Profile: Jan Tomasz Gross

Opening photograh in Golden Harvest (2011)
As his publishers hold a press conference in Krakow today on the March publication of the already controversial new book by Jan T. Gross on how some Poles allegedly gained financially from the Holocaust, we look at what drives the Princeton University academic to produce work that often outrages many in Poland.

Former Solidarity activist and latterly historian Father Tadeusz Isakowicz Zaleski has said Golden Harvest (2011) contains “a huge number of libellous distortions and demagogic formulations”; protesters have called for the publishers Znak to drop the work from its catalogue and graffiti has been daubed on the walls of the publishing house in Krakow.

Golden Harvest could turn out to be as controversial a book as Neighbours, which laid the blame for a pogrom of hundreds of Jews in the village of Jedwabne at the hands of Poles in Nazi and Soviet occupied Poland. The book led to hot debate in Poland and the then president Aleksander Kwasniewski to offer an apology on behalf of the nation in 2001.

All his work has been contested by historians who criticise his methodology and conclusions. But Gross still continues to write histories which touch raw nerves in his homeland.


Jan Tomasz Gross was born in Warsaw on August 1, 1947. That date was the 3rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the doomed insurgency against the German Nazi occupants which resulted in the destruction of the city.

The future professor's mother, Hanna Szumanska, had taken part in the Uprising as a liaison officer of Poland's Home Army (AK), the officially sanctioned force of the Polish-government-in-exile. However, she had already been operating as a conspirator before then.

Szumanska's father was both a nobleman and a noted barrister, and she herself would marry into legal families. Her first marriage was to the lawyer Stanislaw Wertheim, an assimilated Polish Jew. A year before the rising, Wertheim was denounced by a neighbour - reputedly for a bottle of vodka - and subsequently shot by the Germans at Warsaw's Pawiak prison.

Her second husband, Zygmunt Gross, was a lawyer and musician who had spent the first part of the war working in the musical theatre in Lwow (today Lviv, Ukraine). Zygmunt's father Adolf had been a leading public figure in pre-First World War Krakow, campaigning for women's rights and representing Galicia (then an autonomous province within the Habsburg Empire) as one of its members of parliament.

Owing to Zygmunt Gross's Jewish background, he fled to Warsaw in the midst of the war. There, through the underground, he met his future wife, who helped him stay concealed from the Germans. The pair married after the war.

Student rebel

As a young man, Jan Tomasz Gross gravitated towards a group of intelligent, liberal rebels who reacted against the constraints of the communist system. In some cases this also involved a reaction against immediate family. For example, Adam Michnik's father and uncle were prominent communists.

Whilst studying physics at Warsaw University, Gross joined the self-titled “commandos” which would be central to the ill-starred protests of March 1968. This intimate group included Jan Litynski (currently an advisor to President Komorowski), writer Barbara Torunczyk, Irena Grudzinska (Gross's future wife) and the aforementioned Adam Michnik, current owner of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

The non-violent protests of March 1968, which championed freedom of speech, were stamped out by force. Close to 4000 arrests were made. Members of the “Commandos” were given prison sentences (Michnik 3 years), and Gross, then 20 years old, six months.

Whilst many protesters languished in prison, Communist officials, nervous about widespread disgruntlement across the country, chose to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment as a means of tarnishing the ideals of the would-be reformers. Large sections of Polish society had cheered on Israel in its war against Egypt (then a Soviet ally) in 1967. Now, all anti-Communist sentiment was blamed on ''Zionists.” Conveniently for the government, some of the commandos were of Jewish background. Now, about 20,000 people of Jewish descent lost their jobs, over half of whom were compelled to leave the country. Prominent Jews within the party were also ejected in an internal power struggle.

Jan Gross's mother decided that she too would leave Poland with her family once her son was released from prison. This they did, emigrating to America, where they had relatives. The communist government issued one-way passports to all such émigrés. Irena Grudzinska later joined the family and the couple married soon afterwards.

Career in America

Jan Gross managed to study Sociology at Yale University, where he received his doctorate in 1975. He began a career in teaching, the Second World War being his main field of interest.

An early book, co-edited by his wife, was War Through Children's Eyes (1981), which presented testimonies of those deported by Stalin to the depths of the Soviet Union. This subject was officially taboo in communist Poland – several hundred thousand Polish citizens had suffered this fate (Russian estimates 330,000, wartime Polish estimates 1.2 million).

Gross would follow up this theme with Revolution From Abroad (1988) but it was his investigation of specifically Jewish themes that made him a household name in Poland, as well as the focus of newspaper headlines across the globe.

The watershed book was Neighbours (2001), which drew back the curtain on the massacre of Jewish inhabitants of the town of Jedwabne, northeastern Poland. Gross showed how the massacre, little written about since the post-war trial, was carried out by Poles, with the Germans watching over. The book prompted a national debate in Poland, and an apology from President Kwasniewski to the Jewish nation.

The book proved highly controversial, but Poland's Institute of National Remembrance backed up Gross's findings, although they posited that the number of Jews murdered was in the region of 300 rather than over 1000.

“The Poles suffered terribly under the Nazis and the Soviets,” Gross has noted. He ascribes the furore around the book to the fact that Neighbours “directly undermined a stereotype of the war in which the Poles were seen simply as victims.”

Gross returned to the Jewish theme with Fear, (2006), which investigated anti-Jewish violence in Poland after the war. The main focus was the Kielce pogrom of 1946, in which over 40 Jews were murdered. He examined notions of the Jewish bogeyman in relation to the age-old concept of blood libel, as well as the more recent stereotype of the Jewish communist.

Again, the book caused a great deal of controversy, shedding light on a atrocities that had been little discussed in Poland since the 1940s.

The book was not written in the dispassionate style favoured by so many in the academic community, and many historians accused Gross of sensationalism. However, attempts to sue Gross for defaming Poland were rejected, as the bald facts of the pogroms were undeniable.

In January 2011, it was announced that a further book was due for release. Golden Harvest looks at Polish-Jewish relations during World War II, considering ways in which Poles profited by looting Jewish property. The book also questions the altruistic methods of some Poles who attempted to shelter Jews. Even before its release, Golden Harvest had inspired outrage in some circles, with more charges that Gross was making sweeping generalisations.

Painful debate

The current book has shown again that Jan Gross, now a professor at Princeton, has both committed detractors and adherents in Poland, both in the media and the academic community. To some, he is “a Jewish sociologist” whose aims are “to vilify the Polish nation” and profit from the so-called Holocaust industry.

To others, he is a bold pioneer, providing a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed if Poland is to come to terms with her past – a past muddled by 50 years of Communist disinformation.

Some figures keen to promote reconciliation between Poles and Jews have lamented that Gross's books are not tempered by any in-depth discussion of positive aspects of the country's centuries old Jewish heritage. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz described the author's work as releasing “the twin evils of anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism.”

However, others have argued that Gross's approach is a kind of extreme shock therapy that provokes necessary debate. The author has unquestionably succeeded in provoking a national debate, albeit one that often descends into mudslinging. (nh/pg)