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