- Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust by Jeffrey S. Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg
In the summer of 1941, while Soviet control of Poland deteriorated and before the German army established its own control after the official declaration of war in June, some local Polish civilians attacked their Jewish neighbors. One of the more famous lines from Jan Gross's seminal book Neighbors (Princeton University Press, 2001) paints a horrifying portrait of the anti-Jewish pogrom in the town of Jedwabne: "one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women, and children" (7). Gross's overarching argument that the Holocaust against the Jews is inseparable from Nazi rule over every other European civilian caused (and still causes) much discussion in Holocaust literature. Jeffrey S. Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg enter this debate with their new book Intimate Violence.
Kopstein and Wittenberg begin with an historical overview of ethnic relations in the Polish borderlands. They begin their inquiry with antisemitism in nineteenth-century Poland and the debates on how Jewish emancipation during the interwar years was recast as "partisan struggles over state ownership, economic redistribution, and the proper limits of minority autonomy" (19), then consider how the outlook for Jews grew increasingly ominous with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the death of the Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski in 1935, and finally the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. They next investigate a handful of different localities to better understand a peculiar statistic regarding anti-Jewish violence in Poland: in only 9 percent of Polish towns where Jews and non-Jews lived together did a pogrom take place. The central question Kopstein and Wittenberg ask is: why did pogroms occur in some localities but not others? Their conclusion is quite simple: competing nationalisms in certain towns where non-Jews saw potential political rivals was one of the main causes for the anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland. Indeed, pogroms occurred more often in areas with large populations of Jews who advocated for political or national equality; such ethnic violence "is situational rather than inherent" (3).
This is supported by extensive datasets compiled from censuses from 1921 and 1931 and election data from 1922 and 1928. Kopstein and Wittenberg are forthcoming [End Page 394] with the acknowledgment that their sources are incomplete. The pogroms occurred under the fog of war in 1941 in an area Timothy Snyder has aptly called the "blood-lands." The treatment of civilians (both Jewish and non-Jewish) was incredibly harsh in this area. Additionally, much of the Jewish population that survived the pogroms was eventually deported to extermination camps, leaving few or no survivors to testify about the 1941 pogroms. The demographic data, combined with German and Soviet reports, non-Jewish memoirs, and testimony from survivors and perpetrators of the pogroms offers great insight, but is unfortunately limited in several ways and may never be able to offer the full story. Nevertheless, Kopstein and Wittenberg apply their data to several different towns to reach their conclusions. They examine Białystok and Polesie in northeastern Poland, where Poles lived alongside Jews and a handful of Belarusians; Volhynia, Lwów, Stanisławów, and Tarnopol, where Ukrainians lived next to a Polish and Jewish minority; and, to offer a comparison with Poland, certain parts of Lithuania and Romania.
Additionally, Kopstein and Wittenberg use their datasets to dispel certain myths about the 1941 pogroms. For instance, many have claimed over the years that they were a response to a communist-Jewish collaborative conspiracy. However, this is not supported by the quantitative data (88). And although antisemitism is often accepted as a necessary precondition for the pogroms, the data suggest some kind of causal relationship, but not a strong one. Perhaps the most significant historiographical contribution of Intimate Violence is its discussion of Jan Gross's Neighbors. Although Jedwabne...