By Wojciech Zurawski
Reuters | February 9, 2011
A new book that tells how some Poles enriched themselves by stealing from the corpses of their Jewish neighbours during the Nazi occupation has touched a raw nerve in a country still deeply scarred by World War Two.
"Golden Harvest" by Jan Tomasz Gross and his wife Irena Grudzinska-Gross will not be published until March 10, but leaked copies have stirred up heated debate in Poland and forced the book's publisher to defend the book and its findings.
The book relates how some Poles living near Nazi death camps such as Treblinka and Belzec stole from the corpses of Jews murdered by the Germans or exploited the Jews' desperate predicament to grab their jobs, houses and belongings. Poland was home to about 2.5 million Jews before World War Two, the second biggest Jewish population in the world, but the vast majority perished at Nazi hands after 1939.
Critics say Gross, a U.S.-based Polish author known for his books about anti-Semitism in Poland, has given a one-sided account of a complex period by focusing solely on the bad actions of some Poles. But his publisher rejected such claims.
"This book does leave aside extenuating circumstances, many elements of the historic and social context. But that was not the point. The point was to present these cruel facts ... to public opinion," said Henryk Wozniakowski, head of the Znak publishing house.
"It does not purport to provide a comprehensive overview of Polish rural communities' actions... The authors focus on the most horrid events, on robberies and killings," he told a news conference. "Those who say the book is anti-Polish make no sense."
Znak, a leading intellectual publishing house in Poland that often deals with Holocaust-related material, has already lost one of its prominent authors who quit in protest at the decision to publish the Gross book.
The publisher's building in the southern Polish city of Krakow has also been sprayed with protest graffiti.
Wozniakowski said Znak's mission was to overcome prejudices and stereotypes, especially in Poland's relations with its neighbours, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and "above all the Jews".
Holocaust researchers have estimated that some 250,000 Polish Jews managed to avoid the death camps while remaining in Poland but that only 40,000 of them survived the war. Gross's book says that Poles killed tens of thousands of the remaining 210,000 or denounced them to the Nazi occupiers.
Gross is a controversial writer in Poland, whose postwar Soviet-backed communist regime made life very difficult for the few remaining Jewish survivors and prevented free and open discussion of what had happened during the Nazi occupation.
Gross's 2001 book "Neighbours" dealt with a 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne in which Poles burned alive several hundred of their Jewish neighbours locked in a barn.
Defenders of Poland's wartime record highlight the many examples of Poles risking their own lives to save Jews and also point out that the Germans also killed millions of Poles.
The Yad Vashem institute commemorating the Holocaust has awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to more than 22,000 people who helped Jews during the Holocaust and of them some 6,200 are Poles, the largest single nationality.
Poland has seen a revival of interest in its Jewish heritage since the advent of democracy in 1989. Jews of Polish origin from North America, western Europe and Israel have visited their ancestral home and a new Jewish musuem is planned in Warsaw.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Gareth Jones and Tim Pearce)