The Difficulty of Jan T. Gross

In 2001, Holocaust scholar and Princeton professor, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1969, shocked the academic world with his book, Neighbors.  The work investigates the murder of the Jewish community in the Polish village, Jedwabne, in the summer of 1941. While the eradication of the Jewish population in this community should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with basic familiarity of the Holocaust, the shock-factor comes from who Gross argues committed the murder: not the Einsatzgruppen, but rather the Poles themselves. Unlike the foreigners, predominately Germans, who exterminated Jewish communities, Gross argues that the Jews’ “neighbors,” the Poles themselves, murdered somewhere between 350-1,600 Jews in a single night. The reason why, he argues, extends back to long ethnic tensions encouraged by far-flung anti-Semitism. In short, World War II and the Germans’ “Operation Barbarossa” were the lit match. They provided the perfect backdrop for such a mass-murder to unfold. However, the tensions and difficulties between Jews and Poles existed for decades, if not centuries, before.

Since its release in 2001, Neighbors has been touted as an important book that reveals Poland to be a nation complicit (and at times actively collaborating) in the murder of Europe’s Jews. It is also condemned as a work with shallow evidence. Whatever the opinion, audiences agree on one point: it is evocative and important. Unsurprisingly, Gross has also been targeted by academics and Polish politicians who deem him “unpatriotic” at best, potentially “libelous” at worst. In 2015, he published an article in which he claimed that the “Poles killed more Jews than Germans” in World War II. Since then, Poland’s politicians have actively targeted him and attempted to strip him of past awards. The case has drawn an international eye with parties coming down on both sides of the issue. Some, including other Polish Holocaust scholars, support Gross’ claims. Others refute it assert that Gross is unpatriotic, libelous, and just wrong. The below article published in April 2016 in The Guardian explores the case further:

Holocaust Scholar Questioned on Claims“.

At the end of the day, the average audience might be inclined to ask, “Why does it matter?” For Gross, the answer is simple: Poland’s xenophobic attitude has never disappeared. He cites the Poles’ reluctance to accept Muslim refugees as contemporary evidence of an engrained attitude.

For me, the question is more subtle. Poland is a glorious country. It is beautiful, its people are friendly when you meet them on the streets. Its history is both tragic and compelling, and at times, extremely admirable. And yet, as a close friend and Holocaust scholar said to me, “Nothing is more complicated than Poland and its Jews.” In 2012, Polish director Władysław Pasikowski produced the film, Aftermath (Pokłosie). Loosely, it is based on Gross’ book but adds a retrospective/investigative aspect to the story. The film is engaging and interesting, but more interesting was its reception. You need look no further than YouTube comments to see how controversial it continues to be. The actors received hate mail and critics lambasted it for its portrayal of Polish action in World War II. See articles below:
1. The Economist

2.  The New York Times

Most worrisome is how the film seemed to encourage anti-Semitic attitudes in parts of Poland. An article published by the Daily Mail suggests that it is not only Poland’s xenophobic attitudes that have not died, but rather also their anti-Semitism. In spite of the fact that an estimated 3.5-4 million Polish-Jews died during the Holocaust, tension remains high between Poles and Jews today. That is, of course, not to say that all or even most Poles are anti-Semitic. The scholarship shows that more Poles helped hide and protect Jews from extermination than any other nationality during World War II. What Gross and his book do do though is uncover an uncomfortable layer of Poland’s history that suggests that anyone could become a collaborator or at the very least, complicit in genocide. Moreover, the work helps reshape our narrative of the Holocaust and adds layers to our understanding of human psychology. For my part, I loved Poland and my heart yearns to return. There is not a single day that I do not miss Krakow. Yet, intellectually I cannot help but ask, “If these tensions and xenophobic attitudes are still so prevalent after 1945, how easy would it be for another genocide to occur?”




New Film: The Zookeeper’s Wife

I have read and seen much pertaining to the Holocaust. One of my favorite topics to teach in my World and Western History II courses is the Holocaust unit. Why? Because so many students think that they understand what happened. And yet, I am constantly surprised at the lack of information they have pertaining to the event, and World War II in general. Most students see it only as a black and white phenomenon, a product of Nazism in which Jews were the sole victims, Nazis the sole perpetrators. To add to this understanding, we spend a good deal of time discussing collaboration, victims, and the ordinary men and women who worked to save lives, and those who aided in the eradication of their neighbors.

One of the new Holocaust films coming out which looks promising is The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on a true story of the zoo in Warsaw under Nazi Occupation. Check out the trailer below:
The Zookeeper’s Wife

Reflections on Poland

What does the average American think when they hear: “Poland”? Throw the word out and you’ll probably get blank looks (just judging from my students’ reactions!) A few people might say: “World War II” and then list off any number of harrowing points associated with the war. Less commonly, you might hear: “cold, communist, Russian.” (Don’t ever tell a Pole that you think of them as ‘Russian’!) The point being, most of us know little about the central European country, and the words we associate with it tend to have a negative connotation. While there are certainly good reasons to associate all of the above-listed terms with Poland, I wanted to share a different image of this unbelievable country: Poland is beautiful.

To begin, let me preface this by saying that my interest in Eastern Europe began before I turned ten. I grew up surrounded by history-nerds and became fascinated with the cold landscape, the Romanovs of Russia, the wars that devastated half a continent, and the Slavic languages. While Russia was my first “Eastern European love,” I shifted my attention to Poland as a doctoral student. In large, I have my Eastern European History course that I took as a PhD student to thank for the shift. Much of the course focused on Poland’s history from the seventeenth-century to the present. And quickly, my romanticizing brain equated Poland with the iconic (if over-used) phoenix rising from the ashes. I tried to count on my fingers the number of times Polish lands had been fought over in the past four hundred years, but it soon was evident that I needed at least two or three extra sets of hands. And yet, in 2016, Poland is undeniably still “Polish.” The country has regained and retained its autonomy in spite of the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. For that, I admire its people immensely.

Given my interests and admiration for Poland, it should not come as a surprise that when the opportunity to spend four days in Krakow presented itself, I seized the moment. I was terrified to leave the safety and security of Berlin (where I could converse easily in German with people) for a city/country where I knew only a handful of basic phrases. The fact that I left for Krakow in January, decidedly not their prettiest time of year, did not help ease the tension I felt. My husband had accompanied me on my travels throughout Germany and Austria but had to return home for work before I left for Krakow. My isolation in the middle of Europe similarly did not alleviate my fear. So why did I do it? The reason is two-fold. First, I wanted to visit what historian, Simon Schama, called “The Landscape of the Holocaust.” The human rights scholar in me would never have forgiven myself if I had not pursued this opportunity. Second, I wanted to meet and to know the Poles and to see them as more than just the victims of war and genocide. I wanted to see and know the people who had triumphed over war, genocide, communism, and foreign occupation. I wanted to see “Eastern Europe.”

After an eight and a half hour bus ride, I arrived in Krakow at 9:00 PM on a bitterly cold, clear, January night. My cell phone did not work. My printed directions from Kraków Główny (train station) to the Secret Garden Hotel in the Kazimierz district showed that I would have to walk three miles across the city lugging my rolling nightmare of a city. So, I opted for a taxi. The driver spoke virtually no English. I spoke virtually no Polish. Needless to say, it was an interesting trip that involved a lot of clutching of the door handle as he swerved through wet, neon-glowing streets! Then as quickly as they had come, the neon streets faded and were replaced by wet, cold, black streets. The driver dropped me off at my hotel. Only I didn’t see it! After attempting to explain it to me, he reluctantly turned off the car, hauled my suitcase onto the street, and took me by the hand. Up to an iron gate he led me and pointed. I finally caught on and deposited more than enough zloty in his hands to compensate for the extra help. This made him brighten considerably. Such was my first interaction with a native Krakovian. I trusted in the overall kindness of human beings and was immediately rewarded. Moreover, I would 100% recommend the Secret Garden Hostel to anyone. It was glorious and affordable with excellent, Polish breakfast spreads!

But what of Krakow and Poland? What can be said about the city and country as a whole? Unfortunately, I had only four days to explore. That said, I saw a lot and quite a bit of it was by foot. I devoted my first day to exploring World War II memorials and sites. Unsurprisingly, I found traces of the war across the city. First, my hostel was located in the old, Jewish district, Kazimierz. Those of you familiar with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film, Schindler’s List, would recognize the district as the backdrop for many of the film’s shots. The bridge in the film is over the Vistula River and connects Kazimierz to the Podgórze district of Krakow. This is the district where the Jewish ghetto was during World War II. It is sadly, still less vibrant and kitschy than Kazimierz. It was also here that I visited Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory (it is still the same building and definitely worth the visit) and the remnants of the ghetto wall and house. In addition, I took a long walk to see Płaszów labor camp on the outskirts of Podgórze. Again, those of you familiar with Schindler’s List will know the camp as the horrific site where SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Amon Goeth over-worked and executed Jewish prisoners. But what can you see now? A sad landscape dotted with trees, a few ruins, and winding paths that lead through the snow. Mostly, it’s up the visitor to supply the story. And for my part, I prefer it that way. It is an incredibly introspective site and requires the traveler to imagine much of what happened. For this reason, I found it to be both more harrowing and more  important visit than even my visit to Auschwitz.

It was on my second day in Poland that I visited Auschwitz. In order to get there from Krakow, you must catch an 8 AM bus and be prepared for a two-hour drive (that is stunningly pretty) through the flat, Polish countryside. Though it is trite to say, there are no words to express the emotional surge that comes with visiting the sites. Most people will simply be taken aback by the enormity of the camp, and the fact that there are actually three camps: Auschwitz I (restored/reconstructed and what became predominately the men’s work camp), Auschwitz II (the massive extermination camp), and Auschwitz III (a subcamp affiliated closely with IG Farben). Due to time constraints, I only saw Auschwitz I and II.

You  might think, “So far, I’ve seen nothing beautiful in your description of Poland. It’s sad and depressing.” And you would be correct! But keep in mind, this is the historical context of the country. And consider how Poland is now one of the most successful, thriving countries in Eastern Europe. Moreover, allow me to share what happened to me when I returned from Auschwitz on my third night in Poland.

Shy and slightly paranoid of new situations by nature, I swore that I would not walk alone after dark in Krakow. But when the bus returned, it was already dark (though it was only 5 PM). Once again, I found myself at the train station. A three mile walk lay between my hostel and me. At least I didn’t have my suitcase this time! My first order of business was to eat some piping hot goulash and hot chocolate once I returned from Auschwitz. A super-kind woman at the station brought them out to me and never has food tasted so good! It rejuvenated me. And when I stepped out of the station, I had the most cathartic experience imaginable. After two days of seeing evidence of human depravity, I walked into one of Krakow’s shopping squares and saw people of all ages ice skating, throwing snowballs, rocking-out to Creed, and tossing Frisbees. My curiosity then got the better of me because I saw a sign which said: “Rynek Główny .” That is, “Main Square.” My feet led me there before I knew what was happening.

Touted as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe, I would have to agree. It was stunning. Millions of red, blue, and white Christmas lights were strung across the narrow streets and from a massive Christmas tree. Local quartets played polkas next to open fires, horse-drawn carriages with swaying lanterns carried passengers under heavy green blankets. People of all ages danced, threw snowballs at one another, offered samples of pierogi and goulash. It was, simply put, one of the happiest scenes I have ever beheld. Into the clear sky, the spires of St. Mary’s Basilica pierced while the medieval Cloth Hall invited shoppers to come spend tons of money on all sorts of non-essential trinkets.

The following day, and my last in Krakow, I set aside all of my interests in World War II and the Holocaust and decided to see the city anew. Of course, it is impossible to visit Krakow and not the majestic white castle, Wawel, that sits atop the hill near the city’s center. Wawel is splendorous and the site of six/seven hundred years of Polish kings and nobles. In its courtyard, you’ll see sculptures of King Kasimir the Great and John Paul II (still the only Polish Pope!) You also will get the chance to see the modern excavation work going on under the castle itself. A treasury houses the crown jewels of the Polish royal families. Do not miss Wawel. You will regret it! Moreover, it gives the visitors spectacular looks of the city, including the river. Below, you’ll also see the Wawel Dragon. In the summer, you can take a tour of the castle’s catacombs to see where the dragon allegedly lived. In winter, you can see the Wawel Dragon with his six heads belch fire about every three to five minutes at the base of the castle. But Krakow has much more to offer, also! There are gorgeous walking parks with flat, winding paths. It is the city of Nicholas Copernicus too, so you’ll get to see statues of him near Jagiellonian University. The ancient Barbican fortification still stands as a reminder of the city’s medieval heritage and near it is St. Florian’s Gate. Both are compelling and harken back to the era of chivalry and knights when Poland was a massive empire. Finally, Rynek Główny  never disappoints. It is the heart of the city in no uncertain terms. It has medieval charm and modern convenience. In addition to the historic sites: St. Mary’s, the Cloth Hall, the Town Hall Tower, and the statue of Adam Mickiewicz (Poland’s literary genius), you will discover endless pubs and restaurants. Generally, there are also local bands and/or musicians playing any variety of music you can imagine: polkas, contemporary rock, and Chopin.

So, is Poland beautiful? In a word…YES! It is gorgeous. But it is different. No one needs to write a blog that says: “Germany is Beautiful” or “Austria is Beautiful.” We already know that because of the countries’ respective mountains, lakes, and coasts. What makes Poland so attractive is not only its sites and cities, or even its flat landscape dotted with trees, creeks, and timber-houses with cobalt shutters. The people make Poland. I spent four days there as a lone American, but I never felt lonely. The Poles were receptive and treated me exceptionally well. Never once did I feel fear (other than perhaps with thoughts to what passed at Auschwitz). I discovered the warmth and strength of the Polish people. And though I am by training, a scholar of Modern German History, it is Poland that my heart yearns most to revisit.





The “New anti-Semitism” in Europe

One of the things that disturbed me most while on my journey to “see the landscape of the Holocaust” were the signs of continued anti-Semitism. While these were seen in Poland, the phenomenon, as news agencies can confirm, is a European one. France is continuing to experience dramatic numbers of their Jews departing. And other countries, including the UK, are seeing a similar exodus taking place. The reasons are many but include: European apathy toward the fate of their Jewish populations, the arrival of radical/anti-Semitic groups in Europe, and the growing appeal of Israel as a haven for the world’s Jews. Check out this three-part series conducted by Vice News on the story.

The Jewish Exodus


Excellent Article on the Jewish Exodus

An excellent article published in The Atlantic on the Jewish exodus out of Europe.

Conflicted Views

In September 2014, I embarked on the most jarring professional experience of my life. A fresh doctoral student who had the full support and encouragement of my adored academic advisor, I set out to conduct an oral history interview with a former officer of the German Wehrmacht. To my Germanist graduate student colleagues, it was an important endeavor which could provide a glimpse into “enemy of World War II.” To everyone else, it was an interview with an “ex-Nazi.”

I embarked on the project with a head full of academic teachings about the merits and pitfalls of oral histories as a historical source. Former conversations with professors about the “modified” histories Germans create to explain Nazism circulated throughout my mind and I remained determined that I would be objective.

Yet, my resolve to remain objective faltered when an elderly, gregarious man with bright eyes and a beaming smile welcomed me into his house. For three hours, he played the gentleman-host and happily answered my questions and shared stories. Candidly he told of growing up among members of the Stahlhelm, of Jewish workers on his family’s farm in the 1930s, and of witnessing the damage committed during the on November 9, 1938 as part of the Kristallnacht.  As he warmed to me, he readily shared his experiences as a German officer on the Eastern Front in World War II: the machine-gunning of Russian troops, the bitter cold and depravation endured on all sides, combat against partisans, and even witnessing the destruction of a concentration camp in 1945. Interspersed with these stories, my host also shared stories of his love for athletics, competition in marathons, dances, family chores, and when he met the love of his life.

At the conclusion of the interview, one thought occupied my mind. “He is so normal…so ordinary.” Compassion and abhorrence vied for a position of dominance in my thoughts. I had entered the interview with complete neutrality, and the hope that I could find something that set this man apart…some quality which explained why he had willingly fought for a country with the most notorious genocidal regime in recent history. And yet…I found none.

A few days later, a second  deeply admired professor and Holocaust scholar approached me after class with a question on his lips. “Alison, why did you conduct an interview with a former-Nazi? Don’t we know what happened?” His comment through me off guard and his since stirred a flurry of emotions in me. Though the question was posed a year ago, I have often thought of it. I think of his comment most often while teaching. Certainly, I have had many engaged and concerned students over the past three years. All too frequently though,  most of my students have only the vaguest inkling of an idea about World War II, the Holocaust, or the consequences of unchecked human rights violations.  The words: “Auschwitz” and “Hitler” are still known. But even they cause only the vaguest reactions and largely are understood by students only through Hollywood. Equally infamous words such as “Sobibor,” “Treblinka” and “Majdanek” are lost. More importantly, the causes of the Holocaust are forgotten. The subject itself is, all too often, met only with apathy.

In January 2016, I embarked on a solo journey to (as historian Simon Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory), “see the landscape of the Holocaust.” My trip took me to Berlin, Munich, Dachau, and Krakow. However it reached its climax on Saturday, January 9, 2016 when I walked under the infernal iron gates of Auschwitz. When I returned to the United States and resumed teaching, all I could think of was the promise the world made after World War II: “Never Again!”

Over the past two years, I have come up with an answer to the question my professor posed. My students, both those who are engaged and those who are indifferent, have helped me in this regard. My answer is this: “No, ‘we’ as collective human beings in the 21st century really don’t know what happened. In 1948, many countries around the world pledged to uphold human rights. As the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and other genocides since 1945 have shown, we forget too easily. And I feel that as a teacher and a scholar of human rights, I have a responsibility to learn as much as possible from the people who were there. Both the victims and the perpetrators so that the message of ‘Never Again!’ will always be remembered.”


Oral History Interview with a former Wehrmacht Officer

Finally! The oral history interview I conducted with a former Wehrmacht officer has been uploaded to my YouTube channel in four parts.
Oral History Interview, September 2014