US historian touches nerve with book on Polish anti-Semitism

KIELCE - A US historian has sparked a storm of controversy in his Polish homeland with a book on anti-Semitism in Poland and the murder of Jews in the aftermath of World War II.

Undaunted, Princeton University professor Jan Gross chose the very site of a post-war massacre of Jewish Holocaust survivors for the public launch of the Polish version of "Fear, Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz".

"I want this book to become 'The Gulag Archipelago' of Polish anti-Semitism," he told a packed audience in the southern city of Kielce this week, "so that people realise the poison anti-Semitism has for the Polish soul."

The reference was to Russian ex-dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn's landmark expose on Soviet prison camps.

Earlier this month, Polish prosecutors opened a criminal probe against Gross after the first copies appeared in this country, once home to Europe's largest Jewish population where relations between the Catholic majority and Jews, as well as the legacy of war and communism, remain deeply sensitive issues.

The Krakow prosecutor's office said they acted under a clause providing for up to three years in prison for anyone "publicly accusing the Polish nation of participating in, organising or being responsible for Nazi or Communist crimes."

Originally published in English in 2006, "Fear" breaks no new historical ground but takes a markedly different standpoint from much previous work about post-war Poland.

Well-received in the United States, the New York Times said Gross, a Jew himself, had "intelligently and exhaustively" looked not at the why but at "the 'that': that a civilized nation could have descended so low."

But in Poland, many see the book as a blow to the country's self-image.

At the crowded Kielce launch, televised across the nation, Gross was both applauded and jeered. "You're not a professor! You're a general! A general in the pay of the American Jews!" shouted one elderly man.

A few dozen metres (feet) from the hall is Planty Street, where on July 4, 1946, a year after Nazi occupation ended, some 40 Holocaust survivors were massacred by a crowd of Poles reacting to rumours that Jews had killed a Polish boy.

In the immediate post-war period, between 600 and 3,000 of the 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust -- out of a pre-war population of more than three million -- were killed in pogroms or murdered individually, according to Poland's Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) which investigates Nazi and communist-era crimes.

Another 60,000 survivors emigrated in the wake of the violence, many to the land that became Israel.

Gross already shook Poland in 2001 with his book "Neighbours", which revealed a 1941 incident, during Nazi occupation, when several hundred Jews were massacred or burned alive by Polish neighbours in the town of Jedwabne.

That book led then president Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologise to Jews worldwide for the crime.

But IPN head Janusz Kurtyka blasted the US academic. "Gross isn't a historian," he railed recently. "Above all he plays on emotions with a very limited range of sources, interpreted in a biased fashion."

The new book concedes that thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jewish neighbours from the Nazis.

But Gross ascribes what he calls Poles' rejection of returning Holocaust survivors to guilt and selfishness -- they wanted to keep abandoned Jewish properties but felt bad for taking advantage of Holocaust victims's assets.

Some critics accuse Gross of avenging his own past.

Born in Warsaw in 1947, he emigrated to the United States after Poland's then ruling communists launched an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968 as part of a power struggle and to discredit the right-wing opposition, some of whom were blatantly anti-Semitic.

Another old theme was resurrected by the Kielce crowd -- that Jews played a dominant role in the communist regime set up under Soviet tutelage after the war.

"Why didn't the Polish Jews who were in power help the others?" read one written question, with a list attached of the names of Jews in the powerful communist secret police stationed in post-war Kielce.

Gross retorted, however, that the "communist Jew" stereotype has long been exploited by Poland's Catholic Church to boost its own position, though he conceded that "Jews have also done wrong to Poles."

Some in the Kielce audience said a half-century on, it was time for the country to confront the demons of the past.

"Poles should bow their heads and admit their wrongdoing," said 40-year-old Jacek Pilat.

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01/27/2008 05:04 GMT

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