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Laurence Weinbaum on Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, by Joanna Beata Michlic

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)


The Power of Hate

Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, by Joanna Beata Michlic, University of Nebraska Press, 2007, 386 pp.

Reviewed by Laurence Weinbaum


This book is  – at least in certain respects – a pioneering work, and its author takes pains to say so explicitly. Together with Antony Polonsky (himself an outstanding pioneer in Polish Jewish studies), she cowrote an important volume on the Jedwabne debate that convulsed Poland at the beginning of the new millennium.  That may explain the bit of hubris that crept into the pages of this otherwise fine piece of scholarship.

Lodz-born Joanna Beata Michlic is since 2007 Professor of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values in Lehigh University. She belongs to the younger generation of Polish and Jewish scholars who have courageously and diligently rewritten the historiography of Polish-Jewish relations. In so doing they have created a far more intricate and accurate picture of that subject, though one that is not always appreciated in Polish society.

Michlic’s latest book is bound to become a standard work on Polish-Jewish relations. For those unfamiliar with the subject matter, especially those who do not read Polish, it is a compelling “guide for the perplexed.”

A Tenacious Anti-Semitism

The author provides a cogent historical analysis of the various anti-Semitic currents in each generation of Polish society ever since that country – while still partitioned – entered the modern age. The enduring vitality of those currents, even in the absence of an appreciable number of Jews, indicates the extent to which Polish society is still, often reflexively, fixated on the Jewish question. Michlic combines meticulous research and dispassionate analysis. The latter is notable in a field still charged with emotion and highly politicized.

In the study of nationalism and xenophobia, perception is a key factor. It is a central concern for Michlic, who states that the point of departure for her research was the work of Omer Bartov. This Israeli scholar, she explains, highlighted the importance of the study of prejudice and fundamental perceptions and beliefs in illuminating how societies relate to minority groups. Others have written on Polish anti-Semitism, and Michlic makes copious use of their scholarship. However, for the most part, those authors have not defined their terms of reference in the same way that Michlic does.

In the preface, Michlic describes the “two different sets of assumptions [that] constitute the main obstacles to scholarly analysis” of the phenomenon she seeks to illuminate:

In the past Polish scholars felt constrained from undertaking scholarly examination of the nature of anti-Jewish prejudices for fear of harming the good name of Poland…. many Polish scholars for a long time rejected the notion of Polish anti-Semitism as an important political, social, and cultural phenomenon in the history of modern Poland…. At the same time, in some Jewish writings and some corners of popular Jewish memory Polish anti-Semitism has functioned as a mythologized phenomenon. It has acquired the characteristics of a unique and ahistorical phenomenon, either assessed as incomparable to other forms of antiminority prejudice and other manifestations of anti-Semitism in Europe or wrongly and simplistically equated with Nazi anti-Semitic genocidal ideology and practice.

Too often, particularly in Jewish circles, prewar anti-Semitism in Poland is seen as a prelude to what happened on Polish soil during the Shoah. It is often claimed that a direct line can be drawn from the overheated atmosphere of Polish anti-Semitism in the late 1930s to the mass murder of Polish Jews. Conversely, wartime Polish actions are often seen in a historical vacuum-often through the prism of those infused with the norms of America’s pluralistic society. To be sure, understanding Polish society’s reaction to the fate of Polish Jewry, including acts of both commission and omission, is impossible without understanding how Poles were conditioned to think of Jews. But Michlic explains, with great erudition and using numerous examples, some obscure and some well known, that neither approach is correct.

She cites, for example, Stefan “Grot” Rowecki, the first commander in chief of the underground Home Army (AK), who matter-of-factly reported to the Polish Government in Exile in September 1941: “Please take it as an established fact that the overwhelming majority of the population is anti-Semitic. Even the Socialists are no exceptions. There are only tactical differences about what to do.” He added, however: “Hardly anybody advocates imitating the Germans.” A motif that permeates nearly all the published and unpublished accounts of Jews who survived the Holocaust on the so-called Aryan side is the common sentiment among the Polish population that, however horrible was the German occupation, Hitler and his minions were solving the Jewish problem.

One survivor cited by Michlic noted: “For years the Poles have been dreaming of getting rid of the Jews and now at last Hitler does it for them…. At bottom they are delighted, however horrified by the inhuman cruelty. The Krauts devouring the Kikes: what could be sweeter?” As the historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote a year before his death in 1944: “The Polish people…were not in a position to deflect the Nazi steamroller from its anti-Jewish course. Was it inevitable that the last impression of the Jews, as they rode the death trains speeding from different parts of the country to Treblinka…should have been the indifference or even joy on the faces of their neighbors?” Given what Michlic explains about Polish attitudes toward Jews, especially those of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it was indeed inevitable.

Paradoxically, communist Poland eventually embraced the ethnonationalist vision of Poland that was promoted by the right-wing Endecja movement before and during the war. Postwar Poland eventually embraced Endecja’s virulent anti-Semitism.

Misplaced Optimism?

Michlic’s book has eight chronologically based chapters. Each, however, can be read on its own, and each represents a freestanding treatment of the period in question. The book culminates in the first decade of the new millennium, which has seen a profound reassessment of how Poland’s wartime history was perceived by Poles.

Michlic focuses on how the revelations about Jedwabne, a Polish hamlet in which Poles massacred their Jewish neighbors in July 1941, were “contextualized” by historians with an ethnonationalist bent-most notably Tomasz Strzemboz, Bogdan Musial, and Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. Also worth considering here would have been the analysis of Romanian-born scholar Michael Shafir, who defined this phenomenon as “selective negationism” and evaluated its manifestations across postcommunist East and Central Europe. Michlic also discusses the church’s response to this issue, comparing the stance of the nationalist clergy with the representatives of the so-called open church, which represents the liberal intellectual wing of Catholicism.

Michlic concludes with a cautiously optimistic prognosis, suggesting that with Poland’s entry into the European Union “the greater exposure of younger generations of ethnic Poles to information and education from the Western world” may strengthen the civic and pluralistic model of Poland, in which anti-Semitism is rejected. However, given West European attitudes toward Jews and Israel, such optimism may be misplaced.

Michlic’s tendency to refer to “Nazi” actions rather than “German” ones is a disturbing, though all too familiar, display of political correctness that should be thoroughly rejected. Although it has become fashionable in recent years to render places names in their original language, doing so in cases  where the English variant is widely accepted cannot be justified. Thus the consistent use of “Warszawa” in place of “Warsaw” is both awkward and irritating, especially when coupled with words such as “ghetto” or “Jews.” Presumably, though, for that the publisher should be taken to task and not the author.

This is a book that will doubtless be discussed for many years to come. Indeed, in recent months, already after Poland‘s Threatening Other was published, yet another bitter discussion of Polish-Jewish relations erupted. It was precipitated by the publication of the Polish translation of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book, Fear, on post-Holocaust Polish anti-Semitism.[1]

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[1]. Jan Tomasz Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (New York: Random House, 2006). Gross’s previous controversial book was Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

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DR. LAURENCE WEINBAUM is chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs and lecturer in history at the Ariel University Center of Samaria.