Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross with Irena Grudzinska Gross - review

Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust

Jan Tomasz Gross with Irena Grudzinska Gross

Oxford University Press, 144pp, £9.99

Over the past 30 years, there has been a heated debate in Poland about the scale of Polish anti-Semitism during and after the Holocaust. The central figure in this debate has been the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross. His book Neighbours (2001) accused the Poles of massacring the Jewish half of the population of Jedwabne, a small town in eastern Poland, in July 1941. In Fear (2006), he examined Polish anti-Semitism after the war, in particular the pogrom at Kielce in 1946.

In both books, Gross documented the brutal violence of Polish attacks on Jews, pointing out that a key factor was plunder, “the desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews once and for all”. Poles, he argued, took everything from their Jewish neighbours, from boots and pillows to their homes. It was as if the proverbial neutron bomb had been dropped on these small towns and villages, he writes in Neighbours: “All the owners were eliminated, while their property remained intact.” Golden Harvest not only completes the trilogy; it moves the issue of plunder centre stage.

Gross begins with a black-and-white photo. It shows a group of Polish peasants standing together in a dusty landscape. In front of them are skulls and bones. They are in the fields around Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews were gassed and killed and, Gross argues, they have been looking for jewellery or golden teeth left behind. From this photograph, Gross proceeds to write a history of plunder during the Holocaust in Poland, expanding to include the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe. Through a mix of deeply disturbing case studies and historical analysis, Gross tells a complicated story. It is not simply a question of things taken from Jews by Nazis. His central accusation is that the civilians of occupied Europe colluded with the Nazis in a number of ways.

Gross is clear that the main culprits were the Nazis. “We must always remember,” he writes, “that the catastrophe of European Jews was caused by the Third Reich.” From 1933, there was a policy of “Aryanisation” of Jewish assets, on a huge scale. Gross describes it as “one of the most prodigious property-transfers in modern times”. This took two main forms. First, forcing Jews to surrender their assets, shops, businesses, art collections. Second, a Byzantine set of “taxation, fees and foreign-currency exchange laws connected to the forced emigration policy to which Jews were subjected in the Third Reich”.

After the outbreak of war, forced emigration gave way to ghettoisation and, later, extermination. At each stage, Jews were deprived of all their belongings. They had everything from humble objects such as pillows to clothes, hair and fillings taken from them. Gross shows how others benefited from this policy of state plunder. The German treasury benefited but so did “a host of intermediaries – bankers, realtors, lawyers, civil servants” and countless individuals who took over Jewish-owned homes and businesses. “No other measure of Nazi Jewish policy,” writes Gross, “ultimately involved so many actors and above all, so many profiteers.” In addition to state policy, there were countless acts of individual plunder as soldiers, SS men and guards helped themselves to booty.

However, it wasn’t just the Germans who benefited. Gross shows how many civilians and, indeed, whole communities stole from their Jewish neighbours. Sometimes, this took the form of “friendly transactions”, in which Poles looked after possessions for the duration of the war or as payment for sheltering Jews. “In an overwhelming majority of cases,” according to one Jewish historian, “perhaps 95 per cent, neither goods nor personal belongings were returned.” Often, this took the form of blackmail and worse, as Jews were robbed by people they had known all their lives before they were deported by the Nazis or after they had been hunted down, during so-called “Jew hunts”.

Gross’s gifts as a storyteller and as a researcher in Polish archives make the terror of such situations palpable – the terror and the complexity. The Second World War can no longer be seen as pitting bad Nazis against good civilians and Jews. Jews in occupied Europe had many enemies, often including their neighbours and school friends. Gross makes clear that this is not just about Poland. “Wartime plundering of Jews became a continent-wide affair,” he writes, citing evidence from Vichy France to Corfu.

This wholesale robbery, Gross shows, often went hand in hand with violence as Jews were tortured to reveal where they had hidden their “gold” or were brutally killed by Polish lynch mobs before their belongings were taken and shared out. This is another crucial point. These were not simply the actions of deviant individuals. Many of these acts took place in front of neighbours and after the war it was often those who sheltered Jews rather than those who robbed them who had to keep quiet.

Clearly and vividly written, this fascinating book opens up a new dimension of the Holocaust. The fields around the death camps became a kind of El Dorado, the site of a macabre gold rush. Perhaps the most disturbing words come from Franz Stangl, commander of Treblinka. When asked by Gitta Sereny why he thought the Jews had been exterminated, he replied, “They wanted their money.” And their homes and businesses and boots and teeth.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.