Still Racist After All These Years

Poland, like other societies in Europe and Asia, is struggling with how to address new issues of multiculturalism and minority sub-cultures. How will it guarantee equal citizenship to ‘non-Polish’ Poles and render that divisive distinction redundant? The question attaches to … Read More

By / December 4, 2008

Poland, like other societies in Europe and Asia, is struggling with how to address new issues of multiculturalism and minority sub-cultures. How will it guarantee equal citizenship to ‘non-Polish’ Poles and render that divisive distinction redundant? The question attaches to visible racial minorities such as tens of thousands of immigrant Vietnamese market-sellers and small-business people; Asian-ized Polish ethnic repatriates and their children from Kazakhstan and elsewhere in central Asia; historically marginalized Roma; and queers, who challenge heteronormative civic and religious definitions of true Polish identity. Each of these communities represents a separate but linked social challenge: how will the ‘stranger’ become ‘Polish’? Or to rephrase for more precision, why should a minority transform itself into ‘normality’ in order to participate fully as co-equal citizens?

All minorities represent a challenge to the right-wing xenophobes that dominate Polish life. Because it has no colonial legacy that manifests as significant immigration from Asia or Africa, Poland remains the ‘whitest’ nation in the European Union. In this context, a vituperating racism and anti-gay rhetoric flourishes. While, for example, the Polish government rushed to condemn parliamentarian Artur Górski‘s recent statement that Obama’s election represented “the end of the white man’s civilization”, this was simply damage control after a highly impolitic statement harming Polish interests in Washington. Górski is a member of the governing conservative Law and Justice party, and will not face serious consequences. His mistake was simply that he voiced aloud what many feared silently. What Górski stated was at root a race-civilization claim: if Washington had turned black, then Warsaw was still white and its whiteness was endangered.

Despite racist claims that Poland is a domain of whiteness, the country was never the monoculture that its nationalists claim. Prior to World War II, Jews constituted the predominant source of cultural difference in Poland. One-third of Warsaw’s population and a quarter of Krakow, the Polskie Ateny (Polish Athens), was Jewish. Jews were a symbolic blackness residing within the Polish nation, a racialized Yiddish-speaking class whose non-Polishness prevented them from gaining legal citizenship and nominal civic equality until 1921. It lasted only a bare generation, until the extermination of Jewish communities began in 1939. With the genocide of 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population during the war, followed by the emigration of most of the remainder up to the 1967-68 Gomulka-inspired expulsion, multicultural Poland nearly disappeared into uniform grey under Communist rule.

In post-Communist Poland “Poland for Poles” remained de rigueur even as the country opened towards western Europe, where social discussions of multiculturalism had been continuing for many years. Thus, for example, in a 2007 convention speech then-prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said that his party must win the elections to make sure that “this soil is inhabited by one Polish nation, and not a variety of nations.” Ironically, Kaczynski’s successor, Donald Tusk, is the first ethnic minority prime minister in Poland, a Kashube who has been deeply involved in preserving Kashubian language and culture. Despite political efforts towards reinforcement of a monocultural state, Poland has always been in fact a multicultural country. The Kashubes and other Pomeranian ethnicities, the Ukrainian Bojki and Hutsuls, ethnic Germans, and Roma never disappeared. The question of ethno-religious exclusivism in the historical construction of Polish national identity extends well beyond the Jews.

Current right-wing political sentiment in Poland does not want to be reminded that it was not only the Nazis who were responsible for the elimination of the country’s Jewish population. For example, the xenophobia and anti-Semitism espoused by the pre-WWII National Democratic party and agrarian Polish Peasants party helped fuel massacres of Jews by Poles, not Germans. Resistance to publicizing such memories serves as a defense for current-day Polish xenophobes, the inheritors of the racist legacies of such parties. Today’s far-right no longer perceives itself as extremist, but rather as the strongest element of the political mainstream. They see themselves as the epitome of ‘normality’ and guardians of the temple of civilization. In their intellectual state of siege, Jan T. Gross represents an unacceptable threat, an affront to a historical ‘normality’ that is a cover for nationalist aphasia.

Jan Gross and the Provocations of Truth

Jan Gross is a not only an excellent historian, he is the best sort of intellectual provocateur. Both Gross’s internationally-noticed Neighbors (2002) and his more recent book, Fear (2006), should be located within ongoing debate in Polish society over the historical significance of anti-Semitism. The extent of the controversy that Gross’s historical projects raise can be noted from their press coverage. The documentation he produced on the story of the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, the subject of Neighbors, generated a small library of journalism, both inside Poland and internationally. While Neighbors caused uproar, its findings were corroborated by an official historical commission and endorsed by the Polish government.

When the Polish translation of Fear, his account of the 1946 massacre at Kielce, was published in January 2008, prosecutors in Krakow announced that Gross was being investigated for possible prosecution for “slandering the Polish nation.” The law in question was adopted in 2006, around the time that Fear was published in English; Gross and others believe it was partly a response to the book. The measure prohibits anyone from asserting that “the Polish nation” was complicit in crimes or atrocities committed by Nazis or communists, with a prospective penalty of three years’ imprisonment.

Gross did what any self-respecting historian would do: he smiled and invited them to prosecute. The Krakow prosecutor evidently found better uses for resources then to create an international scandal by prosecuting a Princeton professor; the matter was dropped. It would not have been the first conflict Gross had with Polish authorities. In 1968, during communist rule, as a young Polish student, he was arrested for participating in a free-speech movement and served five months in prison. That same year he was expelled from the country along with other Jews.

For many Polish readers the issue does not appear to lie with the factuality of the histories that Gross presents. Rather, the issue that more conservative Polish readers have with Gross is the historical context and its interpretation. Thus, for example, speaking to the Washington Post concerning the controversy over Fear, Pawel Machcewicz, a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences could on the one hand protest against the treatment of Gross: “As a historian, I quite simply consider it a scandal. It jeopardizes the standing of Poland as a democratic nation. We must demonstrate that we are not afraid of any historical truths, no matter how devastating.” On the other hand, Machcewicz criticized Gross for his historical interpretation by adding “I’m not going to say the majority of his facts are wrong. It is true: Polish anti-Semitism existed. There were pogroms. Many Jews were killed. There is no reason to deny it or hide it. . . . But the language he used is counterproductive.” This sort of “yes, but” response is quite typical of both mainstream and right-wing responses to Gross.

More straightforward denials commonly appear in the Polish press. Denial reflects public opinion where, according to a poll conducted early this year by the liberal Gazeta Wyborscza, 25 percent of respondents believed post-war massacres had occurred whereas 41 percent did not. One such denier is Piotr Gontarczyk, a controversial researcher with Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, and someone who made headlines recently with a book claiming that Lech Walesa had been a paid informer for the former Communist government, attacked Gross heavily on “scientific” grounds. According to Gontarczyk, writing in the right-wing newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Gross did either minimal or no archival research for his books (a false statement), is an unreliable historian who manipulates or ignores sources, and provides “a one-sided version of history” where “the birth certificate of an eyewitness is more important than scientific research on the source’s credibility.” In short, the Jews are liars, this is lying Jewish history, and “scientific” history proves it so. An equivalent claim on historians in the United States would demand full and equal weighing of the testimonies from white lynch mobs of African Americans in order to establish that lynching occurred.

Using revealing language that conflated politics and sexual moralism, philosophy professor Boguslaw Wolniewicz called Jan Gross’s work “political pornography.” Speaking on the right-wing Catholic station Radio Maryja, Wolniewicz said, “Political pornography consists in baiting two nations against each other – Poles against Jews and Jews against Poles – through dramatic images by which the imagination is excited, not caring about their truthfulness.” While an atheist, Wolniewicz has made common cause with reactionary elements of the Catholic Church to call for a pure religious and sexual monoculture. As Jean-Luc Testault of Agence France Press noted, “In this part of Europe homophobia is not confined to the circles of Christian fundamentalists.” Neither is anti-Semitism. Wolniewicz joined the concepts when he asserted on national television that Sukkot must not be publicly celebrated in Poland, and likewise gays must not go public. According to this logic, Gross, as a political pornographer, was exposing histories that should never be exposed in order to maintain a social facade of ‘normality’.

Using such diverse approaches, quite a number of intellectuals opposed confrontation with the historical truths of Neighbors and Fear. One exception was feminist Maria Janion, who supported Gross by inviting him to her seminar at the Polish Academy of Sciences and recommending his work to her students. Janion has pursued a similar historical exercise through her critique of anti-Semitism in Polish literature, especially that emerging from the Enlightenment. In Fear, Gross refers to the memoirs of Micha? G?owi?ski, another member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, a Holocaust survivor whose scholarly and literary work, as well as whose role as a public intellectual, is very important in mapping anti-Jewishness in Poland. However, Janion and G?owi?ski are notable exceptions among a mass of intellectuals who, even when they do not challenge Gross on factual grounds, nonetheless enunciate some form of contingent historical interpretation.

Poland’s artists, on the other hand, have demonstrated a more critical perspective towards their country’s history. Visual artists were involved in a number of responsive projects following Gross’s 2002 exposition of the Jedwabne massacre. More recently, excerpts from Fear have been incorporated into a play now being performed in Lublin. “Nothing Human” (a reference to Terence’s phrase humani nihil) by young theatre directors Pawel Passini, Lukasz Witt-Michalowski, and Piotr Ratajczak recounts the harrowing story, related in Fear, of a Polish village woman, Karolcia Sapetowa, who saved Jewish children by telling neighbors she had drowned them and was only then left in peace to shelter them.

The play was the product of a workshop process on Jewish culture, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, which included meetings with Gross and other intellectuals. The workshops were organized by Lublin’s Homo Faber-Grodzka Gate, a theatre company-cum-educational center on the city’s multicultural history, and one that is involved in collecting Jewish oral history as well as promoting women’s and gay rights. In another undertaking inspired by Jan Gross’s scholarship, this past year Warsaw’s Zacheta National Gallery of Art assembled an exhibition, After Jedwabne, featuring documentary artwork by Zofia Lipecka and cutting-edge curatorial work by Hanna Wroblewska.

That Polish feminists, queers and experimental artists have both embraced and shown support for Gross’s work testifies to their awareness that they face parallel antagonisms to anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, it all makes sense. Poland is a country where abortion and women’s rights to bodily autonomy remain illegal, where institutional homophobia predominates, and contemporary art can lead to criminal charges. Cries of “Fags to the gas!” and “We’ll do to you what Hitler did to Jews!” regularly directed at pride parades, anti-Semitic catcalls at artists and curators, and the slogan “Abortion only for the Jews!” heard at a pro-life demonstrations are all evidence that violent abjection of difference remains deeply entrenched in Polish culture.

Holy Horror of Gross

The reaction of the Catholic Church, an immensely powerful force within Polish society, towards Gross has been divided. As one much-quoted example of official comment, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow, suggested that Znak, the publisher of the Polish-language edition of Fear and a printing house with close ties to the church, had made a mistake. “Your task is to promulgate the truth on history and not to wake up demons of anti-Polishness and anti-Semitism at the same time,” he said. “Reading the book filled me with pain.” Not enough pain, it would seem, as to speak out against an anti-Gross meeting at Krakow’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in February 2008 that featured inflammatory, slur-filled speeches against Gross and Jews in general before an audience of roughly one thousand.

Jerzy Robert Nowak, a well-known figure from the far-right theo-national camp who wrote an earlier series of articles inveighing against Gross, published a new book criticizing Fear. Titled Gross’s New Lies. Nowak argues that Poland has never been anti-Semitic and that no Jews were massacred – but if they were, they deserved it for “anti-Polonism” and collaboration with Poland’s enemies. When are Jews going to apologize to Poland for their treachery? he asks rhetorically. Further, embracing Norman Finkelstein’s claim that Jewish communities have seized on memories of the Holocaust as a means of profiteering, Nowak warns that Gross’s histories of massacres at Jedwabne, Kielce and elsewhere are coercive instruments to demand and pry loose reparations from Poland. Small wonder that after a recent lecture tour of the United States, Nowak’s latest theme has become the horrors of gay marriage in California and preventing the ‘California-ization’ of Poland. The nexus of Jew-hatred and gay-hatred lies in their demand for cultural purification in order to achieve a sanctified society.

Much of the anti-Gross rhetoric towards both Neighbors and Fear has emerged from Radio Maryja. Professor Nowak is only one of several anti-Semitic commentators the station broadcasts. Yet it is important also to remember that the Church does not speak with a monolithic voice. Radio Maryja and its anti-Semitism have faced significant criticism from Catholic clergy and activist lay-people, as well as occasional and insufficient attempts at discipline from the Vatican. A history of Catholic opposition to anti-Semitism has been present too: for instance, the only member of the Polish parliament to criticize the 1968 expulsions of Jews was Jerzy Zawieyski, a queer Catholic dramatist. After the above-mentioned meeting in the Krakow basilica, Father Krzysztof Dyrek, until several months ago the Jesuit provincial for southern Poland, bitterly criticized the event in a public statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Yet as leaders in criticizing Gross over the years, and in perpetuating the mythical explanation of anti-Jewish pogroms as a revolt against ‘Judeo-communism,’ the far louder voices of Radio Maryja and its followers echo those clergy who made excuses for violence against Jewish fellow citizens, both during the war, as well as afterwards. Today it remains tragic that, at the time of the massacre, only the bishop of Czestochowa condemned the Jedwabne killings and then was promptly reprimanded by his colleagues. The Catholic Church hierarchy has enormous social power in Poland and, given its inability to respond adequately so far, it remains doubtful that the Polish Church will be able respond competently in the future by ensuring that its clergy do not engage in the rhetorical reproduction of social hatreds.

The debate over Fear staged this last year in Poland has only confirmed the prevalence of prejudices against supposed cultural aliens. Poland had difficulty understanding that when Gross delved into historical truths that his work was not anti-Polish, but that a search for truth cannot be conditioned on the comfort of hard-core nationalism. Rather, such a search is in keeping with the best traditions of Polish humanism. In a popular TV show, Jewish activist Stanislaw Krajewski called Gross a “Polish patriot.”

When Dos Yiddishe Wort, a bilingual Polish-Yiddish magazine in Warsaw, quoted the remark to Gross, he replied “I’m happy. I wrote this book with a feeling of great care, grief, and sorrow for what happened in a community which is my community. In contrast to you, I was not brought up in the Jewish consciousness – I didn’t know what it means to be a Jew, do you understand? My father was a completely assimilated Jew. There is a milieu in Poland of people of open minds – intellectuals where there is no division into Jews and non-Jews.”

It is that open, common and inclusive meeting ground provided by such work as Jan T. Gross’s conscientious historiography that can contribute towards a new civil society respectful of human rights and multiculturalism.


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