like to compliment me, or, alternately, to insult me, by referring to me as a Pole. Some of those same people would never refer to Jan Tomasz Gross as a Pole.
Funny, isn't it?
I was born in the US of a Slovak-born mother. In many ways I am a typical American. I listen to Bruce Springsteen and drink coca-cola and wear jeans. Thanksgiving, not Wigilia, was the biggest holiday in my childhood home. I had to study Polish as a foreign language, and I speak it poorly, not at all as well as I speak French or other foreign languages I've spoken. And, as for the "Catholic" part of "Polish Catholic" – don't get me started. Look at any opinion poll of how American Catholics feel about the church sex abuse crisis, women priests, teachings on homosexuality, and church attendance, and you will find me.
To the identity politicians, though, I am, for better or for worse (never is this information neutral), a Pole.
Though Jan Tomasz Gross was born in Warsaw, and speaks Polish as a first language, many identity politicians, again, for better or for worse, insist on identifying Gross as a "Jew," and not as a Pole.
Those identity politicians who love Jews and hate Poles compliment Gross by labeling him a Jew. Only a Jew, they insist, is smart enough to write reliably about Polish-Jewish relations. Only a Jew, they insist, is ethical enough. Only a Jew is compassionate enough to care about the victims of Jedwabne or Kielce. Only a Jew could educate Poles about how bestial they are.
This is all pretty absurd, given Gross' Polish identity. But stuff like this was published in mainstream American newspapers; stuff like this was clung to by the anti-Polonists in the Ivory Tower. Gross is good because Gross is a Jew, not a Pole.
On the other side of the identity politics divide you have those who wish to insult Gross by calling him a Jew. Only a Jew, they insist, would attempt to cash in on Poland's darkest hour by selling books about those tragic days. Only a Jew, they insist, would wreak this vengeance on Poland. Only a Jew would be so crafty as to try to pull the wool over the reader's eyes as Gross does.
All this identity politics is trash. The ethical, aware person will reject it.
In any case, those who wish to insult or compliment Gross by labeling him a Jew or a Pole can't get around the fact that he was born in Warsaw to a Polish mother and a Polish-Jewish father. Gross' father, like Pilsudski, was a member of the PPS. Gross' mother was a member of the Home Army, the AK, the underground, anti-Nazi resistance movement. Gross' mother risked her life by defying Nazi edicts and aided his father in surviving the war. Can we please just all agree that Jan Tomasz Gross is as Polish as pierogi?
Gross participated in rebelling against the Soviet-supported, Communist regime in Poland in 1968. Gross was jailed by that regime for five months. I admire a man who serves time as part of an effort to make Poland free. I wonder how many of Gross' detractors have served time as he has.
In exile in America, where focus on Poland would not have earned him many points, Gross published a well-received book frequently cited by Poles who want to communicate how horrific Soviet crimes in Poland were: "Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia." This was no quickie, fly-by-night book. Gross' research involved twenty thousand documents.
Here's what Library Journal, April 15, 1988, says about "Revolution":
"A well-written and carefully documented study. Gross examines surviving depositions and surveys collected by Polish authorities in the wake of the Soviet occupation of the western Ukraine and western Belorussia, 1939-41. Through the miseries of the common people he presents, Gross reveals the means by which the Soviets assumed power. The topics analyzed are dictated by the documents: conquest, elections, socialization, prisons, and deportations. The themes which emerge are twofold: the substitution of the rule of law for that of individuals and the destructive power of totalitarianism through wasted human talent. Highly recommended."
Here's a snip from Prof. Anna M. Cienciala's review in "The American Historical Review":
"The first scholarly account and analysis, in English, of the Communist revolution in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland." Cienciala points about that Gross shows that the Soviets killed more people during this time period than Germans killed in German-occupied Poland. Cienciala concludes by calling the book "detailed and fascinating." "His book should be read by all students of Soviety history, sociology, and government."
Excerpts from a laudatory New York Times review by Thomas Swick, published on June 12, 1988:
"Controlling over 50 percent of Poland's territory, the Soviet Union deported approximately half a million civilians between 1939 and 1941. It also established a policy of spoliation - of land, property, cities, lives - that was so complete it caused the Poles to assume the foreign presence was only temporary. For if the Russians meant to stay, they reasoned, why would they be destroying everything? Through extensive research - including the discovery of handwritten accounts by ordinary people who experienced the occupation - Jan T. Gross has given us an invaluable portrait of that time…There is no chapter without its horrors … The exhuming of so much valuable information would be enough to recommend this book, but Mr. Gross adds to his gripping account a masterly analysis of the nature and workings of the totalitarian state."
In short, Jan Tomasz Gross, in rebelling against the Soviet-supported Communist regime in Poland, in serving time, and in devoting himself, in exile, to writing books that introduce the English-speaking world to Poland's crucifixion under the Soviets, fully deserved the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland which was bestowed on him.
After Gross published "Neighbors" and "Fear," many attacked Gross. To me, this looks like "kill the messenger" syndrome. The message upset many: Poles committed atrocities. Many Poles confronted this troubling news head-on. I quote two such Poles in "Bieganski." Here's one: Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, Polish journalist and diplomat. "Neighbors is a book which had to be written … If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers."
To me, it's that simple. People who share my ethnic background have done bad things. People who share my ethnic background have done good things. If I want to be proud of the heroes, I must also come to terms with the killers.
I can't emphasize enough: I'm talking here about Gross' books, not about press response to them. I address the press response in "Bieganski."
Gross' critics tend to advance the following complaints:
* Gross is a sociologist, not an historian, so his history can't be trusted.
Gross was a sociologist when he wrote "Revolution from Abroad." Did anyone mount that protest against that book?
And can anyone give a reason why Gross' training as a sociologist renders "Neighbors" or "Fear" flawed?
* Gross wrote these books for financial gain.
Academics don't make a lot of money from books. Gross had no way of knowing that these books would become front page news. There is a flood of Holocaust material out there; some very good books get very little attention. This comment is a baseless attempt to impugn Gross' honor; as such, it merely reflects badly on the speaker.
* Gross shows outrage when writing of massacres of Jews.
I find this argument particularly hard to read. Gross' outrage is entirely appropriate. Anyone who isn't outraged by what transpired in Jedwabne and Kielce is incapable of the kind of humanity necessary to produce worthy history.
* Gross was wrong in this or that particular.
Yes, Gross got some details wrong. It is to be hoped that any follow-up printings of "Neighbors" correct errors.
* Gross attributes actions to Poles when German Nazis or Russian Soviets were really the guilty parties.
The massacre at Jedwabne occurred under German Nazi occupation. The pogrom in Kielce occurred under Russian Soviet occupation. Many argue that Germans and Russians are guilty, not Poles. While it is important never to forget the occupying powers and their impact, testimonies, including from Poles, locate agency in Poles.
FWIW, my Amazon review of "Fear" can be read here.
I admire Jan Tomasz Gross. I admire the courage to speak unpopular truths. I admire the courage to go on when one is insulted for speaking unpopular truths.