WARSAW, Poland – 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 is 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, which was occupied by Germany throughout World War II, by and large behaved honorably during that time. 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 — like the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against Nazi rule — 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 make the public aware of "cruel and often difficult facts."
The book "challenges our collective memory" and is an attempt to seek some justice for Holocaust victims, he said.
Speaking by telephone from the United States, Gross told The Associated Press 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. But "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."
The book is scheduled for a March 10 release in Poland and will be published in English by October.
Znak director Danuta Skora, who acknowledged that the book is controversial, said the publishers had been receiving complaints for weeks. But 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," said Skora.
Gross is no stranger to controversy in Poland. He has a history of igniting emotional debate through books that examine the sometimes-fraught relationship between Christian and Jewish Poles during the war era.
Ten years ago, he sparked furor with the book "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland," which examines the 1941 massacre of about 1,600 Jewish villagers by their Polish neighbors.
Though the book outraged many Poles, it also led to soul-searching. A government investigation found that Poles — and not Nazi Germans — were indeed to blame for the killings. Poland's then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski apologized for his country's sins.
More recently, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz," set off a new discussion with its argument that just after the war Poles persecuted and murdered some of the few Jews who managed to survive Hitler's genocide.
Gross was born in Poland in 1947 to a Jewish father, but fled in 1968 during an anti-Semitic campaign waged by communist authorities. He is now a professor in the history department at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Grudzinska Gross, a researcher in the department of Slavic languages at Princeton, was active in the political opposition in Poland and left her homeland at the same time. The two were once married.