Princeton Professor Presents on WWII Killings of Jews by the Polish

As this year’s Alice Fenwick Fleury Zamanakos Endowed Lectureship in History, Princeton University professor and native of Poland Jan Tomasz Gross presented on the murders of Jewish residents of Poland by their Polish neighbors in his presentation “On the Periphery of the Holocaust: Killings of Jews by their Neighbors” on Oct. 26.

“His most famous book is Neighbors, an account of a massacre of one Jewish community by their neighbors,” said Thomas Barrett, Professor and Chair of the History Department, in reference to Gross’ nationally-known book.

The book, fully titled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, faced strong protests in Poland and by Polish nationalists in the United States despite its focus on Polish (rather than German) sources, and was the topic of Gross’ presentation.

“It allows the nation to confront a difficult past, to re-evaluate national myths,” said Gross, beginning his presentation before a St. Mary’s Hall packed with College students, faculty, and community members at 8 p.m. on Oct. 26. “I am very grateful for the chance to be able to come here.”

“I would like to shed light at the killings and plundering of Jews,” began Gross, entering his discussion of the fraction of Jews that were killed not by Germans, but by Polish townsfolk under German oppression. “It’s a marginal issue…but judging by the political and public attention, a sticky one.”

The difficulty in accepting Jewish testimonies of these actions, said Gross, stemmed from several reasons, including Allied propaganda from World War I that shed doubt on post-World War II Holocaust stories, the general anti-Semitic mood of post-war Poland, and the difficulty in accepting stories with often had little evidenceas a base.

“Twenty years later, stories of the Holocaust were taken with caution,” said Gross. “The prevalent mood was anti-Semitic…and [besides,] what could an individual do with individual testomonies?”
Gross went on to say that stories from an “injured party,” in this case the Holocaust victims, only represented part of the whole story.

But while the story itself may not represent pure fact, “they should not be discarded.”

Gross defended the validity of the Jewish massacre primary accounts throughout his presentation. “Did they have a need to embellish or exaggerate their narratives?” he said to the audience. “I think not.”

However, emphasizing the need for discrete pieces of evidence within these accounts, he went on to read several accounts of these victims and others researching the topic, quoting large portions of the text that shed light on the massacres and the surrounding controversies.

One of the biggest questions that arose during the lecture involved understanding why the Polish townsfolk targeted the Jews in their vicinities. Gross said, “Was the killing of Jews expected, deviant behavior?”

In the end, it seemed to Gross that this was more than deviant behavior; it was a need to survive in post-World War II Poland and Germany, that prompted the killings.

“Death at the hands of neighbors is very painful,” said Gross.

Gross ended the lecture with an image of a group of Jewish peasants and local police standing for a photo with desert in the background. According to Gross, the peasants were standing among 80,000 Jews killed during the war, and were digging among the remains for gold possibly left behind by wealthy Jews.

It represented the difficulty the Jews faced to survive, parallel to the struggles of the Polish that turned the Jews in to the Nazis.

Following the presentation, College President Joseph Urgo presented Gross with the Zamanakos Lectureship Award, after which a reception was held at the River Center.

“I thought that Dr. Gross’ lecture was interesting,” said Kevin Tennyson, a first-year who attended the event. “It was thought-provoking about how these people who lived next to their Jewish neighbors for their entire life could commit such atrocities against them.”

This lecture was held in the Auerbach Auditorium of St. Mary’s Hall.

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