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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The innocence of remembering: Norman Finkelstein on Jan Gross’s Neighbors

Note: this article is ‘one I made earlier’, and I’m posting it now because it has become topical in the light of the row over Norman Finkelstein being refused tenure by DePaul University (a round-up of debate on this topic can be found here). The impulse to write it came not from any wish to do a Finkelstein piece as such, but from my sense of shock at the disjuncture between a book I had read and the way Finkelstein reviewed it. I don’t know (though I have my suspicions) whether the review is typical of his output; I do know that if it is, DePaul’s decision is amply justified on purely academic grounds – which should be the only ones that count. Scholars don’t have to be nice people, they don’t have to have nice opinions and they don’t have to argue in a nice way. They can, however, be expected to have arguments that consist of more than character assassination and abuse.


Jedwabne is a small town in Poland. In 1941 it had around 3000 inhabitants of whom roughly half were Catholic Poles and half Jews. A few days after German troops entered the Soviet-occupied half of Poland in which Jedwabne was located, members of the Polish population drove the town’s Jews into the town square, herded them into a nearby barn, and set the barn alight. One man managed to escape from the barn; a dozen or so people had fled from the town and hidden in the surrounding countryside; a few, by a grotesque irony, saved themselves by taking refuge with the German police; seven were hidden by a Polish farmer’s wife for the rest of the war. The remainder of the town’s Jewish population perished. The perpetrators were plainly aware that the German authorities would not object to their action, but the evidence shows overwhelmingly that they were acting on their own initiative, and not on German orders. The town’s Catholic priest turned away the Jews who appealed to him for help, and did nothing.

This is a synopsis of a little book which I read recently, entitled ‘Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland’, by Jan Tomasz Gross (Princeton, 2001). (A review by George Steiner in the Guardian gives a fuller account)

My emotional response to this tale may be taken as read. Indeed, it is hard to conceive that more than one response could be possible. Such, nevertheless, is the case. When I had finished the book I googled it out of curiosity, and came across a review by one Norman Finkelstein. This is, to put it mildly, a remarkable document, and it is worth examining it closely for what it reveals about its author.

Finkelstein is an important figure among people interested in knowing ‘how far they can go’ in their anti-Zionism without convicting themselves of anti-Semitism. He provides them with a benchmark which reassures them that they can in fact go rather a long way. For is he not at once a serious scholar, a man of the Left, and the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors? What he says, they can say too, with confidence that they can lean on his authority to help them rebut the charge of anti-Semitism.

Let us note first that Finkelstein’s piece was published in a Polish newspaper, and recall that Poland is a country in which the history of the German occupation and the country’s relationship to the Holocaust is still a matter for fierce controversy. Were the Poles purely victims of aggression, or were they also collaborators in genocide? I found some clear signs of the level of denial surrounding these issues when I was on holiday in Cracow in 2005. For instance, the Polish-authored Dorling Kindersley guidebook to the city contains an entry on nearby Auschwitz which, astonishingly, makes no explicit mention of the Jews. Clearly this state of affairs ought to impose a responsibility on any outsider who contributes to the debate via the Polish media.

How, then, does Finkelstein live up to this responsibility? One thing becomes clear in the first couple of sentences. He is very, very angry with Jan Gross. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that he’s far angrier with Gross than with the perpetrators of genocide in Jedwabne. Without having a single criticism to make of the book’s factual accuracy, he sets out to discredit its author. After six paragraphs of denunciation of Gross, Finkelstein finally makes a grudging acknowledgment that he has told a true story and that it needed to be told:-

‘It seems, however, that Poles haven't come to grips with their "Jewish question" and Gross did unearth some new material. The shock and sensation which Gross's book evoked in Poland suggests that Poles have been in denial about ugly aspects of their past. Thus, however incomplete and ideologically tainted, Neighbors has the potential of stimulating a useful and necessary debate in Poland.’

So why the anger, and what are the ideological taints in a book that came across to me as a sober factual account based solidly on eyewitness testimony?

Happy endings

Here by way of a curtain-raiser is one sample of Finkelstein’s vitriol:-

‘Absurd formulations also dot the pages of Neighbors. Gross maintains that Holocaust survivor testimony casts Jewish suffering in a too positive light. "It is all skewed evidence, biased in one direction: these are all stories with a happy ending. They have all been produced by a few who were lucky enough to survive." (10) This is laughable. Do the testimonies of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi brim with joy?’

Sorry, Norman, but I don’t get the joke. Of course Gross is not seeking to deny that the testimonies of Holocaust survivors are unbearably grim. His chilling and anything but absurd point is that the typical experience of the non-surviving majority must have been still worse.

Jedwabne, Rwanda and the singularity of the Holocaust

Finkelstein takes great exception to Gross’s contention that Jedwabne is ‘at its core, a mystery’, seeing this as typifying the ‘dogma’ of Holocaust literature that ‘the Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event’. ‘In Jedwabne, up to 1,600 Jews were slaughtered by their Christian neighbors. In Rwanda, more than 500,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors. Rwanda, however, is comprehensible: it's not The Holocaust’, he retorts.

To take the body counts first, if we really wanted to make a point by playing the numbers game it would have to be the opposite one from that which Finkelstein seeks to imply. As I have already noted, the 1,600 were virtually the entire Jewish population of the little town of Jedwabne. Proportionally speaking it was much worse than Rwanda – or even than the Holocaust as a whole.

Does Gross say that Rwanda is comprehensible? No, not altogether unsurprisingly for a book about something that happened in Poland in 1941, he doesn’t mention Rwanda at all. I assume he would not in any case consider himself qualified to write about it. To decide how comprehensible or incomprehensible the 1994 genocide was would require a level of knowledge of Central African history and culture which, I suspect, is restricted to a rather small circle of scholars. The little knowledge I have suggests that there is a history of endemic violence between Hutus and Tutsis, and that in the past the Hutus were oppressed and exploited by the physically stronger Tutsis. If this is correct it in no way excuses the genocide, but it does make the relevance to Jedwabne and its comprehensibility all the more questionable. We certainly need more scholarly studies of the Rwandan genocide, and perhaps Finkelstein is even now working on one. There again, perhaps Rwanda only interests him for as long as he can make a cheap debating point out of it.

This, incidentally, is just one instance of Finkelstein’s proficiency in the ‘What about…?’ debating tactic. This involves dragging in a completely unrelated issue, asserting a spurious moral equivalence and using it to make an accusation of double standards. Thus in Finkelstein’s peroration What About Vietnam? becomes the basis for accusing Gross of moral cowardice. Gross’s discussion of Poles who successively served Nazism and Stalinism with equal alacrity provokes from Finkelstein an admonishment to consider ‘his own colleagues at New York University like Professor Tony Judt who moved from fashionable leftism to fashionable anti-Communism as the winds shifted in American cultural life’. Anti-Communism being plainly a point of view which no honourable person could conceivably embrace.

Jan Gross and the Holocaust Industry

Norman Finkelstein enjoyed a succès de scandale with his book The Holocaust Industry. I haven’t read much of it, and this article should make it clear why I have little confidence in what I have read. Not that I suppose that there is no truth to be found in it. Jews, being human, are not all saints, and it would be surprising if there were not some who had exploited their victim status. Some of those in respect of whom compensation claims have arisen were, after all, very rich indeed.

But in the Jedwabne article we see to what dark places Finkelstein’s preoccupation with this aspect of human frailty has brought him. ‘Tragically, the outcome of Poland's soul-searching will likely be a revival of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes’ he writes with breathtaking disingenuousness before launching into a lengthy tirade against the Holocaust Industry, which, he warns his Polish readers, is plotting claims that will bankrupt their country.

What relevance does this have to Neighbors, exactly? To answer that question we must consider who Jan Gross is as well as what he writes. Gross is a Jew. More than that, a Polish Jew. More even that, a Polish Jew who left his native country in 1969, in the wake of a Jew-baiting campaign run by the Communist regime under the cover of ‘anti-Zionism’, and settled in America. This seems sufficient to make him a highly suspicious character in Finkelstein’s eyes before he writes a word.

And, far from being on his best behaviour, see what he does: ‘a chapter of Neighbors is devoted to "Who took over the property?"’, and this constitutes ‘elevation of this question to a "big subject"’.

The chapter in question is one of seventeen, not counting the Introduction and the Postscript. In the German translation which I read it consists of three and a half pages of text, which probably equates to rather less than three in the English original. So much for the ‘big subject’. Gross does little more here than document the evidence that the ringleaders of the massacre subsequently helped themselves to the victims’ property, and suggest that this is likely to have been a motivating factor – although there were certainly no vast fortunes involved, indeed nothing, apparently, of greater value than the victims’ modest homes.

At this point Finkelstein grabs the opportunity to catch Gross out in a contradiction: he has called the massacre a mystery, and now here he is ascribing it to something as banal as greed. As if there were no difference between coveting one’s neighbour’s possessions and putting into practice a plan to appropriate them by murdering him in cold blood. In fact the real contradiction is on Finkelstein’s side. On the one hand he wants to suggest that this motivation is so obvious that it scarcely merits a mention at all. On the other hand he seeks to deny that there is any legitimate basis for a claim for restitution of property. So which part of ‘if stuff was stolen it ought to be given back’ does Finkelstein have a problem with?

In his opening paragraph Finkelstein states ‘Neighbors bears the unmistakable imprint of the Holocaust industry. By Holocaust industry, I mean those individuals and institutions exploiting the Jewish genocide during World War II for political and financial gain.’ What exactly is he saying here? That Gross expects to profit personally from compensation claims brought on behalf of the tiny handful of Jedwabne survivors, their relations or relations of the victims? The insinuation is scarcely mistakable, though Finkelstein is canny enough to insure himself against litigation by the insertion of the word ‘political’.

The entire substance of his charge against Gross may be tabulated quite simply:

  1. There are Jews planning inflated compensation claims against Poland.

  2. Gross is a Jew who has written a book about Jews who were murdered by Poles.

  3. Gross has suggested that the murderers helped themselves to their victims’ property.

  4. Gross has written elsewhere about the need to make symbolic restitution (not the same as compensation) of Jewish victims’ property.

  5. Therefore Gross is part of the conspiracy to make ruinous compensation claims against Poland.

Yes, that really is all there is. No shred of evidence that Gross has sinister connections; nothing more except malevolent bluster. Shared Jewishness is sufficient to establish the link that proves a conspiracy. Finkelstein’s animosity towards Neighbors seems to me capable of making only one kind of sense: the position he has arrived at is that Jews have forfeited the moral right to commemorate or even document the events of the Holocaust. There is no space in which they can do so innocently. There are victims, for sure, but the moment they break their silence they compromise their victimhood and become either active participants in the Holocaust Industry or, at best, its dupes.

Finkelstein cannot, of course, be held responsible for the use others make of his views. But it should surprise nobody to discover that they are highly congenial not just to sundry right-wing Polish nationalists, but also to those for whom Holocaust history is still further ‘tainted’ by being entirely fictional.

Gone away

On one section of Neighbors Finkelstein maintains an eloquent silence. At the end of the book are twenty five pages of photographs. First we see Antonina Wyrzykowska, with three of the seven Jews whose lives she saved by hiding them on her farm until the end of the war. The remainder of the photographs portray some of those who were herded into the barn. There are just four exceptions, where the captions note laconically ‘went to Palestine’.

Who can look at these faces and assert that anyone’s desire not to have them around should have taken priority over their need for a place of refuge – that they should have stayed in Jedwabne and helped keep Palestine judenrein? Can Norman Finkelstein say so? Normally so eloquent about the evils of Zionism (another of his moral equivalences likens Israeli soldiers engaged in a conflict with armed militants to the murderers of Jedwabne), he evidently prefers not to answer the question when it is put in this starkly human manner. All the more reason, then, for him to rage against the author who poses it.


I am not Jewish, and my parents enjoyed relatively secure middle-class childhoods in wartime England. Do my views on these matters therefore lack a certain authenticity compared with those of Norman Finkelstein? I am less interested in the claims of identity politics here than, simply, in those of our shared humanity, which has never been more radically denied than it was by the Holocaust, Jedwabne’s ‘little’ Holocaust included. The demands that shared humanity makes are no respecters of persons, so let us speak plainly. If you consistently hate Jews more than you hate anybody else you are anti-Semitic, even if you are a Jew. If you compulsively denigrate those who testify to the realities of the Holocaust, you are ideologically and morally first cousin to the Holocaust deniers, even if you are the child of Holocaust survivors.


Anonymous said...

You are very right. While one may argue the merits of the Swiss bank compensation case (there are two sides to that story as well), the idea that Jan Gross is part of a cabal called the "Holocaust industry" is simply off the wall.

Some Poles have reacted to Fnkelstein's critique of Gross's book by saying 1) it isn't an academic work; but 2) thanks, we don't need you to butt into our affairs and we are dealing with the compensation issue through our own legislation.

Look at this:

Roman Werpachowski said...
Finkelstein himself then intervened into the latest controversy, over Jan Tomas Gross's Neighbours and the pogrom of Jedwabne in eastern Poland scant weeks after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

I've read Finkelstein's critique of Gross's book and the book itself. Finkelstein is a scum. Gross wrote a non-professional book, rather an essay on Jedwabne. Not all of Finkelstein's criticisms are correct, but some probably are. Nevetheless, this was an extremely important book for the Poles. It opened a national debate and allowed for certain truths to come out and certain guilt to be finally confessed. It allowed for a national catharsis. The rabidly anti-Semitic fringes still bark and pretend that Jedwabne was a myth, but the point has been made, and Polish highest state authorities made an apology for the pogrom. Attacking Gross and claiming his book is just "Holocaust industry" is terribly, terribly wrong. With all Gross's faults as a historian, like his exaggeration of the number of victims (he claimed 1,600 and following state investigation put the number at around 400), his book was very important and brought to light many things we Poles would rather forget. And this alone was very, very good.

Sunday, March 26, 2006 1:51:00 PM
Roman Werpachowski said...
Finkelstein somehow acknowledges the good things the book caused, but then proceeds to stir up the compensation controversy. He paints Gross as some willing helper of the so-called "Holocaust industry" which wants to rob Poland out of its wealth. Let me speak for my country about this.

We don't need your defence, Mr Finkelstein. The problem of Polish compensation to the Jews will be solved by Polish legislature and, if such need arises, Polish courts. They alone, and no mythical "Holocaust industry", will decide what compensation is just, to whom and to what extent, taking into account historical justice, the sanctity of private property and the resources of Polish state budget. Poland has absolute sovereignty over this matter and even 10,000 books claiming whatever Finkelstein think Gross's "Neighbours" claim will not change this fact.

Anonymous said...

I am wandering when Jews will pay Poland for Katyn Masacre which was performed by Russian Jew Beria, also for crimes commited by Jewish members of Polish Urzad Bezpieczenstwa (secret police) Also, I have talked to a person who lived in that area during the war as a kid. His mother told him that when Soviets occupied this part of Poland, Jews collaborated with Russians and gave names and addresses of Polish intelligentsia and military personnel. They all have been arrested and executed. So, although I that burning people in barn is OK, I understand that they could act in tjis way in anger.

Cyrus said...

The Katyn massacre was an appalling crime and naturally Poles feel strongly about it. However, if Beria was Jewish, his boss Stalin certainly wasn't. And the Jews of Jedwabne clearly bore not one atom of responsibility for it.

The allegation that Jews in Jedwabne were particularly guilty of collaboration with the Soviet occupiers is dealt with at some length by Gross in his book. I'd urge the poster of the last comment to read it - it's available in Polish, I believe.

Chris said...

that is too bad about finkelstein, but everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how faulty it is...i just read an excerpt of gross' book inside robert wistrich's Hitler and the Holocaust...i was so moved by his account that i determined to write on my blog about it at

turdahav said...

you say "which part of ‘if stuff was stolen it ought to be given back’ does Finkelstein have a problem with?' i couldn't agree more. but you also say "Jews, being human, are not all saints, and it would be surprising if there were not some who had exploited their victim status. Some of those in respect of whom compensation claims have arisen were, after all, very rich indeed." what difference does it make if they are rich? ‘if stuff was stolen it ought to be given back’.

Cyrus said...

turdahav: I agree 100%. My point was only that the amount of wealth at stake creates a motive for questionable claims to be made. Certainly not that it automatically makes the claims questionable.

Cyrus said...

To today's commenter: anyone who wants to read Finkelstein can follow my link. I'm not going to have him regurgitated here by someone who hasn't read my post.