Their Silver Lining: Nazi Genocide and Eastern Europe

By Houman BarekatSeptember 13, 2012

Their Silver Lining: Nazi Genocide and Eastern Europe

Golden Harvest by Irena Grudzinska Gross and Jan Tomasz Gross

FROM THE BALTIC to the Black Sea, Slavic anti-Semitism was already well entrenched by the time the Nazis took it upon themselves to wreak havoc on Central and Eastern Europe. In the regions of White Russia, the Volhynia, Pololia and the Ukraine, there had long existed a four-tiered, distinctly racialized social structure: at the top was the Polish-speaking Roman Catholic landowner; below him, the Ukrainian peasant; and then the Volksdeutsch or Ethnic German farmer; and finally, at the bottom of the pecking order, the Jew, the ‘Christ-killer’ whose violent expropriation and subjugation had been sanctioned, hundreds of years earlier, by no lesser an authority than Martin Luther himself. At the end of the First World War, Ukrainian nationalist gangs brutalized and murdered many thousands of Jews, with pogroms and mass killings reported in various Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian cities.

When these former Tsarist provinces became occupied protectorates of the Nazi Reich, this deeply rooted anti-Semitism found expression once more. The charge brought by the authors of Golden Harvest is that a significant core of Eastern European society (the study is principally focused on Poland) adopted, in respect of their occupiers’ genocidal project to eliminate the Jews of Europe, a position somewhere between sympathetic acquiescence and outright, active complicity. The accounts in this short volume offer a highly persuasive snapshot, reminding us that the Nazis’ campaign of extermination was also “a confrontation between institutions and civilian populations of occupied Europe and the Jews who had lived in these countries for generations.” The book’s chilling cover image, a grainy photograph, recently discovered, of a group of peasants who have been digging for gold in a mountain of ashes at Treblinka long after the war’s end (the skulls of murdered Jews are proudly arranged “as if they were pumpkins or watermelons,”), is a fitting point of departure; the Polish enthusiasm for fleecing, blackmailing and killing their Jewish fellow citizens, though fuelled by base racial hatred, was intimately bound up in the business of property acquisition.

The point was made with discomforting frankness by the Polish journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz, who was stationed near Vilnius during the Nazi occupation: “For the Germans 300 Jews are 300 enemies of humanity; for the Lithuanians they are 300 pairs of shoes, trousers, and the like.” But the distinction is by no means a clear one: the “Aryanization” of Jewish assets within Nazi Germany, described by the Holocaust scholar Frank Bajohr as “one of the most prodigious property-transfers in modern times” was as much a cynical, large-scale theft as a purely hate-driven purge of “enemies.” Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans profiteered from the policy, and in much the same vein the Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians who traded in what they called ‘post-Jewish’ property (a euphemism denoting property stolen from Jews) were merely bearing out the internal logic of the Holocaust.­

The precise extent of Polish involvement in hunting down and killing Polish Jews remains something of a lacuna. Acknowledging this, the authors of Golden Harvest emphasize that their study is unashamedly impressionistic and qualitative; the statistics may be unreliable but, they insist, “as a number of detailed narratives exhibit concurring characteristics, we can make a leap toward a general understanding of the phenomenon.” What seems reasonably clear is that the killings of Jews in rural communities often involved regular, upstanding people; the perpetrators were not limited to a criminal and thuggish underclass, but included skilled workers, civil servants, merchants and teachers — a veritable cross-section of what we would today call ‘mainstream’ society. The severe privations of the wartime economy are an important explanatory factor, but they cannot account for the particular zeal with which a significant proportion of the Polish population embraced the Nazis’ murderous mission. Killings were carried out openly, often publicly, drawing large crowds. . The participation of local elites gave the killings a kind of quasi-official character. The Catholic Church, which might have mitigated the horror by speaking out, or even just urging restraint, said and did nothing.

Why did so few Poles agree to shelter Jews? The authors take issue with the assumption, a central tenet of post-war Polish historiography, that any Pole caught hiding Jews was liable to be executed, together with their entire family. The fact that a minority did take in Jews, taking a calculated risk for monetary gain, suggests the threat level may have been of a somewhat lower order. Furthermore the likelihood of being caught was rather low; German gendarmes and policemen only rarely found hiding Jews, and did so usually only by accident. In the majority of cases, the authors insist, Poles caught hiding Jews were unlikely to be killed. The claim is highly contentious, and difficult to square with the numerous accounts of exemplary punitive killings carried out by the Nazis during the occupation. The authors are on safer ground in noting that the standard punishment, in cases where searches were carried out by Polish gendarmes, was to pillage the house and kill only the hiding Jews. But their extrapolation towards a general downplaying of the atmosphere of fear remains problematic.

In the final months of the war, Polish anti-Nazi guerrilla units scoured villages looking for hiding Jews, killing any they came across. They were effectively doing the Nazis’ work for them, but this was not how they saw it: to the extent that it resulted in the (presumed) enrichment of the individual shelterer, the hiding of Jews constituted, in the words of the Israeli historian Jan Growski, “a form of egotistical activity directed against the community” The offence was thus characterized in terms of a lack of solidarity in the face of German repression. This specious communitarianism offers a hint of the flavor of Polish nationalism during this period. Nationalists like Jerzy Braun, a prominent politician of the Polish underground, celebrated the demise of Polish Jewry precisely because they viewed the Jews as so many obstacles to the amelioration of the lot of the ordinary Polish worker. Writing in 1945, Braun reveled in the emergence of “a Polish third estate” of former urban proletarians who had usurped the Jews and taken over “trade, supplies, mediation and local crafts in the provinces.” In a triumphalist declaration couched in pseudo-Marxian rhetoric, Braun praised the courage of “Those masses […] [who] will not relinquish what they have conquered.” The authors quote a respectable, educated landowner who purports to speak for “the overwhelming majority of my fellow nationals” in insisting that the mass killing of Polish Jews was a blessing for Poland, the one good thing to have come out of the war; anecdotal evidence indicates that it was quite normal, at this time, to hear people speak of erecting a monument to Hitler in recognition of the service he had rendered.

Throughout their book, Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzinska Gross candidly acknowledge that their study is “epistemologically, in the realm of anecdotal (as opposed to systematic) evidence.” But this has not exempted them from a torrent of criticism: the book’s Polish publishers, Znak, were subjected to a campaign of intimidation in 2011; more recently, a row broke out in the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement. In June, a Mr Zamoyski from South London wrote in to warn that “[g]eneralizations and estimates extrapolated from anecdotal evidence and conjecture […] serve only to confuse the issue, embitter, and entrench prejudice.” It was surely inevitable that Golden Harvest, with its strong implication of moral complicity in the Nazis’ crimes against humanity, would meet with a strong response; given that some 6,000 Poles received Righteous Among Nations medals from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Authority in Israel, Mr Zamoyski is right to counsel against drawing myopic, sweeping conclusions about the Polish nation as a whole.

And yet there is nothing especially bold in the book’s central thesis — this is not, in any sense, a revisionist account. Only the numbers are seriously in question: just how many Poles took part in killings? Just how many respectable people were involved in the violence, or otherwise profiteered from the situation? So far as the general character of the events is concerned, the balance of the available evidence supports the authors’ assertion that the plundering of the Polish Jews was “a social practice rather than […] The result of the deviant behavior of some rogue individuals.” The grisly cover photograph encapsulates this sense both of collective enterprise and of moral abjection — in its pathetic squalor, in its ghoulishness, in its total unearthly blankness.

LARB Contributor

Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He reviews for The Guardian, Financial Times, The Irish Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, The New Statesman, Literary Review, and The London Magazine. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017). 


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