A Polish publishing house is defending its decision to publish a book that says some Poles actively profited from Jewish suffering during the Holocaust — a claim that challenges a national belief about Polish actions during World War II.
Golden Harvest, by Princeton academics Jan Gross and Irena Grudzinska Gross, argues that rural Poles sometimes sought financial gain from Jewish misfortune in a variety of ways, from plundering Jewish mass graves to ferreting out Jews in hiding for rewards.
Gross said the starting point of the book was a photograph showing Polish peasants digging up human remains at the Treblinka death camp just after the war in a search for gold or other treasures that Nazi executioners might have overlooked. Scattered in front of the group are skulls and bones.
The thesis challenges a widespread view among Poles that their nation by and large behaved honorably during World War II. Six million Polish citizens — half of them Jews — were killed during the war and memories remain strong of Polish suffering and sacrifice.
Heroic Polish deeds are a foundation of the national identity, while the state in recent years has regularly bestowed honors on Christian Poles, who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis.
Henryk Wozniakowski, the head of publishing house Znak, said the book aims to highlight “cruel and often difficult facts.”
The book “challenges our collective memory” and is an attempt to seek some justice for Holocaust victims, he said.
Gross said that he sought to “tell the story of the war as it happened” and show that the Holocaust is an integral part of Polish history.
“Non-Jews were subjected to a horrible degree of violence by the Nazi occupiers and there is a very prominent phenomenon of resistance on a unique scale,” he said.
However, “alongside the heroism there was also malfeasance and one finds that these stories run in parallel. There was a significant degree of collusion and persecution of Jews when it proves a material advantage,” Gross said.
Znak director Danuta Skora said the publishers had been receiving complaints for weeks. However, she described the release as important in starting a discussion, adding that she hopes it will inspire more research on the subject.
“To all those people who feel affected by this book or annoyed or upset, I want to say that I apologize deeply,” Skora said.