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Neighbors’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I am quite amazed at the popularity of and the importance given to Neighbors on the American market. In my opinion, Neighbors extends our knowledge of the Holocaust only marginally. After all, the participation of local communities in the areas of formerly Soviet-occupied Poland in massacres of the Jews—spontaneous, or not spontaneous, encouraged or organized by the Germans—has been known for decades. Jan T. Gross showed that similar events happened also further west than had been acknowledged. On the other hand, the realization that their compatriots engaged in atrocities on such a scale has been quite a shock to the Poles themselves, as judged by the extremely intense debate still dominating in Polish mass media. Gross indeed deserves the credit for bringing this less-than-glamorous part of Polish history to light and to the Poles’ conscience.

This does not mean that his book is entirely free of deficiencies. Some of them were pointed out by István Deák in his excellent review [“Heroes and Victims,” NYR, May 31]. I would like to extend one of his comments. The events in Jedwabne happened in a very particular moment of World War II: the area hitherto occupied by the Soviets had just been transferred into the Nazi realm. The consequences of the Soviet rule were particularly destructive to Polish civil society, with most if not all pre-war administrators, judges, policemen exiled en masse to Siberia, or killed on the spot. This left a vacuum of power which was filled by people like “mayor” Karolak and other individuals called “policemen” in certain reviews of Neighbors as if they were a continuation of the pre-war regime. Nothing of this sort. Pre-war Poland was not a promised land for the Jews but nothing comparable to Jedwabne did happen or could have happened prior to 1941. I have missed such an observation in the book. Similarly, I have missed significant thought about the well-known fact that violence breeds violence. Soviet and later Nazi occupation brutalized people and initiated a vicious circle of hostilities that lasted long into the 1940s. We do not need to look to Jedwabne to notice how under certain conditions neighbors start killing neighbors. Bosnia and Kosovo are much closer to us chronologically to illustrate the problem, and better documented as well. We may also recognize a pattern in which innocent victims pay dearly for the deeds—real, or imagined—of others belonging to the same ethnic group.

Jurek Krzystek

Tallahassee, Florida

To the Editors:

István Deák asks in his review of Tzvetan Todorov, The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust [NYR, May 31, 2001]: “Why did the Bulgarians succeed in saving Jews while the Dutch, who were also not generally anti-Semitic, failed abysmally, with a nearly 100 percent Jewish survival rate in one country and only about 20 percent in the other?”

I answered that question for twenty-two states and regions occupied by and allied to Nazi Germany in Accounting for Genocide: National Responses to Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust (1979), using sociological, historical, and statistical analyses. There is not a direct effect of the extent of anti-Semitism on Jewish victimization (measured by the percent of Jews caught) but an indirect effect, mediated by the effect of pre-war political anti-Semitism on state cooperation. High state cooperation led to Jews becoming segregated and isolated, which led directly to the gas chambers.

Where both state and church refused to sanction discrimination—as in Denmark—internal resistance was highest. Where the state or native administrative bureaucracy began to cooperate, church resistance was critical in inhibiting obedience to authority, legitimating subversion, and/or checking collaboration directly. Church protest proved to be the single element present in every instance in which state collaboration was arrested—as in Bulgaria, France, and Romania…. The majority of Jews evaded deportation in every state occupied by or allied with Germany in which the head of the dominant church spoke out publicly against deportation before or as soon as it began.

Unfortunately, the Netherlands (which I discuss extensively) did not react as would be predicted from the level of pre-war anti-Semitism. There was little leadership from the Queen and government in exile (nor from political leaders in the Netherlands) to the civil service bureaucracy which executed German orders. This led to high state cooperation in registering Jews. “The more efficient, and almost foolproof, method of Jewish identification was devised not in the Reich, but in the Netherlands, by a pre-war Dutch civil servant who traveled to Berlin with his superior’s permission to display his innovation to the Gestapo: ‘The Gestapo had pronounced his identity card even more difficult to reproduce than its German counterpart.’”

Although there was early church protest in the dominant Protestant church, it was not a public nor vocal protest. Church leaders failed to inform their congregants of this as they did not read publicly their protest against the deportation of the Jews, deferring to a German request not to read it from the pulpit. Lacking leadership for resistance, the Dutch did not form a defense movement for people in hiding until the spring of 1943 when Dutchmen were threatened with deportation and forced labor in Germany. It was too late to help the Dutch Jews—by then less than half of them were left.

Deák is correct that only about 20 percent of Dutch Jews were saved but he is wrong about the Bulgarian toll. About 20 percent of Jews under Bulgarian rule became victims, including the Jews in territories formerly in Greece and Yugoslavia occupied by the Bulgarian state, as he explains later in his review.

Dr. Helen Fein

Cambridge, Massachusetts

István Deák replies:

In Poland the initial rancor of the debate that Mr. Krzystek refers to has been mitigated by statements from the Polish government admitting that Poles were responsible for the atrocities at Jedwabne. Meanwhile, according to recent reports, the National Remembrance Institute, an official Polish agency, has sponsored the exhumation of about two hundred victims in or near the barn where Jews were burned alive. Other graves have not been opened. The same agency reported that it discovered some bullets in the exhumed graves; but it remains unclear where these bullets came from and who fired them, and when. These are among the questions that may be dealt with in the much-awaited final statement of the National Remembrance Institute.

Jurek Krzystek is right to say that there were pogroms in other parts of Poland as well, and he is also right when he argues that the massacres were unlikely to have taken place in the absence of several historical factors: utter military defeat, foreign occupation, and the systematic killing of the Polish intelligentsia by both the Germans and the Soviets. After all, until 1939 Poles and Jews lived together, and although Jews suffered from discrimination, Jewish culture and politics thrived in interwar Poland as perhaps nowhere else.

There is no doubt that economic and religious anti-Semitism had deep roots in Poland and that it must have been a driving force in Jedwabne. But, as Jurek Krzystek writes, the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors in Jedwabne and elsewhere must also be attributed, besides other factors, to the nearly complete absence from eastern Poland of the old political, social, economic, and cultural elites. The landowning gentry, the administration, the judiciary, the professionals, and much of the clergy had been killed off or deported by the Soviets after 1939.1 A new elite, installed by the Soviets, had barely been in place when its members had to flee the advancing Germans during June and July 1941. This led to anarchy, a lawlessness that often happens when an old elite is gone and the new one is not yet in place. Jedwabne, for instance, was left in the hands of Marian Karolak, a self-appointed mayor.

Encouraged by German atrocities in neighboring towns, by Karolak’s exhortations, and by the fateful silence of the local priests, the peasants of the region went wild, robbing and killing the Jews who, materially at least, were somewhat better off than they were. For these semiliterate and hopelessly poor people, a pair of good shoes counted for a lot—as it did for peasants elsewhere in Eastern Europe. From Gross’s book and other sources, it seems clear that there was an element of class hatred in the massacres at Jedwabne. It should not be necessary to say that neither this possibility nor any other historical circumstance could ever excuse the unspeakable behavior of the killers at Jedwabne.

Helen Fein is a respected observer of anti-Semitism in countries other than Germany during the war. She rightly argues that pre-war anti-Semitism had significant influence on the fate of Jews under German occupation but, as she herself states, there were also many other factors, for instance the behavior of local church leaders, the attitude of the exile governments, and whether or not the country in question had an efficient bureaucracy. The latter, unfortunately, was the case in the Netherlands.

Still, at least in my opinion, the most important factor for the treatment of Jews was whether or not a country in Nazi-dominated Europe was able to maintain a certain degree of sovereignty. In Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, Vichy France, and Denmark, the governments used the Jews in bargaining with the Nazis and then with the Allies. The lives of Jews were sacrificed or spared depending on which of the two external forces the government wanted to please.

In the utterly defeated countries such as Norway and the Netherlands, which were without a government and without any sovereignty, local bureaucrats and policemen did just what the Nazis wanted them to do in carrying out the elimination of the Jews. In other countries, parts of the native population assisted the Germans in killing or rounding up Jews, as happened in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. As a result, the largest percentages of Jews survived in countries that were allied with Germany during the war.

In Bulgaria, following a great deal of initial brutality and proclaimed anti-Semitic intentions, the pro-German government decided to spare the lives of Bulgarian Jews. The Germans were powerless to prevent this. As a result, so far as we know, not one of the 50,000-odd Bulgarian Jews was handed over to the Germans or killed at home, although many suffered badly in local forced labor camps. Helen Fein writes about Jews under Bulgarian rule; I wrote about the Bulgarian Jews. The 11,143 Jews that the Bulgarian regime handed over to Eichmann in 1943 lived in those parts of Greece and Yugoslavia that were occupied by the Bulgarian army; they were Yugoslav and Greek citizens and did not speak Bulgarian.

The actions of leading Bulgarian officials toward the Nazis and the Jews remain a subject of intense controversy. Among them were Prime Minister Filov, Minister of Interior Gabrovski, Parliamentary Deputy Dimitur Peshev, and, most powerful and controversial of all, King Boris III. The four memorial plaques erected in Jerusalem’s so-called Bulgarian forest to celebrate the survival of Bulgarian Jews were removed in 2000, apparently because one was dedicated to the heroic memory of the King. The debate over the plaques led to a minor political crisis in Bulgaria.

In a long letter to The New York Review, Norbert Yasharoff discusses the role in Bulgarian events of Dimitur Peshev, who did more than anyone else to save the Bulgarian Jews, and of his father, Joseph Yasharoff, the lawyer who dared to defend Peshev before the Communist court that condemned many of the former Bulgarian elite to death. Almost miraculously, Peshev was spared and was freed a few years later, to die in utter isolation and poverty.

We know less about Bulgaria during and just after the war than about most other European countries. Yasharoff, for instance, argues that his father, in defending Peshev, emphasized Peshev’s role as a savior of Jews and that this softened the verdict of his Communist judges. Tzvetan Todorov, the author of The Fragility of Goodness, the book I discussed in my review, believes otherwise. Yasharoff is convinced that Peshev personally ordered the local authorities to stop preparations for the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943; yet it is hard to believe that the vice-chairman of the National Assembly would have had such an authority, particularly in a country that Yasharoff calls a fascist state. But was Bulgaria truly a fascist country during the war? Yes, if we judge it by some of the actions of its police; no, if we consider that it had a functioning parliament with opposition parties, whose deputies often strongly opposed the government. However, because the government could take no major action in Bulgaria without the King’s consent, Boris III must bear responsibility both for the deportation of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews and for saving their Bulgarian counterparts. As a savior of some Jews and as the man responsible for the killing of others, Boris did not really differ greatly from such contemporary heads of state as France’s Marshal Pétain and Hungary’s Admiral Horthy.

Yasharoff disagrees with Tzvetan To-dorov and other writers who have stated that the law requiring Jews to wear the Star of David was generally ignored in Bulgaria. In Yasharoff’s article on Dimitur Peshev, entitled “Bulgaria’s Schindler” (The World and I, June 1995, pp. 206–213), a photograph shows the young Yasharoff and his sister wearing the star on their chests. But how many Bulgarian Jews wore the star and for how long? This is one of many unanswered questions about Bulgaria’s wartime history. The lesson of the Bulgarian story is best explained by Omer Bartov in The New Republic (August 13, 2001) when he writes: “The difference between virtue and vice is far less radical than we would like to believe. Sometimes the most effective goodness…is carried out by those who have already compromised themselves with evil, those who are members of the very organization that set the ball rolling toward the abyss.” Dimitur Peshev, who was a member of the ruling political party in Bulgaria and who voted for the original anti-Semitic laws, was such a person.

Despite their miraculous survival, almost all the Jews left Bulgaria after the war, just as most Jews left Central and Eastern Europe, whether or not there were local pogroms against the survivors.2 The departure of the Jews must be seen as one result of a general East and Central European drive against foreigners, against “the other,” which began in the nineteenth century with the rise of nationalism and the formation of nation-states. The trend accelerated after World War I and even more during World War II with the forced population movements and the extermination of millions of people of all nationalities. After World War II, while all of Poland was shifted westward, millions of Germans were expelled from the region. Today most of the East European countries have only relatively small minorities.

Central to the drive against Jews and many others were the continuous efforts to get rid of people who lived in cities and were better educated, had more money, and often spoke a language and practiced religions different from those in the countryside. Lemberg, once a mainly German city, became the Polish Lwów and is now the largely Ukrainian-speaking L’viv. The inhabitants of Vilnius/Wilno/Vilna once spoke Polish and Yiddish; now they speak Lithuanian. In Budapest and Prague, many if not most people spoke German; now the inhabitants speak Hungarian and Czech. This is less because of the assimilation of local people, although that also took place, and more because of the extermination of the Jews and the expulsion of Germans, Poles, and Hungarians—in other words, many of the people who once made up the landowning, the business, and, in general, the educated classes. The deadly combination of class resentment and ethnic cleansing has been one of the most powerful and most tragic developments of the modern period.

  1. 1

    There is a longstanding debate regarding the number of Polish citizens, Jews and non-Jews, who died during the war. The customary figures are three million Jewish and three million non-Jewish Poles, but there are many other views as well. One reader, Jon Petrie, for instance, challenges my statement that more than a million non-Jewish Poles were killed in German prisons and camps and argues on the basis of much evidence that the number was between 500,000 and 700,000. These figures seem to be based on plausible research; however, because of the many changes in Poland’s borders and the annexation of the eastern half of Poland, we really do not know who was a Pole.

  2. 2

    A valuable study on the mass exodus of Jews from East Central Europe after World War II has recently been published by the Israeli historian Arieh J. Kovachi: Post-Holocaust Politics: Britain, the United States, and Jewish Refugees, 1945–1948 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

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