It is a book that won’t appear until March, yet it has already been hailed as the most important publishing event of 2011. Newspapers have written about it. Journalists and politicians have discussed it on television. It is enough to type the first word of its title into a search engine and hundreds, if not thousands, ofreferences come up. Internet fora are flush with comments. Some are full of indignation, outrage and hatred for the author. He has been called a traitor, a renegade, a liar, a cheat and a slave of mammon. Furious bloggers swear they won’t touch the book with a bargepole, let alone buy it, lest they help this scoundrel and bastard make money. There is even a social movement calling for a boycott of the book’s publishers. There have also been calls for fisticuffs and lawsuits.
Of course, other voices have also been heard. These, however, typically assume a somewhat different tone. One that is calmer, free of scorn and aggression. The more sensible of them suggest we wait until the book has been published to read it and only then start the mud-slinging, if necessary. Others also insist they are not buying the book as it contains only well known facts, so it would be a waste of money. However, the voices of reason and moderation seem to be in the minority.
You will ask what sort of book this is. It is a history book. What is it about? About Poles and Jews, of course. Its author is the Polish sociologist and historian Jan Tomasz Gross, who has been living in the US for decades. Its title, The Gold Harvest, refers to activities carried out by Polish peasants in villages situated in the vicinity of the German extermination camps in eastern Poland: Treblinka, Sobibor and Bełżec, but particularly Treblinka. In these relatively primitive camps the Germans managed without crematoria, burning the corpses of the people they gassed in the open air on huge metal grates. The ashes were then buried in shallow graves. After a year or eighteen months the camps were dismantled, all traces of them were removed and a forest was planted in their stead. After the war the local peasants would dig up the area full of ashes in search of gold and precious stones that had escaped the vigilance of the Nazi butchers. They would dig and sift the sand like gold diggers somewhere in California. And they did find things. The villages started to become wealthier and more civilized. Wooden houses were replaced by houses built of bricks. Tin roofs appeared where there used to be thatch. But this is not a piece about Polish peasants and Jewish ashes, although it is an important topic.
What is fascinating about my country is this inseparable Polish-Jewish mix: the mixture of contradictory feelings, of sympathy, admiration, grievances, fears, fascination and hatred. I don’t think there is any other nation to which we are tied by a stronger bond. Neither the Germans nor the Russians evoke such profound and deeply hidden emotions. There is a certain fatalism to it. There have been no Jews in Poland for a long time now, yet in some unfathomable way we are condemned to each other. They are part of our being, part of our soul, our identity, our subconscious. We have lived together for centuries, ever since stakes and pogroms forced them to flee from all over Europe. In Poland they found a refuge, only to find here also extermination and graves. There was something diabolical about the German plan. The Germans got rid of the ashes, thereby ridding themselves of the guilt and cleansing themselves. We had lived with the Jews for centuries and now we live with their ashes, with their spirits, and this is how it will be until the end of the world. It is quite possible that we will never come to terms with it. If the world associates my country with anything, it is Auschwitz. We have not been able to mourn their death properly. We are a strange nation: on 1 November, on All Saints Day, hundreds of thousands of us descend on the graves of our nearest and dearest to light candles. Hardly anyone on that day comes to the fields of Jewish ashes.
We are not capable of living with our own memory. It seems to weigh too heavily on us. An ordinary book that says we are not as innocent as we would like to be is capable of unleashing demons. It unleashes fear and hysteria. As if the deceased have risen from their graves and entered our lives. And it will certainly be like this until we manage to mourn them properly and to bury them the way we bury our own dead.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
The essay appears in Slovak translation in Forum, a supplement to the daily SME.