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After the Holocaust

Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II

Reviewer: Danusha V. Goska

After the Holocaust - Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. Boulder: East European Monographs. Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 2003. 265 pages. Hardcover. $32.64 on

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies at the University of Virginia, argues in his new book against interpreting postwar killings of Jews in Poland as the result of antisemitism. He cites three reasons that Poles killed Jews: resistance to Jewish communists, to Jews determined to execute Poles who had collaborated with the Nazis, and to Jews attempting to reclaim property expropriated by Nazis and since claimed by Poles.

To prove his points, Chodakiewicz cites material often not cited, and attempts to investigate claims of killings made by other scholars. Among others he cites John Sack, whose journalism has proven very controversial. Many other scholars in this field would not cite John Sack. Less controversially, Chodakiewicz cites previously unused Polish-language, Soviet-era archives, often local; and materials from underground groups.

Chodakiewicz cites ample evidence to support claims about the Communist occupation that have been recorded in other works. The postwar Communist government of Soviet-occupied Poland did demonize and persecute the heroic Poles who had fought against the Nazis during the war. These Poles, including rescuers of Jews, faced often fabricated charges of antisemitism. This was one way to discredit Poland in the West and lend legitimacy to the Communist takeover. Anti-Nazi heroes were hounded, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Similarly, the author provides ample evidence to support what has been acknowledged elsewhere but remains a contested factor of postwar Polish life. Jews were disproportionately represented in the Communist power structure, including among those actively torturing Poles. Chodakiewicz's estimate of Jews killed in Poland in the immediate postwar period is much smaller than estimates used by other scholars. While other scholars' estimates run as high as 2500, After the Holocaust's estimate is 400-700. Further, Chodakiewicz argues that the number of Poles killed by Jewish communists was greater than the number of Jews killed by Poles. Chodakiewicz's book proved most valuable to this reader as a reminder of the terrible, and too-often ignored, suffering Communism inflicted on a Poland already deeply wounded by Nazism, and as a reminder of the valiant efforts of heroic Poles to resist Communism.

For this reader, Chodakiewicz was less successful in proving that antisemitism had nothing to do with Polish persecution and murder of Jews. Chodakiewicz cites account after account of Polish attacks on Jews. At times his book reads like an aimless and dreary catalogue of local atrocities: Jews in postwar Poland forced, by Poles, to strip naked and sing Jewish songs, Jews axed to death, Jews dragged from trains and murdered. Chodakiewicz does not relate these attacks to interwar Polish antisemitism, which predated the postwar Communist occupation, and which included a demand for a Jew-free Poland. In insisting that these brutalities were motivated by Polish anti-Communism rather than Polish antisemitism, Chodakiewicz begs the question of the nature of hate. The black men who, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, dragged innocent truck driver Reginald Denny from his vehicle and tortured him before news cameras do live in a country with a white supremacist history; their action was a protest against white supremacy. Those facts do not negate that these black men were also violent, unjustifiable bigots. In this same way Polish partisans who murdered Jews who may or may not have been Communists and also murdered their certainly innocent children, may not have had a "pure" anti-Communist motive, but may have acted from an anti-Communism made more explosive by antisemitism. It is also just as likely that anti-Polonist Jews who, as Communists, persecuted Poles, were not acting from pure Communist spirit; anti-Polonism may have honed their zeal to a sharper ferocity. There is no clean line of demarcation where justice leaves off and hate begins; between what one viewer assesses "justifiable revenge," "self-defense" or "rationally motivated extra-judicial executions" and another calls "lynchings," "pogroms," or "irrational racism." A scholar dealing with postwar Poland must be willing to address this murky terrain.

This lack of psychological penetration brings to mind a book that Chodakiewicz should have engaged, but did not: Michael C. Steinlauf's Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Chodakiewicz never mentions that Poles would have ample reason to doubt their own conclusion that Jews, qua Jews, had great power: Poles had just witnessed the Holocaust. Steinlauf points out that this proof of Jewish powerlessness did not alter the stereotype of Jews as being powerful enough to make and break governments. The widespread Polish perception that Jews, as Jews, rather than as pathetic puppets of Stalin, could on their own volition alter Poland's fate is irrational; yet it was powerful enough to give birth to the Polish term "zydokomuna," or "Jewish-communist conspiracy," in Chodakiewicz's translation. Using work by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, Steinlauf argues that Poles underwent, under the Nazis, not only their own trauma, but the trauma of witnessing the genocide of the Jews. This psychological scar, Steinlauf argues, played a role in a post-war antisemitism that cannot always be explained away as anti-Communism. For example, some who hid Jews did not want to be identified as rescuers, for fear of their neighbors' condemnation; some Jewish children were kept in hiding up to a year after the Nazi defeat.

After the Holocaust suffers from another lack. Like it or not, the argument that more Poles were killed by Jews than vice versa raises an unavoidable problem, one unaddressed by Chodakiewicz. The Holocaust was, inter alia, a wake-up call to Western Civilization. "Antisemitism is a bad thing," the Holocaust said, loud and clear, forcing people of good will to interrogate centuries of attitudes, stereotypes, and practices. Antisemites would like to negate that impact of the Holocaust. They do so by arguing that the Holocaust was matched by an equivalent and specifically Jewish genocide of Christians. A December 2003 Google search of the phrase "Jewish communists murdered Christians" immediately turned up countless websites purporting to expose Communism as a specifically Jewish phenomenon directed at the mass-murder of Christians. One such website announces, in no uncertain terms, that Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide deserve no sympathy because Jews themselves committed a "holocaust" against Christians. One can safely wager that the makers of such websites will pounce on Chodakiewicz's book; he should have preempted such exploitation with a complete renunciation.

Finally, there is another unaddressed question. As has often been remarked, an unfortunate feature of the terminology "Jews" and "Poles" is that it tempts one to regard the two groups as mutually exclusive. Plenty of Jews considered themselves just as Polish as their Catholic neighbors; many Polish non-Jews also embrace Jews in their understanding of Polish identity. Polish-Jewish Communists were an entirely valid expression of one aspect of political and social thought in postwar Poland. Their enemies figured them as utterly non-Polish and, indeed, anti-Polish. But they were not, necessarily. Their hostility to a Poland of unbreachable walls between classes and faiths, a Poland where antisemitism could play a prominent role, was a valid expression of Polishness. Some were as idealistic as the Armia Krajowa, and wanted to create a better Poland. Even their ugliest acts of vengeance are comparable to acts committed by Christians driven to violence by the betrayals of the war. Any understanding of these Jews as external to definitions of Polish identity, and therefore worthy of exclusion or death, is flawed.

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