Friday, March 4, 2011

Peasants Desecrate Graves For Gold

Gold earrings found in a grave. Source - New York Times. Full Description, below.

Grave Robbing and Other Stories of Poles’ Complicity is the headline of a Jewish Daily Forward article about Jan Tomasz Gross' new book, "Golden Harvest." Gross is quoted as saying, "The Poles participated in the murder of Jews, and this was done all over the country." The problem with the quote is, of course, the use of "The Poles" rather than "Poles." The quote, as written, implies that Poles, as a group – rather than criminal individuals – are guilty. That Polish identity, not human nature, is the problem.

Not just Poles qua Poles are guilty. Peasants qua peasants are guilty, too – thus the National-Geographic-style photo, above, so often linked with the book. Babushka-wearing, hand-implement-wielding, dirt-encrusted farm laborers may soon be the sartorial and ethnographic other we can blame for the Holocaust. Forget those SS officers, forget their squeaky leather boots, artfully carved daggers, and Hugo-Boss-designed epaulets. Well-educated, modern, Nazis – people just like us – were just innocent bystanders who let the primitive peasants have their way. Certainly, as chapter seven of "Bieganski" describes, that's what the SS officers themselves said, to escape any sense of guilt for the Final Solution.

Since when is dressing well a crime against humanity? Source

Gross hammers the point home: "the crops in front of [the peasants] are not beets or potatoes but skulls and bones." There you have it: Eastern European peasants' staple foods. Beets and potatoes. That's what the orchestrators of the most notorious crime of the Twentieth Century ate. Not steak, not champagne, or even soda pop. Those who carried out the Holocaust were nothing like us. They were primitive, backward, religious. We are modern, clean, educated, secular. People like us could never do anything like this.

As chapter two of "
Bieganski" demonstrates, after two of Gross' previous books, "Neighbors" and "Fear" were published, the American mainstream press identified Polish identity as the problem. Poles as Poles were guilty for the Holocaust in a way that no other ethnic group – including Germans – was. The same may happen with "Golden Harvest." Because, after all, no one but Poles could commit crimes so heinous as those Gross describes. It's all about being Polish, being a Polish peasant. It's all about the babushkas, and the potatoes, and the beets.

Is there any other way of looking at Polish peasants who desecrated Jewish graves? A way that helps us to better understand humanity – not just the Poles', but the whole human condition, including our own?

A New York Times article may provide clues. "
Ghosts Wail as Cambodians Plunder Killing Field Graves."

Here the peasants are Buddhist, not Catholic. They are consoled by monks in saffron robes, not priests in earth-toned cassocks. They work, harvest, and eat rice, not potatoes. Interestingly, the article never attributes the desecration of graves in Cambodia to an ethnic or religious Cambodian essence. They didn't desecrate these graves because they are Cambodian Buddhists. They desecrated these graves because their country had endured a devastating war, a war that was the result of complex international forces over which they, peasants, had zero control. They were hungry and desperate and left out of world prosperity. They did what any human being would have done in similar circumstances. We look at them; we see ourselves, had our lives and our country's history gone differently.

Funny how that is all clear when the grave robbers are Cambodians, not Poles, Buddhists, not Catholics, eaters of rice, not eaters of beets and potatoes, wearers of sarongs, not babushkas. We feel compassion for these Cambodians – the article's author speaks of trauma and healing – not of superiority and condemnation. We wish them recovery; we wish them well. We do not damn them and condemn them in perpetuity, as we condemn Polish, Catholic, peasants. Simply, it makes us feel good to feel superior to Polish, Catholic, peasants. Cambodian, Buddhist peasants make nice folk art. We can't demonize Cambodians. That would be Politically Incorrect.
Cambodian weaving. Source

Perhaps most importantly, the New York Times is willing to acknowledge that Cambodia and Cambodians underwent severe trauma. No such allowance is given to Poles. Poles merely "imagine" that they suffered during World War II. In fact, they "profited." That's the new narrative. 

There is a picture, above, of a hand holding two gold earrings found in a grave. That photo is not from Poland. It is from Cambodia. How do you feel about the hand, the human hand, holding those earrings now, knowing that it was not a Polish peasant who holds the earrings?

Excerpts from the New York Times article:


By the time the researchers arrived in early May, some 200 graves had been dug up and the bones scattered through the woods by hundreds of people hunting for jewelry.

''Everyone was running up there to dig for gold, so I went too,'' said Srey Net, 50, describing what seems to have been a communal frenzy that seized this poor and isolated village. ''If they can dig for gold, why can't I?''

It was the first such raid the researchers had recorded in the thousands of burial grounds they have documented around the country. Altogether 1.7 million people died from 1975 to 1979 from starvation, overwork and disease as well as torture and execution.

''People said, 'This goose has no owner,' '' said Ouk Souk, 60, a farmer. Few valuables were in the graves, but villagers took whatever they could find.

''I think it has become a memory, rather than a physical thing any longer,'' he said, speaking of the pain of the past. ''There will be no more tears. There are no more feelings to express. Only a flash of memory when you see a piece of bone.''

For younger Cambodians, who know remarkably little about the Khmer Rouge period, he said, ''It's just a dead person.''

Srey Noeun, 47, a farmer with four small children, said she could not sleep for three nights after digging two small gold earrings out of a grave.

''I'm afraid that the owner will take revenge on me because she died with nothing but her earrings and now I have taken them,'' Srey Noeun said. ''She'll say, 'Please give them back. They are all I had.'''

Ms. Srey Noeun said she sold the earrings as quickly as she could and bought things that she really needed: four pounds of pork, a sack of rice, oil for cooking and for oil lamps, salt, pepper, seasoning and milk powder for her youngest child.

''We never have enough rice,'' she said. ''Normally we can't afford to buy pork.''

The buried treasure seemed paltry after nearly a week of digging: one gold necklace and 27 small gold earrings. But it was dazzling to people who live without electricity or running water, far from the nearest clinic, school or paved road.


  1. The living go through the pockets of the dead. It happens everywhere, in every country, among all people.

    Jan Gross?

    He's got an agenda, and he thinks the people reading his book are naive or share his agenda.

  2. John, thank you for reading and commenting. The comments under the Jewish Daily Forward article, linked above, are shocking. Poles are cannibals, Poles are cursed by God, Poles deserved what the Germans did to them.

  3. Danusha, thank you for this analysis.
    I think that is what is lacking even in the discussion that I was observing in Polish media at the end of January before the newest book by Gross was published (unfortunately now I don't know what followed - it is harder to keep up with the news from back home when I'm in the UK). In that public debate, you could be either acknowledging that what Gross wrote was right or denying that what he described happened. I must admit though that there were some valuable articles or discussions,but the mainstream debate was unfortunately lacking the broader view and interpretation that it is not because of being Polish, but it is something that can happen anywhere.
    Thank you.

  4. Aleksandra:

    "Danusha, thank you for this analysis.
    I think that is what is lacking even in the discussion that I was observing in Polish media"

    Yes. YES! You get it. You read what I wrote and you get it.

    Now I wish someone in Poland would read it and decide to publish "Bieganski" in Poland.

    It's been a long wait for me as a writer ... I've been waiting for people to actually read what I actually wrote and respond to it ... that has been very slow in coming.

    The dichotomy you mention, Aleksandra, is all too common:

    "you could be either acknowledging that what Gross wrote was right or denying that what he described happened. I must admit though that there were some valuable articles or discussions,but the mainstream debate was unfortunately lacking the broader view"

    Very few, vanishingly few, readers have understood that about my work, and it's frustrating ... but it's more than frustrating. Polish chauvinists are very loud, and anti-Polonists are also very loud, and there are vanishingly few readers like you, Aleksandra, and Sue Knight, who I think has always understood what I've been trying to say.

    Thank you. Thank you for reading me and hearing me.

    Let's just hope that someone in Poland gets it, and decides to publish the book there, and that more readers in America get it, as well.

  5. Living in Poland myself, I can agree that the debate within Poland is just as deformed as it is outside. In somewhat different ways. But some of Gross' loudest supporters in Poland are deeply insincere and have their own axe to grind.

    The question comes down to this: Many, many Poles agree with professor Gross' facts and, to varying degrees his interpretation. But they wonder why it is written in a way to whip up maximum hatred against "the Poles."

    When I talk to people in Poland who don't really care too much about the world outside, they say "don't you know what the Jews say about us??".

    Maybe Jan Gross wants to bring all of the Jew-haters out of the woodwork and this is tough love.

    But it seems to me that his work is utterly devoid of compassion. And thus, people in Poland who would be his allies are rightly disgusted. If Jan Gross doesn't understand the value of compassion, then I really have wonder about his moral authority to be teaching it to the rest of us.

    I hope you'll find a publisher here in Poland. Have you approached many publishing houses? I really think it may not be as hard as you think. As long as you have the right people standing behind you...

  6. To me, unlike to the people you quote, Michal, it's very much NOT about "The Jews."

    Jews have numbered disproportionately among the most important supporters of my work. Antony Polonsky has been like a father to me and I would take a bullet for him. Many other Jews, mentioned in the acknowledgements section of my book, helped along the way, including Alan Dundes, my prof at UC Berkeley. It was he who first insisted to me that I could and should publish on this topic.

    I think Tomasz Tabako is part Jewish. He published my first article on Polish Jewish relations.

    I could go on and on. This isn't about "Jews v. Poles." That's just a smokescreen.

    Malgorzata, who also reads this blog, suggested to me that I view a film called "Defamation." i began watching it on youtube. A little old Jewish lady, in Israel, sits there talking about how Jews love money, don't work, and control alcohol sales. She is thinking stereotypically. Her ethnicity did not rescue her from thinking stereotypically.

    Similarly, Poles can think stereotypically about Poles.

    This is about people, human beings, coming to terms with challenging material, and going down very wrong cognitive paths.

    The alternative path is to reject hate, and confront our shared humanity. Nothing that is human is foreign to me. (Terence -- I think.)

    "Bieganski" addresses this head-on. It isn't a "pro-Polish" book. It isn't a "pro-Jewish book." It's a book about stereotyping as a false solution to tough human problems.

    A couple of publishers approached me, and for a while, with both, it appeared that the book would be published in Poland, but then events not related to the book, but to their financial status, got in the way.

    I'm now awaiting word from another potential publisher. We'll see.

  7. Yes, I agree completely that looking at this in terms of "The Jews" versus "The Poles" is exactly the problem. I am not quoting those people with approval!

  8. Yes, I think it's clear to all that you are not quoting those folks with approval.

    Michal, if you have not seen it already, this post may interest you. The title, "Stop Blaming the Jews," says it all:

  9. I thought the Forward article was reasonably balanced as it pointed out that reaction in Poland was mixed without saying the nationalist Catholic right was outraged and no-one else, it quoted the young historian criticising Gross's work for selectively using her research research and it ended with a understanding quote from Rabbi Schudrich.

    You can't control the posts people put up there and there were quite a few which didn't make much of Gross's book anyway, as well as some that unfortunately had an antisemitic tinge.

    In my view this book is not going to cause the sort of widespread reaction that either Neighbors or Fear caused because it is essentially a beat-up by Gross and, now he's been criticised by the young scholar on whose work he has drawn and who could never be accused of being part of the nationalist right like Robert Novak.

    I was in Warsaw when the news broke about Gross's new book and when I
    rang my wife in Sydney I told her about it. She is an academic herself and born in the UK and she exploded "What, poverty stricken peasants rob graves and somehow that's an indictment of the Poles? That's happened and happens all over the world - what's he on about?" I then watched the programme on TV that Malgorzata saw. Gross claimed that this books had brought about an improvement in Polish Jewish relations in America, at which point I wondered what planet he inhabits because frankly I hadn't seen any evidence of this. A few weeks or so later in
    later, in London, I watched a documentary about wartime robberies in English towns committed when householders were away on duty or in air raid shelters or when their houses had been bombed. there were interviews with some of those who committed those robberies.

    What's interesting is that Polish academics who research on Polish Jewish relations rarely disagree with Gross openly but often undermine the impact of the claims he makes about the exclusvely guilt of the Poles. For example see the interview with Barbara Engelking in Wprost (3-9 Jan) #1, 2011. She never criticises Gross but to every question put by the journalist who bases the questions on what Gross claims were Poles failings she simply says that these were normal events in war time.

    Of course on the issue of the killing of Jews by members of the Blue Police she doesn't confirms it but says that this doesn't mean everyone approved and she resists the generalised conclusions about Poles as a nation.

    This book, which I am sure will receive glowing reviews from the usual suspects will also receive very luke warm reviews from professionals in the field.

  10. You have a very interesting, and substantive, blog.

    For a detailed analysis of the distortions of Jan T. Gross regarding Poles looting Jews, please click on, or copy and paste-in:

  11. Jan T. Gross most recent attack on Poles and Poland, GOLDEN HARVESTS, has just been made available on Amazon. I have written the first review of this book. To see the review, please click on my name in this posting.

    1. A major English-language scholarly work has just come out: GOLDEN HARVEST OR HEARTS OF GOLD? It examines the claims of Jan T. Gross as never before. To read my extensive review of this item, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  12. To read my earlier Amazon review of FEAR, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  13. To see my earlier Amazon review of NEIGHBORS, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  14. Jan T. Gross is prone to distort historical sources to support his anti-Polish attacks. Thus, in GOLDEN HARVEST as in FEAR, Gross has misrepresented Christopher Browning's ORDINARY MEN. For a corrective, please read my review of ORDINARY MEN. The review can be accessed by clicking on my name in this specific posting.

  15. Jan T. Gross has, in his FEAR and now GOLDEN HARVEST, also misrepresented Zygmunt Klukowski's DIARY. For a corrective, please read my review of this DIARY by clicking on my name in this specific posting.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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