Poles are being told unwelcome things about the country’s experiences under Nazi rule. The most recent upheavals have been triggered by the publication of a new book by Jan T. Gross:
Its title, Golden Harvest, stems from a cover photograph that purportedly shows Polish peasants who have been digging through remains of victims killed at Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews were gassed and cremated, to find gold or valuable stones neglected by the Nazis.
From there, Mr. Gross narrates events beyond the barbed wire of Nazi death camps. He describes Poles hunting Jews down, extorting money from them, massacring them, and profiting by taking over their jobs and property. Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the war began, and about 90 percent had perished by its end.
“There was a sense of satisfaction that was quite widespread that they are being eliminated from Polish economic and social life,” Mr. Gross says in a phone interview from Kraków, where he is teaching a summer course for Princeton students. “When given the opportunity, a large number of Poles participated in victimization of Jews.”
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The white-haired, New York-based writer, 64, enjoys a level of notoriety in his native country that lacks any analogue among American historians. When word gets out that he is publishing a new book, anxiety spreads about what dirty laundry he will expose this time. His writing gets discussed on prime-time TV.
Mr. Gross “polarizes public opinion probably more than anyone else outside of the political world,” says Jan Grabowski, a Holocaust historian who splits his time between the University of Ottawa and Poland.
His books have struck such a nerve because they cut against the national narrative that Poland is exclusively a victim of history, not a victimizer.