An Eye For An Eye.
It has always puzzled me that the existence of a thriving postwar Polish Jewish community surprises people. My cousins grew up under communism in the 1950s and 1960s, with Jewish schools, Jewish youth groups, and Jewish summer camps.
My cousins--who now live in Canada--told me about their life in those early postwar years as I was struggling through An Eye for an Eye, by veteran journalist John Sack. His book, with its appalling title--also billed on its jacket as THE UNTOLD STORY OF JEWISH REVENGE AGAINST GERMANS IN 1945--describes postwar atrocities committed in Poland against civilian Germans--women, men, and children--in concentration camps run by Jews recruited by the Polish Communist Office of State Security. Sack cites archival evidence for 1,255 camps set up partly to create a reign of terror so the Germans would flee Polish-occupied Silesian Germany and, officially, to find and punish former Nazis and collaborators among the German population.
As I read An Eye for an Eye, my cousins and I had some of the frankest conversations we've ever had about Jews, anti-Semitism, Poland, and our family's history. Initially, I dreaded asking them what they knew of events such as those described in Sack's book. How dare I interrogate people who lost family and survived the hell of the Holocaust only to be banished from Poland in 1969 during another anti-Semitic crackdown?
But instead of angrily denouncing my chutzpah, they did not shrink from speculation: It was possible, they said, but they--as children--wouldn't have been told about such things.
They did suspect their father had found something distasteful in the Party because he resigned his membership shortly after their return to Poland--but he never told them why. They were forced to give up the lovely German home the Party had given them. Although she was only a little girl at the time, my cousin Sonia, now forty-nine, still remembers the "pretty German furniture, dishes, table linens, and curtains" with some longing. "Of course, we wondered if those Germans had taken it from some other Jewish family," she said.
An Eye for an Eye is based on wrenching interviews with three Jews who admitted commanding concentration camps in Silesia in 1945. Sack, a regular contributor to Esquire and other magazines, including Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, spent seven years digging into Polish and German government archives. He found evidence that 60,000 to 80,000 German civilians died in such camps. One Jew tells a grisly story of camps with sadistic beatings, torture, little food, rampant disease, and a high death rate.
The central story is of Lola Potok, who lost ten siblings and a year-and-a-half-old daughter in Auschwitz and then sought her revenge as director of a camp for suspected German collaborators in Gleiwitz. The book, written novelistically, recounts Lola's experiences in Auschwitz and makes her rage--and her cruel administration of the camp--understandable. As her violent rage diminishes, she goes through a moral crisis, insists on humane treatment of the prisoners, and leaves her post--and Poland--after half a year.
Lola's childhood friend Pinek Maka, the second key Jewish subject, admits he was head of State Security for all of Silesia, but he denies knowledge of the atrocities. He says 60 to 70 per cent of the officers in Silesia were Jews, but most of them left in the last months of 1945. There are nearly seventy pages of notes identifying sources at the end of the book.
When John Sack went on 60 Minutes last November to discuss the investigation of his third Jewish interviewee, Solomon (Shlomo) Morel, the book became the subject of a major brouhaha among scholars, magazine journalists, book reviewers, and officials in American Jewish organizations. Morel had been subpoenaed by the Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against the Polish Nation for interrogation concerning his role as commandant of a camp at Swietochlowice, but he refuses to return from Israel.
Morel admitted to Sack that he ran the camp, and archives verified that he did. So did lurid descriptions of cruelty Sack obtained in interviews with non-Jewish guards. And he got partial verification from one Jew, Pinek Maka's brother, Moshe. The staff at 60 Minutes went further: they found 1,580 death certificates for camp prisoners, many of them signed by Morel.
At that point, the story looked as if it might take off, and it sent shock waves through the Jewish community. Indeed, there was a danger that this book might distort the role of Jews in the postwar treatment of Germans by not supplying the larger context.
I questioned the book's failure to blast the Polish Communists for doubly victimizing Jews by using them cynically to do the Party's dirty work. It's as if, today, we put a group of abused Bosnians in charge of a detention camp for Serbs, or put a group of battered women in charge of a detention center for wife beaters--and then judged them harshly for not administering cool and dispassionate justice.
It also troubled me that Sack never refers to the ultimate fate of many of those Polish Jewish Communists, first under Stalin in the 1950s and again in the 1960s, or to the present-day political motives of Poles and Germans he talked to who simply wanted him to accuse the Jews.
But rather than take on the task of supplying such context, some of Sack's critics chose simply to discredit his entire story. Elan Steinberg, director of the World Jewish Congress, told Sack on 60 Minutes, "You'd better be damn sure you have your evidence there. Because if you don't, you're...insulting the memory of six million martyrs."
A few weeks later, on The Charlie Rose Show, Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, was talking with Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt about Holocaust deniers, and he called Sack's book "a masterpiece of historical distortion."
The New Republic ran a six-page denunciation by Daniel Johan Goldhagen, a professor of government at Harvard, which became the basis for most of the reviews that followed. Sack wrote meticulous letters of refutation, but they were largely ignored. Abe Foxman of the AntiDefamation League of B'nai B'rith called Morel "a Communist of Jewish origin." Even Jon Wiener, writing in The Nation, tried to distance the atrocities from Jews by insisting that the Polish Communists from Jewish families were more Communist than Jewish.
A good try, but it won't wash. My Uncle Meyer, devout Communist and Jewisheducated son of an Orthodox Jew whose picture hangs in my dining room, sent those cousins of mine to Jewish schools as well. One of their teachers from Poland is Marek Web, now chief archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Web confirms that Polish Jewish Communists at that time came from strongly Jewish families, and many of them did not become Communists until after the war.
The Jews and the Communists, for different reasons, shared a common hatred of Polish nationalists. Web says YIVO has no archives on the role of Jews in Communist affairs in early postwar Poland. I spoke with him the day after his colleagues were killed in the July bombing of the YIVO office in Buenos Aires, and I could not bring myself to grill him on the historical details.
It would be tempting simply to dismiss this painful book as the work of an antiSemitic crackpot, as many have. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time have ignored An Eye for an Eye. But John Sack is a noted journalist with some forty years' experience. His work on the Vietnam war is studied in college classes. And he is also a Jew. Respected for years as a meticulous researcher, Sack, and his work, deserve better.
To consider this story of Jewish involvement in postwar atrocities, one must first look at the utterly overlooked history of "ethnic cleansing" of between ten million and twenty million Germans, expelled from their homes in Silesia and Sudetenland in 1945 by the Polish and Czech Communist governments. Their story is not much discussed in the United States, but it should be.
The current turmoil in Europe over property claims and retroactive charges of Communist atrocities, much covered in the European press, has begun to drift across the Atlantic. In late July, The New York Times covered the case of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a prominent literary critic in Germany and a Polish-born Jew. He was forced to admit his involvement with the Polish secret police from 1944 to 1950 after his name turned up on the front page of a Warsaw newspaper publishing excerpts from a secret Polish intelligence archive. The week before, The Wall Street Journal had given page-one coverage to the struggle in the Czech Republic by Jews and Sudeten Germans for legal restoration of homes they were pushed out of almost fifty years ago. Germans are challenging the government over a law that gives homes back to Jews making claims but refuses to consider the claims of Sudeten Germans for houses taken between 1945 and 1948, the very period when Jews figured prominently in the Communist administration.
The vehement reaction to An Eye for an Eye stems in part from the fact that Sack and his publisher tossed this controversial book into an intellectual vacuum--an ignorance about this period and certainly about Jewish presence in this period--with no preface or anything else to set the context.
Furthermore, the publisher, Basic Books, did itself no favor by using a lurid title--admittedly supplied by Sack--and hyped-up jacket copy evoking every anti-Semitic canard in the history of Christianity, unless Basic was out for a bestseller in skinhead country. The Old Testament phrase "an eye for an eye" evokes the voice of Shylock, Shakespeare's merciless, vindictive Jew. It tells us this book is about Jews who got their pound of flesh. It plays into the worst stereotypes (although the Talmud says the Biblical injunction was meant to limit retribution to no more than the specific damages done). The phrase "Jewish revenge," used on the book jacket, implies collective behavior, yet Sack's subjects were angry individuals acting, yes, on their feelings as Jewish victims, but not as part of any organized representation of the Jewish people. To say, "Some Holocaust survivors became like Nazis," in the jacket copy tells us that someone at Basic Books doesn't fully grasp the uniqueness of Nazi assembly-line, industrialized mass murder, targeting the entire Jewish people for extinction.
Inside, the book is far more balanced and empathetic toward the Jewish avengers than the jacket advertises. Sack, a literary journalist, records his interviews and archival research in a novel-like, "in-your-face" style with recreated dialogue that packs the brutal punch of a war story. And the notes at the end of the book are not easy to connect to specific quotations.
Of course, this is a war story, and he has written it the way he has written about every subject he has tackled, from the Korean war to the Persian Gulf. What comes out is not nice, and it wasn't meant to be nice. It's meant to try to get to the truth about war, violence, and other ugly things most of us want to ignore.
Sack never intended his book to be the seminal academic history of early postwar Poland, but only a recounting of one solidly researched piece of it, a horror side-show of history. As a first introduction to his facts, though, it's tough reading. When Sack wrote this way about Vietnam, readers knew the facts and had a context.
As Sack's new book was struggling for credibility, public misperceptions about postwar Poland were being reinforced by the popularity of Schindler's List, the film marketed as the definitive statement on the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg used cinematic metaphor to suggest that Jewish survivors did not return to Poland at all, but headed for Israel. In a scene at the end, the camera fades from the Jews leaving Schindler's munitions factory to the same Jews holding hands on a bare hill in Jerusalem singing "Yerushalayeem shel Zahav."
So, if no Jews went back but were all off in Israel making the desert bloom right after the war, then there couldn't have been enough Jews in the Communist Party to have the role in the Office of State Security Sack describes. Right? Did my cousins grow up in Brigadoon?
And the "Jews of silence" that Elie Wiesel discovered in the late 1960s, whom nobody had known about, the miraculous Jewish community that still hungered for a Jewish identity, were only to be found in the Soviet Union--victims again, this time of Soviet anti-Semitism. During the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, there was no discussion of the problems of Jews in Hungary, Rumania, and Poland. So when my cousins were fired from their jobs and forced to leave the country in 1969, along with thousands of young Polish Jews who were flocking to the United States, Israel, and Canada, they were invisible.
"Sack opened up a can of worms, raised uncomfortable issues about communism and Jews that haven't been talked about before," says Adam Simms, co-editor with Murray Polner of a small muckraking newsletter critical of organized Jewish leadership called PS The Intelligent Guide to Jewish Affairs, which gave Sack a positive review. "Neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and Holocaust revisionists...are just as happy to pursue their hatred regardless of whether Sack's end notes would pass muster in a graduate seminar. His writing may be a bit overheated, but the truth is the ultimate defender of the Jewish people. No one said he falsified or sued him for libel or said it didn't happen."
To the contrary, there is evidence that Sack's subjects were carrying a heavy burden and wanted to be heard. According to him, Lola Potok, who now lives in California, flew to Washington at her own expense to be interviewed on National Public Radio in 1988 after Sack's first interview with her appeared in California magazine.
As for the characterization of his writing as "overheated," Sack, who responds at length to every point of criticism, says he only adopts the form of a Holocaust memoir. He cites passages, for example, from Elie Wiesel's book Night: "I scratched. I battled for a mounthful of air. I tore at decaying flesh," and "A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load--little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it--saw it with my own eyes."
An "overheated" passage from Sack's book comes, he says, from his taped interviews with Lola, and it's not in his memory but in hers:
"No Madame Commandant! I wasn't a big shot inside the SS!"
"You were! You big pigged-out pig!"
"No, I didn't kill any Jews!"
"It shows all over your bloated face!"
"Gnade! Have mercy on me!"
"Why?" Lola cried.
Anthony Polonsky, who is quoted on the book jacket calling Sack's book "a major contribution to our understanding," now feels deceived. Basic Books sent him a manuscript, he says, entitled Lola and later changed the title without telling him.
"But the tone of this discussion is upsetting to me," says Polonsky, a professor of Polish history at Brandeis. A New York magazine piece quotes The New Republic's Wieseltier, for example, as admitting he was not embarrassed to say that, as part of his job of "policing the culture," he felt "the sooner we stopped this book the better." If true, Polonsky says, the quote appalls him.
Polonsky, a Jew from South Africa who teaches the Holocaust, characterizes the American intellectual climate on Jewish matters as quite immature, and says it's time to look at the role of Jews in communism. "Communism," he says, "was an international movement. Jews felt part of something larger and wanted to be the 'new man' in a new society. Initially, the Soviets were for a very harsh policy of revenge and there was a lot of Jewish hatred they could exploit. Perhaps Jews in Israel, South Africa, and Argentina have lost our innocence because we have seen Jews act in awful ways, and it doesn't surprise us that Jews are both victims and oppressors. In America now, everyone has to be a victim; you gain your social status as a victim.
"There is also an Israeli subtext to this controversy, the assumption that Jews have to show we are incapable of seeking revenge, that if you undermine the suffering of the Jews it calls the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise into question. Which is rubbish. There should be no taboo subjects. I don't think you can have a debate about things that divide people unless you are prepared to look honestly at what happened."
The open discussion in Israel about the way many Palestinians were forced to leave in 1948--spurred by discussion of frank books by Israeli journalist-historians Benny Morris and Tom Segev--were, Polonsky says, "healthy and mature for Israeli society."
Sack's book is scheduled to be published next year in Poland, Germany, and Italy, countries actively grappling with conflicts left over from postwar years, as are, in a much bloodier way, the people of the former Yugoslavia. The Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyboroza, Poland's largest leftliberal newspaper, is currently covering an investigation of fifteen former officers of the Office of State Security. The paper is avoiding any mention of Jews, although it is common "street knowledge" that Jews were involved, cultural editor Michal Cichy told me in a phone interview.
"I think there is widespread opinion of the dominance of Jews in the Communist Party," Cichy says, "but mention of this in the Polish press is taboo."
Cichy, a twenty-seven-year-old non-Jewish Pole, fully expects Sack's book to be covered by the anti-Semitic right-wing press. But he plans to break the taboo and cover it in his own paper as well.
Cichy has a history of breaking taboos on Poles and Jews. Last year, he wrote a series exploding what he calls the "Polish sacred myth" of the anti-Nazi uprising of August 1, 1944, in which between thirty and sixty Jews were murdered in an orgy of anti-Semitism. "The myth is that, because we were victims of the Nazis, we could not have persecuted anyone," Cichy says. "So I was accused of spitting on the graves of patriotic Polish soldiers."
But Cichy is worried about Sack's book.
"He undermines the sacred nature of the Holocaust by comparing persecutions of the Germans with what was done to the Jews," says Cichy, who has read the book in English but is waiting for the Polish edition to review it. Cichy wants to review Sack's book because "it is time we talk about these matters grounded in fact, document things, and discuss specific cases and no longer trade in stereotypes and generalities." While he is nervous about Sack's book in the short run, he thinks in the long term it will contribute to an understanding of anti-Semitism.
But there is a real question: How can a book that turns the tables without putting the period in context, that humanizes the vengeance of some Jews and the victimization of some Germans, help us understand anti-Semitism and the range of human reactions it provokes?
The Seventh Million, the Israelis, and the Holocaust, a recent book by Tom Segev, columnist on politics and human rights for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, includes a chapter called "Six Million Germans." It deals with Eastern European Jewish schemes for revenge against former Nazis, including a foiled plot to poison the water supply in German cities. It is written in the sober, footnoted, heavily sourced style that Sack's critics fault him for rejecting. This provocative chapter has not drawn anything like the public discussion of the topic that Sack's book has provoked, but it's important that we discuss this, especially while there are still living Holocaust victims who can join the discussion.
Opponents of Sack's book have said he falls into the category of Holocaust deniers. But Sack's descriptions of Jewish suffering before and during Auschwitz surely do not deny that the Holocaust happened. Has fear chilled all discussion of Jewish history in Europe immediately after the war if the discussion hasn't been approved by the crowd that holds a copyright on the word "Holocaust"?
The larger story broached here, and the main reason we need the public discussion that is being suppressed, is the phenomenon of the endless cycles of revenge that society can't seem to break. I don't believe Sack's notion--that simply telling this story will prevent a rehappening--makes sense. None of our knowledge of the war and postwar period seems to be useful for stanching the flow of blood from the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps the complexity of this revenge-and-counterrevenge cycle can shed light on the archaeology of grievances that seems to fuel and motivate today's reactions to fifty-year-old events.
I hope they change the title in the paperback edition so it won't arouse the backlash the first edition has produced. It horrified me, but not because I was afraid to read unflattering portrayals of Jews--I have made a career of ferreting out suppression of dissent in the Jewish community.
It isn't the truth that frightens me but the suppression of free speech in order to protect communal myths that are not lies but truths rendered so sacrosanct and undiscussed that they start to smell fishy. In this climate, the fear that Sack's book might be the spark that ignites a forest fire of anti-Semitism and lends credence to neo-Nazi lies, is perhaps the reason Sack's story was treated as a hot potato by many publications.
Fear has chilled public discussion of Jewish affairs among scholars and journalists for too long, leaving the field open only to such propagandists as Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.
Why is information like Sack's so dangerous?
If Jews got their revenge in Poland, maybe they "are not victims but victimizers, who 'stole' billions in reparations, destroyed Germany's good name by spreading the 'myth' of the Holocaust, and used the world's sympathy to 'displace' another people so the state of Israel could be established." That's how Deborah Lipstadt defines the agenda of Holocaust deniers.
If Jews were capable of wreaking vengeance on Germans, were they, perhaps, running the slave trade? For the record, they weren't.
Why weren't Jews leaders of the abolitionist movement if they have always led all movements for civil rights? Good question, but most American Jews are descended from people who came here after the Civil War.
The power and spin of the communal myth of "eternal victim" and "eternal champion of all victims" leaves no room for shades of gray. Jews are either--as a people--pure as the driven snow or they are as evil as Christian anti-Semites have always said.
Solomon Morel won't go back to Poland, but the Poles do want to put him on trial. What would it mean for Jews all over Europe today if there were a show trial on CNN, with Germans testifying against a Jew? Sack thought about it. In An Eye for an Eye, he recounts a 1992 interview with Leszek Nasiadko, the thirtyseven-year-old Polish major heading up the Morel investigation for the Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against the Polish Nation.
"Nasiadko...had sympathy for the Jews...but he knew a prosecutor shouldn't think about this. If somehow he got some evidence, he figured he'd ask the police to dig at the Rawa River...and he didn't let himself think that the TV cameras absent at Auschwitz (and even The Times and Time) might gather at Swietochlowice to capture the mind-numbing sight: the bones of Germans who'd died in the custody of a Jew."
To understand what happened in the anarchy of post-World War II Europe--the period when Spielberg has the Schindler Jews leaving the camps for Jerusalem--is to confront, as mature people, the evil within us all, the evil even a saint can be made to perform after suffering under the most extreme circumstances--and that's what the Holocaust unquestionably was.
Our challenge today, as progressives, is to figure out how to restructure society to prevent such orgies of revenge (like those Sack discovered in postwar Poland, like those occurring now in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Haiti) from happening. We must accept those vengeful impulses as human, not evil, and learn to protect people from unleashing the worst in themselves.
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|Author:||Oppenheim, Carolyn Toll|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1994|
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