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A Job To Do
An interview with Jan T. Gross
by Ky Krauthamer

Jan T. Gross, a native of Poland, is a professor in New York University’s department of politics. His research focuses on totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, chiefly in Eastern Europe. In 2001 he published Neighbors, on the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, by their Christian fellow villagers in July 1941. The book set off an uproar in Poland, one result of which was an investigation into the massacre by the Institute of National Remembrance. Reviewing the book in The Observer, George Steiner commented, “Gross's chronicle of inhumanity is near to unendurable.” Steven Erlanger in The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Neighbors tells a story that has long been known in Poland but one that has shocked the rest of the world and even, it seems, the Poles themselves.”

Central Europe Review telephoned Gross at his home in upper New York State after his return from Prague.

CER: What is the reception of Neighbors in Poland 18 months after publication?

Jan Gross: … The two volumes of investigations that the Institute of National Remembrance has carried out are very important and serious. [The institute was formed in 1998 and consists of a commission to investigate war crimes, an education department, and an office for archival preservation.] … We’ll see what happens, if people will pick up [the institute’s report] and instead of talking about Neighbors [will talk about] the whole story of the complex of murders that took place in the vicinity. We'll see how it continues, but it's a very live issue.

CER: Dr. Volovici told me that when he visited Poland in the ’70s he found that the real intellectual elite, some Catholic and some not, were very strongly opposed to anti-Semitism because it was associated with cynical politics by the communist government. Is there still a split of this kind between an intellectual elite and a more populist element in Polish society?

Gross: It's a little more complicated than it used to be, in part because there are no communists anymore, but the most important journals, the most articulate authors, they are all absolutely appalled by anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, given that there is freedom of expression, one finds also a kind of outlet--not a very high-caliber outlet, intellectually--but these are people, who sometimes have titles, who say all kinds of more or less horrible and anti-Semitic things.

CER: It seems that in its old homeland anti-Semitism now survives for domestic political reasons; the "Jew" that they conjure up is a kind of "imaginary Jew," as Dr. Volovici talked about. There is also a kind of anti-Semitism of actual attacks, desecration of cemeteries, that sort of thing. Is there a threat that these two streams of anti-Semitism might join together, in the form of extremist groups?

Gross: If they do join together, because of all the Jews buried in the cemeteries, it will not find, as it were, a live target against which to move. You know, I think it's really a substitute for a lot of things. It appears when people don't know how to analyze the response to various challenges of modernization. It is reactionary in the sense that it looks back and evokes these old ghosts. I don't think it has serious legs.

CER: Is there a connection between anti-Semitism and nationalism? Anti-Semitism in some sense is used as a kind of mythical basis for self-identity and some nationalists also play on similar images.

Gross: There is a strong connection. …

CER: Do you see this as something that needs to be paid more attention to by politicians, by intellectuals: the possible link between nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitic stereotypes?

Gross: Yes. Nationalism in a radical fashion is very deadly to everybody. We don't need to throw in Jews here; look at Yugoslavia and the way it dissolved, what radical nationalism has done to the fate of Croats and Albanians….

CER: Your book has brought to light a very terrible occurrence in wartime Poland that many in Poland are reluctant to face up to. We've also seen this sort of thing, for example, in the Czech Republic with the reluctance of many to accept that there was a concentration camp for Gypsies that was run by Czechs. And also in Hungary there's some tension in society over the wartime activities of the army and the police. And these countries of course are also dealing with their communist pasts and still not quite feeling perhaps fully integrated into the European community. Is it wise to put pressure on these countries not only to come to terms with their communist pasts but also with might have happened during the war? Is it too much to ask?

Gross: I don't know if there is an entity that puts pressure on anybody. If these things exist, there is an historical narrative [that can be traced] by people investigating abuses. There is a general principle here which has nothing to do with any particular situation in which a society finds itself: that on the one hand, myths are always constructed without necessarily paying heed to what actually happened, and secondly that [people’s] lives are very uncomfortable. So there is always a conflict between these kinds of [modern myths] and reality. It's very complicated. And it will come to the surface sooner or later, and it is the task that historians face. It is just an obligation to speak the truth. One does not really ask oneself, is the collective plate, as it were, full already, or does one add one item or not? It is what it is, and you do your job.

Ky Krauthamer is the culture editor of Transitions Online.

Moving on:

  • Archived articles about Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe
  • More on Jedwabne from the TOL archives, available with a subscription to TOL:

    A Start to the Healing
    The Polish president gives a heartfelt apology for the Jedwabne massacre.
    In Their Own Words, 17 July 2001

    Building a Better World
    The Israeli Ambassador to Poland responds to the Polish president’s apology for the Jedwabne massacre.
    In Their Own Words, 17 July 2001

    Apologies Partially Accepted
    Our Take, 16 July 2001

    Tomasz Krzyanowski: Victims and Oppressors
    Polish self-awareness hasn’t been the same since the Jedwabne massacre came to light.
    In Focus, 10 July 2001
  • Return to CER front page


Vol 4, No 5
15 November 2002


Anti-Semitism: Why Now?

Ky Krauthamer
An interview with Leon Volovici
An interview with Jan T. Gross

Andrea Mrozek
Small-Town Genocide

Laura Adams
Tashkent Takes Stock of the Past

CER Joins Transitions Online

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