‘I was absolutely stunned. How could antisemitism persist in Poland after the war?” Three times in our conversation, Jan Gross states how he was astonished by a revelation in the course of his work as a historian. First, by the story of how Poles had massacred the Jewish half of the population of Jedwabne, a small town in eastern Poland, in July 1941. This became the subject of his breakthrough book, Neighbours (2000).
It happened again a few years later when he discovered evidence that showed the scale of Polish antisemitism after the Holocaust. This became the subject of his next major book, Fear (2006). Then, in 2008, he saw a photograph in the largest Polish daily newspaper. It showed a group of peasants standing in two rows in the fields around Treblinka.
In front of them is a pile of human skulls and bones. They had found the skulls in the ground while searching for gold fillings and jewellery that had belonged to dead Jews. This is the starting point of his latest book, Golden Harvest, co-written with his wife, about the scale of plunder from Jews during the Holocaust; by the Nazis of course, at every level, but also by Polish civilians, often accompanied by murderous violence.
Gross speaks with the same passion and energy that characterise his writing. His books on Poles, Jews and the Holocaust are enormously powerful, full of statistics and research but also containing desperately moving stories. Together, they have added enormously to our understanding of the Holocaust in Poland.
Gross, who was born in Warsaw in 1947, still speaks with a thick Polish accent despite having lived in America for more than 40 years. His mother, Hanna, was a member of the Polish resistance. His father, Zygmunt, was a Jewish socialist who managed to survive the war in hiding. Hanna had lost her first husband, a Polish Jew (denounced by a neighbour reputedly for a bottle of vodka), and a grandfather. Zygmunt had lost a grandmother.
“Otherwise,” Gross says, “people survived.” What was it like growing up in Warsaw so soon after the war? “I had a great youth and beautiful memories… I had wonderful childhood friends.” Then, in 1968, he was caught up in the student protests. He was one of nearly 4,000 Polish students arrested but, along with others “of Jewish origin”, was allowed to emigrate to America with his parents. He went on to become one of the outstanding historians of his generation.
For the past 30 years, his subject has been the Holocaust, in particular in Poland. While his work has been highly acclaimed in Britain and America, in Poland it has caused considerable controversy. He is surprised both by the impact of his work and the sometimes hostile reactions it provokes, though he is quick to point out that there has been “no personal abuse of any kind” and there has been “a lot of thoughtful and serious commentary.”
He says that antisemitism “is still there” in Poland, and elsewhere in eastern Europe, but quickly points out that these issues are now out in the open and widely debated, and that Poles recognise that this openness “gives Poland a greater credibility — this is a good thing.”