A Polish Historian‚Äôs Accounting of the Holocaust Divides His Countrymen: ‚ÄėWe Did Not Walk on Water‚Äô
Most academic historians labor in obscurity. But in Poland last year, a Princeton professor‚Äôs slim volume of Holocaust history became a controversial best seller. The publisher, Znak, saw its e-mail addresses bombarded, its business threatened with a boycott, and the area by its office graffitied. At a news conference, the publisher‚Äôs own executive director proclaimed herself opposed to the book‚Äôs publication and apologized to offended readers.
Such is the radioactive celebrity of Jan T. Gross, whom one Polish critic has called ‚Äúa vampire of historiography.‚ÄĚ Mr. Gross‚Äôs latest book, just released in English by Oxford University Press, investigates a sensitive topic: how Poles colluded in the pillaging and murder of Jews ‚Äúat the periphery of the Holocaust.‚ÄĚ
Its title,¬†Golden Harvest, stems from a cover photograph that purportedly shows Polish peasants who have been digging through remains of victims killed at Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews were gassed and cremated, to find gold or valuable stones neglected by the Nazis.
From there, Mr. Gross narrates events beyond the barbed wire of Nazi death camps. He describes Poles hunting Jews down, extorting money from them, massacring them, and profiting by taking over their jobs and property. Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the war began, and about 90 percent had perished by its end.
‚ÄúThere was a sense of satisfaction that was quite widespread that they are being eliminated from Polish economic and social life,‚ÄĚ Mr. Gross says in a phone interview from Krak√≥w, where he is teaching a summer course for Princeton students. ‚ÄúWhen given the opportunity, a large number of Poles participated in victimization of Jews.‚ÄĚ