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Disastrous Event in Jewish History: The Holocaust

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For European Jews, the Holocaust was another link in the historic chain of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust was undoubtedly the most disastrous event in Jewish history, but it continued a pattern of persecution that peaked from the First Crusade of 1096 and persisted after the collapse of the Nazi regime. The selection of literature reviewed in this paper focuses on Anti-Semitism found primarily within the local populations – among Jewish acquaintances and neighbors. The attention placed on these relationships speaks to the anti-Semitic divide in small towns across Europe. The Nazis were responsible for the liquidation of millions of Jews, but these familiar neighbors were perpetrators all the same.

Jan Gross’s Golden Harvest serves as a guide on understanding wartime Poland. Post-war Europe saw the rise of rapacious “diggers”, peasants who went digging for Jewish wealth following the execution of some 800,000 Jews at Treblinka between July 1942 and October 1943. The diggers came in like scavengers and searched desperately for any gold or stones Nazi killers had left behind. A single blurred photograph symbolized the Polish – and European – the plunder of Jewish wealth that supported the events of the Holocaust.

Reports from a camp at which the Germans attempted to plant trees and grass over mass graves described the scene after diggers passed through: “All over the dug-up terrain one finds scattered human bones:…women’s hair, often in braids, also fragments of rotting human flesh, such as hands or lower limbs of small children”. The Germans chased the Polish locals away once they became aware of looting, but only to protect evidence of Jewish murder from the advancing Red Army.

Gross’s attention to Jewish property lends background to “a shift in shared norms concerning acceptable behavior toward the Jews”. Polish villagers regarded their Jewish neighbors as “deceased on leave”, and the plunder of Jewish property represents the cessation of their recognition of these neighbors as human beings. The preoccupation with Jewish property helps the reader understand violent Polish anti-Semitism. Though extermination was ultimately caused by the Third Reich, Polish peasants were willing volunteers in Jewish murder, when the only way Jews could have survived the Holocaust was with the support of locals.

The local population profiteered off of the murder of Jews in various ways: concealing them a price, blackmail, and digging for their gold at mass grave sites. Poles committed acts of torture and rape, as well as Jew hunts, looting, and killing Jews. It follows then that Gross argues the Holocaust was possible because it was openly welcomed in several Nazi-occupied countries. There was no solidarity with the Jews; on the contrary, many became active participants in the exploitation of Jewish property. Gross further argues that “the plunder of Jewish property became a common European experience.”

Gross challenges the conception that these incidents were carried out by hardened criminals, or that they could be condemned as deviant behavior. Locals were not acting defiantly but in total accordance with the social norms of post-war Europe. The reader is alerted to the fact that their perpetrators were humans just like themselves, which makes the photograph of the diggers, particularly unsettling. We cannot assume a sense of superiority, either: “we cannot know for sure that it will not one day be pulled from our own family album.”

Though the main focus of Golden Harvest Poland, they point to instances of murder and plunder in other countries: in France, gendarmes rounded up and imprisoned over 13,000 Jews at the Velodrome d’Hiver; and in Ukraine and Belorussia, local recruits to the police organizations were involved in killing ghettoized Jews. This is where Gross’s use of the term “thick description” presents a different kind of analysis. The authors rely largely on anecdotal evidence from various sources, including archival records, eyewitness accounts, and memoirs. The use of “thick description” allows them to convert “episodic knowledge into a general understanding of what happened.”

This association of Jews with wealth and gold is one of the most common anti-Semitic beliefs, one which Gross identifies as murderous. Local peasants were aware that denouncing Jews hiding in the countryside would fulfill their “desire to plunder them, to take over their belongings, which were imagined to be considerable.” Gross draws a parallel to lunch, but he comments that lynching is done to “teach a subjugated underclass a lesson – to discipline it and keep it in its place”; but “socially sanctioned acts of murderous violence” against Jews were not a form of social control, but annihilation.

Additionally, Jews have been persecuted as God-killers by Christian Europeans since the First Crusade. This applies to the stereotype of the Jew as a ritual murderer, as seen in Helmut Smith’s The Butcher’s Tale. Three decades prior to the rise of the Third Reich, the murder of a young boy in a small Prussian town raised violent riots against Jews on the accusation of ritual murder. The local Christians turned on their Jewish neighbors, and charged them with “the infamous blood-libel charge that has haunted Jews of centuries – and rose up a maelstrom of anti-Semitic riots and demonstrations.”

In March 1900, the town of Konitz woke up one morning to body parts wrapped in butcher paper scattered across several locations in town. Konitz, a town in West Prussia, was home to ten thousand residents. Smith’s retelling of this tale launched a gruesome crime into a symbolic event that was telling of the anti-Semitic division to come.

Nineteen-year-old student Ernst Winter disappeared on March 11th, 1900. Four days later, his dismembered body parts were distributed across town. When his head was discovered in a pool, there was no doubt that it was him. Suspicions fell on the Christian butcher, Gustav Hoffman, whose daughter had struck a relationship with Winter. The townspeople figured it had been Hoffman – the unwanted relationship, as well his knowledge of anatomy as a butcher were enough to rouse suspicion against him, but he quickly turned this toward the Jewish butcher.

Despite a lack of evidence, the town turned its vicious attention toward their Jewish neighbors, accusing them of the blood-libel charge that has haunted Jews for centuries. Local Christians conspired against the Jews and claimed that no evidence against them surfaced because they were being protected by the police. Of course, the police made no effort to denounce these allegations. The police had knowledge that Winter was with two Christian men before his disappearance, but did not follow this lead. Even after making a false arrest, the crowds went after the Jews of Konitz, who were among the most integrated into all of Europe. The effect of rumors and propaganda can be seen, as well. There were daily arrivals of anti-Semitic flyers and leaflets. Jews closed up their businesses and avoided the public and nightfall as much as possible. The sluggish investigation did not help matters at all, and large crowds continued to riot. This happened amidst the rising political anti-Semitism in Germany. During the late 1870s, Heinrich von Treitschke, a champion of unification under Otto von Bismarck, turned his attention to the Jews: “The Jews are our misfortune.”

The editor at Staatsbürgerzeitung, Wilhelm Bruhn, moved to Konitz from Berlin to report on the events. He wrote for an “anti-Semitic newspaper that mixed news and prejudice so thoroughly so as to render them indistinguishable.” Before long, Bruhn resorted to bribing and intimidating locals into testifying against their Jewish neighbors. This was at a time when people consumed sensational news, and the murder at Konitz was another spectacle to behold. Print culture was significant in stirring anti-Semitic sentiments, though Smith argues that this conclusion exempts the stories in the butcher’s tale based on hearsay, which worsened accusations against Jews.

Furthermore, oral communication and print culture had a mutual influence on information at the turn of the century. Stories are what fascinated the crowds of Konitz. The narrative becomes social when many participate in the information and propagation of the narrative – when townspeople become “authors of themselves.” In this sense, journalists, along with Berlin’s print culture, stirred accusations and heightened suspicions against Jews. The press continued to fabricate evidence, report unfounded allegations and validated the darkest fears of the Christian population. “By this time, the consensus against Jews – based on superstitions, rumors, false testimony, and biased reporting – had become an article of faith and accusations an act of allegiance to a community that no longer included Jews.”

These insatiable crowds may have been satisfied with Jewish exclusion, but only military occupation by Prussian troops brought an end to anti-Semitic violence in Konitz, though rioting continued in towns on the periphery of the region. The spilled blood of a young Christian boy symbolized the blood of Jesus Christ – blood that defined the Christian community and defined race. Smith argues that this sense of defilement is integral to the story: the blood libel charge accused Jews of taking the blood of a German Christian, but also consuming it, thereby mixing German Christiana and Jewish fluids. This mixture can be perceived as the crime itself, spawning a well-defined “us” versus “them” rhetoric, which effectively erased a century of Jewish assimilation and emancipation. Neighbors became strangers. The breakdown of communal solidarity seen in Konitz could be found decades later in post-war Poland.

Gross’s Fear is an account of Polish responses to the murder of their fellow Jewish citizens. 90% of the three and a half million Polish Jews were killed during World War II. Those who miraculously survived the Holocaust could not have expected to return home to further rejection and violence. The deadliest peacetime pogrom took place in Kielce just one year after the end of the war, on July 4th, 1946. Published in 2006, Gross’s work was controversial, seen as an attempt to hurt reconciliation with Jews. He writes not to accuse Poles of their crimes, but to honor Jewish Holocaust survivors, and to bring truth to the post-war anti-Jewish events in Poland after the war.

In the beginning, Gross discusses why Poles who saved Jewish lives during the war wanted to remain anonymous. Some Poles defied Nazi military might, but they were afraid of their Polish neighbors after the war. These neighbors would willingly and eagerly deliver stray Jews accidentally left behind into German hands during the war. After the war, 1500 of 200,000 Jews were killed as they returned to their hometowns. The shock was not at the numbers, but the fact that these deaths were at the hands of peacetime Poles. Gross believes this violence was in an effort to chase Jews out of Poland for good. “In their own minds, the people of Kielce were enforcing what was vigilante justice, but justice nevertheless.” Polish authority figures took on the task of supporting these sentiments. Gross commented on the reaction of the police, prosecutors, and the Church – none of which took an interest in Jewish expulsion. For the Polish locals, the only answer was fear. The people of Poland felt threatened by the returning Jews, their own fellow citizens who had lived among them for centuries. Years after the setting of The Butcher’s Tale, Gross wonders if this fear had anything to with the blood-libel charge.

Gross gives several explanations for the incessant anti-Jewish Polish behavior. Firstly, he points out the pre-existing Polish anti-Semitism before the Nazi occupation, which was emboldened by Nazi ideology. On its own, this explanation does not suffice. Next, he describes Polish profiteering during the Holocaust. For Poles who moved into Jewish houses and stole their belongings, the return of Holocaust survivors, along with a demand for the return of their belongings, was infuriating. Beyond the material dimension, Gross brings attention to the fact that surviving Jews reminded the Polish people of their role as witnesses of the Holocaust. Gross argues that they felt a sense of guilt at their moral depravity, which motivated peacetime anti-Semitism. Poles who did nothing to stop Jewish killings could no longer lay claim to victimhood. Gross quotes Tacitus: “It is, indeed, human nature to hate the man whom you have injured.” Polish neighbors were afraid of the Jewish memory, and the Kielce Pogrom was a way to remove any remnants of Jewish existence in Polish history.

Lastly, the European anti-Jewish tradition of Judeo-Communism, known as Żydokomuna in Poland, validated Polish hatred of Jews. According to Judeo-Communism, Jews were successful because of their association with communism. Gross carefully explains that communism used anti-Semitism to attract local populations. For Gross, this is an inadequate explanation for anti-Semitism. In post-communist Eastern Europe, the memory of the Holocaust is as distant as in the minds of simple Polish neighbors.

The disturbing reality of the anti-Semitic purge in Europe goes beyond World War II, as long-standing political and social undertones in European history. Historical research in post-Nazi Europe can be especially difficult, due to the destruction of evidence and memory falsification. A brief look into Holocaust and Jewish studies shows that authors follow a similar argument. Through both active exploitation, as seen in Gross’ account of diggers, as well as more passive forms of accusatory fear-mongering, Jewish persecution surrounding the Holocaust was committed by people well-known to the victims, and elicited a kind of “special suffering, as they must have also felt betrayed.”

Well-known neighbors and acquaintances failed to protect their Jewish counterparts. This argument is found time and time again among historians of the Holocaust. They never deny the violence committed at the hands of Hitler’s soldiers, but they point out the fact that Jews had nowhere to turn. Jewish people had only each other when caught between an anti-Semitic regime and local populations. In some rare cases, help could be found, but this was largely done for profit. As long as individuals remain immune to human injustices, nothing will change. Years to come may bring similar genocides, but we will have learned nothing from our history, and many will commit these same atrocities. This can only be solved by assuming a sense of individual responsibility for our fellow humans.


  1. Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1975.
  2. Gross, Jan T., with Irena Grudzinska Gross. Golden Harvest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  3. Gross, Jan T. Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  4. Smith, Helmut. The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.  

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