Monday, January 24, 2011

An Open Letter to Jan Tomasz Gross

Because I write about Polish-Jewish relations and the brute Polak stereotype, I'm often asked about Jan Tomasz Gross. I respond to those question here. My Amazon review of "Fear" is here.

Long story short: I defend Jan Tomasz Gross.

I've recently received a series of provocative e-mails from a poster I know only as Malgorzata. An excerpt from Malgorzata's most recent e-mail is below. The gracious reader will realize that English is not Malgorzata's first language, and will be tolerant of any minor errors this multilingual poster makes as she expresses herself, quite powerfully.

"It is one thing to make us, Poles, review our knowledge about history, but it's another thing to blame all Poles in front of the world, to others that do not know much about our history. His [Gross'] books give the strong impression that Poland generally supported Holocaust, Poles are Anti-Semites and you cannot expect anything good from Poles.

I do not say we should keep truth hidden in Poland, but let’s think who reads his books in America and Poland. I would estimate that max 10 % of readers are historians, and other highly educated people interested in the topic. These people will resist the hatred towards Polish as their overall knowledge about Polish history is good enough.

Another part of readers will be those that already have a negative opinion about Poles, so they will read the books to support their view. They will follow the overall impressions created in the books; they will never read any articles that disclose some discrepancies or clarify the possible reasons of these acts (but not justify). There are plenty of tensions between Jews and Poles. We have to work it through, not bring new ones.

In my opinion his books enhance the stereotype of Pole as Anti-Semites. When I read or hear statements that Poles have to finally confront their deep Anti-Semitism, I know the author of this comment has never been to Poland and probably does not even know any Poles. I have no idea where they currently see Anti-Semitism in Poland. But I can assume they drew the conclusions from Mr. Gross’s books. This is why I think they bring more harm than good. Especially, when we are trying to work out our relations with the world again."

I think Malgorzata has a valid point. This young lady has inspired me to send the e-mail, below:

Dear Prof. Gross,

Hello, I write about stereotypes of Poles and have a blog devoted to the topic. I receive many e-mails about you. I have responded to these e-mails via a blog post about you, linked below.

In short, I defend you.

Recently, though, I received a series of thoughtful e-mails from a poster known to me only as Malgorzata. As you can see from comments on the blog post, linked below, Malgorzata makes the case that your work, regardless of your intention, is used to slander Poland and exacerbate tensions between Poles and Jews and between Poles and the rest of the world.

Again, I have always defended you. I believe in truth and scholarship.

But there is merit in what Malgorzata writes.

Because of the merit of Malgorzata's posts, I would like to invite you to do something concrete to rectify the damage – no doubt unintentional – that reception of your work has done. Please know that I say that "reception of your work" has done damage. I think you are a responsible scholar and a patriotic Pole-by-birth (though you are American now.) I am confident that you mean well. You can't deny, on the other hand, that your work has been exploited for negative ends.

I want to invite you to read the one book that addresses negative stereotypes of Poles and how those stereotypes are used to distort history, and to do what you can to raise the profile of that book. You are a scholar of world import. "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype" will never receive much attention; it addresses the concerns of a marginalized group.

You have manifested your courage, your dedication to truth, and your commitment to Poland. I hope that all these will convince you to consider my offer, and to "step up to the plate," to use an American metaphor, and do the right thing. Buy "Bieganski." Read it. Recommend it. Acknowledge that while atrocities committed by Poles are very real and must be confronted, there is another reality at work, stereotyping and distortion. These must also be called out, confronted and defeated.


Original blog post that prompted this idea here.


  1. Michal, I just watched the video you linked. In the portion I saw, Prof. Gross did not accuse all Poles of being Nazi collaborators.

  2. We all type quickly in internet posts and anyone who held that error against you would be nitpicking.

  3. Michal, thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I look forward to your reaction after you read "Bieganski."

    I understand limited budgets. I wrote the book while dealing with chronic illness that often left me paralyzed. I often earned no money - zero - in a given year and had no support, except for a very kind woman who let me live in her home as a caretaker, but really as a charity case. I got food from a foodbank. I had no access to medical care, new clothes -- a car or even a daytrip was an impossibility.

    I know the book is expensive, but, frankly, if Poles don't buy books like this, no one has any reason to publish books like this.

  4. While I found Michal's post sincere and well meaning, as well as one that raised important issues readers ought to know that his starting point for discussion of the property issue, that is, that Jews formed a majority in most major Polish cities such as Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz is simply wrong. Warsaw's pre-war Jewish population numbered 400,000 out of a 1,200,000 while Lodz had a Jewish population of some 300,000 out of a total just over 700,000. I am not sure what the case was with Krakow but I know that I have never, ever seen any statistic showing that the Jewish community there constituted a majority. Of course in a number of smaller cities - Bedzin - to take one example or the small town in the Kresy, Jews often did constitute a majority of the residents.

    Where does this take us? For a start to the fact that the majority of the houses in those major cities could not have the houses of Jews in the sense that they owned and occupied them. Moreover, it must be remembered that patters of home ownership in pre-war Poland, indeed in most of Europe at that time were very different to those that obtain in western developed countries. In pre-war Europe only the very rich owned their own home or flat. Most people rented. My paternal grand parents were Jews living in Bedzin and my grandfather was highly respected doctor who specialised in paediatrics and was a community leader both among the Jewish community and the town in general. My grandparents did not own their home, an apartment, but rented. The same was true of my maternal grandparents who were Catholic Poles living in Sosnowiec. My grandfather had left school at 13 to look after his youger siblings, educated himself further and made a lot of money in insurance. In 1920s Poland they owned a car, employed a chauffeur and two domestic servants but did not own their home.

    Therefore, we cannot talk of all the houses and flats/apartments in Polish cities belonging to the Jewish population as their property since most of them rented. So what we are talking about is the property of landlords, many/some of whom would have been Jewish, which was rented out on a commercial basis. Jan Gross has never bothered to clarify this while banging on about Polish guilt for acquired Jewish property (used in its widest meaning but including real estate).

    I think I would support complete property restoration of personal dwellings to people who live in Poland but restoring property rights to foreign domiciled descendants of pre-war landlords by a poor country? I don't see any justice in that at all.


  5. Peter Rechniewski and Mihal, thank you both for your thoughtful and interesting posts.

  6. It's not because I am a pedant but here are figures for the Jewish population in a number of major cities based on the 1931 census:

    Warsaw 352,659 (30.1%)
    Lodz 202,497 (33.5%)
    Lwow 99,595 (31.9%)
    Krakow 56,515 (25.8%)
    Wilno 55,006 (28.2%)
    Czestochowa 25,588 (28.2%)
    Lublin 38,537 (34.7%)
    Sosnowiec 20,805 (19.1%)

    Polish Jews made up about one third of the urban population and in a couple of eastern provinces, nearly a half.
    Source: Ezra Mendelsohn "The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars"
    Hope this helps somehow.

  7. Peter, thank you for the further info. Please don't ever apologize for adducing more facts to support your point. :-)

  8. Thank you for those figures.

    I'm not entirely certain how much difference it makes to the larger argument (and, by the way, I agree with everything you said in your previous post, Mr. Rechnowski), but in these matters it is, as we all know, of utmost importance to be precise!

    I would add that, in the interwar period, as well as the partition period, Polish cities contained fairly large numbers of other ethnicities as well, especially Germans, so the Jewish populations may have still formed a plurality.

    In any event, they formed an enormously significant part of the population, especially if - as you pointed out - property ownership is taken into consideration. Jewish people, for better and for worse, probably formed a majorit of property owners in Polish cities (though I don't have exact numbers for this, either). And the moral ambiguity of this situation is certainly not lost on me.

    From a cultural standpoint, the contributions of Jewish citizens were incalculable. What I would like to emphasize is that, while this was a Jewish culture, it was a _Polish_ Jewish culture.

    I am not, in general, a Marxist, yet if one were to analyze Polish-Jewish relations from the standpoint of class, one reaches some uncomfortable conclusions about the putative greed of the Polish laboring class. Professor Gross' interpretation, as I understand it, makes such an analysis taboo.

    To be clear: by no means all Polish Jews belonged to the bourgeoisie. One the other hand, the Polish bourgeoisie was made up, in large part, of Jewish people. Catholic Poles frequently felt themselves to be forcibly excluded.

    As a non-marxist, I think this bourgeoisie, under different historical circumstances, could have been integrated into the Polish polity, and this would have been to the great benefit of everyone, Jews, catholics, atheists, and all other citizens of Poland. Tragically, we never had the chance to find out.

  9. This conversation reminds me of what I've been told used to be a common expression. I googled it and came across an article in Haaretz. Quote:

    "For years a common expression in Poland was "The streets are ours, the buildings are yours." In Polish it's a rhyme that hints of the contradiction between Polish ownership of the land and the Jewish capital that built on it."

  10. Thanx Ms Gosha 4 writing and I hop€ your mat. situation improov€d


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