- Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross with Irena Grudzińska Gross
Jan and Irena Gross begin this extended essay with a clear and succinct statement of its subject: “the collusion of the Polish population in the pillaging and killing of Jews at the periphery of the Holocaust” (p. xiv). They proceed to examine three important issues, the first of which concerns evidence and methodology. On the one hand, the visual evidence of a photograph—such as the image of the “harvest” scene of postwar “diggers” or “gleaners” and militiamen or soldiers on the site of the Treblinka death camp that is a centerpiece of the essay—captures only a single moment in time, and key information about such photos (who took them, when and why were they taken, who is in them, etc.) is seldom known. On the other hand, written evidence such as diaries, letters, memoirs, and testimonies pertain primarily to individual lives and events. Neither of these kinds of evidence can sustain indisputable, quantitatively-grounded conclusions. For the authors, the challenge therefore is how to “convert episodic knowledge into a general understanding of what happened” (p. 18). The fleeting scenes captured in photographs must be interpreted and “situated in a larger flow of events” (p. 17), and anecdotal evidence must be examined from the point of view of ascertaining the pattern of how things happened—revealing the shared values and norms of the historical actors—in order truly to understand what happened.
The authors argue that such a methodology, focusing on the close look at Polish behavior during specific events, allows the historian to confirm or invalidate existing interpretations. The central argument of the book is that the interpretation of the Polish role in the pillaging and killing of Jews as merely the product of the “deviant behavior” of marginalized “scum” within Polish society in a German-produced environment of corrupting violence and lawlessness is wrong. The photograph of the Treblinka “diggers” shows people who, long after the Germans have departed, are totally at ease with the authorities who join them. They are totally oblivious to any notion that they are desecrating the burial site of nearly a million murdered Jews (as they pose themselves for the photo surrounding an orderly display of the skulls and crossed bones of some of the victims disinterred by their search), and feel totally entitled to whatever valuables—including gold-filled teeth pried from skulls—they are able to “harvest.” This was merely [End Page 498] the final, postwar stage in the pervasive spoliation of the Jews set in motion by the Nazis—whose trickle-down redistribution of Jewish property “usually met with a lesser or greater degree of support among the rest of the conquered populations” (p. 15). In short, the authors suggest, Götz Aly’snotionof “Hitler’s Beneficiaries” must be extended to much of the population of German-occupied Europe, where the plundering of Jewish property was a “social practice rather than a criminal activity or the result of the deviant behavior of some rogue individuals” (p. 77). In this regard the authors tellingly quote Kazimierz Sukowicz’s Ponarydiary: “For the Germans 300 Jews are 300 enemies of humanity; for the Lithuanians they are 300 pairs of shoes, trousers, and the like” (p. 37). And from a Ukrainian testimony collected by Father Patrick Desbois: “One day we woke up in the village and we were all wearing Jewish clothes” (p. 72).
More controversial and challenging to a Polish readership will be Jan Gross’s return to the theme of Polish participation in the killing of their Polish Jewish neighbors. If Neighbors focused on the first days of such killing in Jedwabne in July 1941 and Fear on its culmination in the Kielce pogrom in July 1946, Golden Harvest looks at the period in between. Here the focal points are villagers’ participation in rural “Jew hunts” and the urban plague of “blackmailers” or schmaltzowniks (Pol. szmalcownicy...