Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Day My Mother Died

 The Day My Mother Died

My mother died sixteen years ago, January 27, 2006. 

She died in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona. It was a beautiful place, out in the desert, cactus and sage and rocks and reddish sand all around. She would have liked it. Before she got too sick, she used to like sitting outside and enjoying the little bit of desert that she had in her own back yard.

She had come a long way to die.

She was born in a forest outside a small village west of Lvov, Poland in 1922. She loved that forest and probably would have stayed there her whole life except for the Germans. They came to her house and killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby. My mother fled into the woods, but the soldiers caught her and put her on a train that took her to a slave labor camp in Germany. Once I asked my mother to tell me what happened on that train. She said that even though I was a grown man and a professor, she saw things she couldn't tell me about.

For a long time, she also wouldn't tell me much about the slave labor camps in Germany. She would wave her hand at me and just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away." When she did start telling me about the things that happened in the camp, some times I had to ask her not to tell me.

At the end of the war, my mother met my father, another Pole who had been in the slave labor camps. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

They married and waited in the refugee camps in Germany until someone in America would agree to sponsor them so that they could come here. They waited for 6 years. During that time, they had two kids, my sister Danusha and me.

In June of 1951, we came to America. For a while my mom and dad worked on a farm to pay off their passage here. Then, we moved to Chicago, and my mom worked in a factory.

The way I remember it my Mom was always working, working in one factory or another and working around the houses she and my Dad bought. She would plaster walls, paint, sand floors, and varnish them too. There was no work that she wouldn't do.

When my parents retired, they finally moved out to Sun City, Arizona, a long way from the village in Poland my mom grew up in. After he died out there in 1997, she lived there alone, taking care of her house and the garden, making friends and thinking about her grandchildren.

I've written a lot of poems about her over the years, and since the day she died, I've been trying to write a poem about her dying. Let me tell you, it's not coming. I've got pages of notes and half starts for the poem, but for some reason none of the words and lines say what I want them to say about my mom and how I feel about her and how her death touched me. Maybe I'll be able to write the poem someday, but I can't do it right now.

So I want to end this with one of my favorite poems about my mom from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

My Mother's Optimism

When she was seventy-eight years old

And the angel of death called to her

and told her the vaginal bleeding

that had been starting and stopping

like a crazy menopausal period

was ovarian cancer, she said to him,

“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you

your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.

If you got to cut it out, you got to.”

After surgery, in the convalescent home

Among the old men crying for their mothers,

And the silent roommates waiting for death

she called me over to see her wound,

stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches

from below her breasts to below her navel.

And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”

She said, “Johnny, don't be such a baby.”

Six months later, at the end of her chemo,

my mother knows why the old men cry.

A few wiry strands of hair on head,

Her hands so weak she couldn’t hold a cup,

Her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,

She says, “I’ll get better. After his chemo,

Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.

He was playing golf and breaking down doors

When he died of a heart attack at ninety.”

Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,

“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”

And she laughs.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Guzlowski’s Poetry about the War


Lightning and Ashes: The Poetry of John Guzlowski

John Guzlowski is arguably the most accomplished Polish-American poet on the contemporary scene, a writer who will figure prominently in any history of Polish-American literature; and Lightning and Ashes firmly establishes Guzlowski’s artistic standing not just in Polonia but in the world of American letters. A proper appreciation of Guzlowski’s vision and achievement, however, requires some biographical background.

John Guzlowski is the son of Jan Guzlowski and Tekla Hanczarek, Polish nationals who were deported to Germany during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Born in 1920 in farming village north of Poznań, Jan was arrested by Nazi soldiers in 1940 and transported with other men of his village to the Buchenwald Concentration District where he worked for five years as a slave laborer on farms and in factories. Tekla was born in 1922 west of Lwów in eastern Poland; she was taken into custody in a roundup in 1942, after the murder of her mother, sister, and niece, and also relocated as a forced laborer. Jan and Tekla were married after the war and spent six years in refugee camps. John Guzlowski—properly Jan Zbigniew Guzlowski—was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Vienenburg, Germany, in 1948.

In 1951, the family, including an older daughter, Danuta (Kapustka), came to the United States as “DPs” (“displaced persons,” the term Guzlowski uses to describe their status). After working on a farm to pay for the cost of their passage to America, the family eventually found its way to Chicago and settled in the area around St. Fidelis Parish in Humboldt Park. Jan and Tekla Guzlowski worked in various factories in Chicago. John attended St. Patrick High School, took a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus, and earned a doctorate in English from Purdue University.

Guzlowski taught for twenty-five years at Eastern Illinois University, achieving an impressive record as a teacher and scholar. Twice in his career (1987 and 1993) he was presented with the Eastern Illinois University Faculty Excellence Teaching Award, in addition to two Achievement and Contribution Awards and recognition as the Distinguished Honors Faculty Member of 1992. He also produced a fine record of scholarship, publishing various articles on contemporary fiction and eventually emerging as a leading American authority on the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Guzlowski maintains an active blog, had one of his poems read by Garrison Keillor on the prestigious Writer’s Almanac on public radio, and he has recently been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

More to the point of this study, Guzlowski began writing poetry. His poems have been published in a wide variety of journals including Atlantic Review, Spoon River Quarterly, Poetry East, Proteus: A Journal of Thought, and Periphery in the United States and such venues as Akcent, Nowa Okolica Poetów, and Tygodnik Powszechny in Poland, and Kalligram in Hungary. Guzlowski’s first collection of poems was entitled The Language of Mules; and in addition to its American edition, it was translated into Polish in 2002 by the Biblioteka Sląska in Katowice. Lightning and Ashes is Guzlowski’s second collection of poems; a third volume, Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, was published in 2006.

Guzlowski’s work has already attracted widespread recognition and garnered a number of awards. The Language of Mules, for example, earned for Guzlowski an Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award in 2002; and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry. Beyond that, he has been honored as featured poet by journals such as Spoon River Review and Margie: An American Journal of Poetry.

The primary subject of much of John Guzlowski’s poetry is the experience of his parents in the slave labor camps of Nazi Germany during World War II. With some modifications, this is true as well for the poems in Lightning and Ashes. In that volume, however, Guzlowski has broadened his focus and provides something of a family history. The primary focus of the collection remains the experience of his parents as slave laborers during the war; but now Guzlowski also reports more extensively on his parents’ lives in Poland before the war and on the story of the family’s experiences in the United States; he also wrestles with and tries to understand the legacy of the war for his parents and for himself and his sister—and even for his daughter.

This is part of the reason why John Guzlowski’s poetry is so important. For American audiences in general, he is telling a story which few have ever heard: the history of non-Jewish victims of World War II, the experiences of Polish Christian victims. At the Sixty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, two prominent leaders of the Jewish American community commented on precisely this problem. Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College, coeditor of Rethinking Poles and Jews, observed that “the brutality experienced by Polish Catholics is a story that’s not known by people outside of the Polish community”; and Guy Billauer of the American Jewish Committee commented that “Polish suffering [during World War II] is virtually unknown and needs to be disseminated.” In telling the story of his family in his poetry, Guzlowski is addressing this need; he is also reporting the experiences of a segment of the Polish American community which has probably been most neglected in the literary record of Polonia: that of Polish displaced persons who relocated in the United States after the war.

Most of us recognize, I think, that the majority of Americans are woefully ignorant of the story of Polish Americans and of Poles in America; this is partially a result of the selective indifference of American culture and of the American educational system to particular ethnic groups; but it is also a consequence of the Polish American community’s failure to find and support those voices which tell their story. This makes Guzlowski’s poetry doubly important: he is recording the story of a particularly neglected segment of the Polish American community, including that segment’s experience in World War II; and he is telling that story with great skill and recognition to both other members of Polonia and to the American public at large. Nowhere has he done this more powerfully than in Lightning and Ashes.

For the most part, the poems in this volume report the stories of the war experiences which his parents shared with him—sometimes willingly and eagerly and at other times reluctantly and under some duress. Guzlowski refuses to forget these stories and to allow others to forget or to remain ignorant. In a poem entitled “What My Father Brought with Him,” he recounts: “Once he [the father] watched / a woman in the moments before she died / take a stick and try to write her name / in the mud where she lay.” This desperate effort of a dying woman to be remembered motivated both the father’s report and the son’s effort to capture the memory in poetry. Guzlowski is not content, however, with simply reporting the tales of others; he wants the experiences of his parents to be remembered.

Not infrequently, his parents, especially his mother, don’t want to discuss their experiences; this very reluctance reveals much. In one of his most widely anthologized and re-printed poems, “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” also included in Lightning and Ashes, Guzlowski recreates, as he envisions it, the experience of his mother’s deportation to Germany:

My mother still remembers
The long train to Magdeburg
the box cars
bleached gray
by Baltic winters
The rivers and the cities
she had never seen before
and would never see again:
the sacred Vistula
the smoke haunted ruins of Warsaw
the Warta, where horse flesh
met steel and fell
The leather fists
Of pale boys
boys her own age
perhaps seventeen
perhaps nineteen
but different
convinced of their godhood
by the cross they wore
different from the one
she knew in Lvov
The long twilight journey
to Magdeburg
four days that became six years
six years that became sixty
And always a train of box cars
bleached to Baltic gray.

The first poem in Lightning and Ashes, entitled “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg,'” presents the guarded response of Guzlowski’s mother to this poem about her deportation; and it sets the tone for his inquiry, his determination to remember, and for his effort to understand:

She looks at me and says,
“That’s not how it was.
I couldn’t see anything
except when they stopped
the boxcars and opened the doors
And I didn’t see
any of those rivers,
and if I did, I didn’t know
their names. No one said,
‘look, look, this river
is the Warta, and there
that’s the Vistula.’
What I remember
is the bodies being
pushed out—sometimes
women kicked them out
with their feet.
Now it sounds terrible.
You think we were bad women
but we weren’t. We were girls
taken from homes, alone.
Some had seen terrible things
done to their families.
Even though you’re a grown man
and a teacher, we saw things
I don’t want to tell you about.

The things his mother saw took a toll on her, and Guzlowski is truthful in reporting that toll of “four days that became six years / six years that became sixty.” In “What the War Taught Her,” Section 3 of “My Mother Talks About the Slave Labor Camps,” Guzlowski reports the effects of those experiences with understanding but also with understated pain:

My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chicken and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.

This sort of candor gives one a flavor of the power and pain of the collection and is also one of its many literary virtues.

In a paper of this length there is not sufficient time to review the poetic technique and skills of John Guzlowski in detail; but some aspects must be addressed—even if only briefly—to support the claim that Guzlowski is a powerful voice for Polonia on the poetic scene.

Like Robert Frost and Czesław Miłosz, two poets whom he very much admires, Guzlowski is primarily a lyric-narrative poet. This means, of course, that his poetry tells stories laden with a powerful emotional content in poetic form; and his poetry is successful precisely because his poems display an impressive mastery of the skills peculiar to both narrative and poetic literature.

The narrative skill of Guzlowski’s poetry is especially important to the success of Lightning and Ashes because the volume tells stories at two levels: the level of the individual poems which almost invariably report some specific incident or conversation in the history of his family (particularly the experiences of his mother and father in the war) and the level of the volume as a whole which gathers these particular poems together in a deliberate fashion in order to provide an overview, although not a complete picture, of the family’s story.

At the level of narrative, several skills are evident. For one thing, the poems present vivid portraits of their major characters: Guzlowski’s mother and father, the poet-son, and, to a lesser degree, Guzlowski’s sister and even his daughter, although the daughter appears in only one of the poems, the final one. In the course of the poems, readers will, I think, come to know and identify with these characters, notwithstanding the fact that the characters, especially Jan and Tekla (the parents), have been deeply scarred by their experiences in the war and are, consequently, flawed and frequently not sympathetic. We come to understand that the parents are not heroes who ultimately triumphed over their circumstances but traumatized victims who were never quite able to escape or overcome their wartime experiences—experiences which had grave consequences for their selfidentity and for their marriage. In the heartrending poem “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” the wounds of the parents are painfully apparent:

She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.
In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,
electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses,
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.
He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away,
He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.
My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.
Maybe this as why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer
with her through all of her sorrow.

This process of identification and even of empathy with the parents is possible partially because the character of the narrator, the poet-son, is itself handled with great success. Through the first-person point of view which Guzlowski employs artfully, we experience a very immediate and intensely personal contact with the parents and their struggles; as a result, it is not possible to de-humanize them. Furthermore, along with the first-person narrator, we attempt to capture and comprehend the experiences of the parents—even in their most unattractive moments.

The action of the poems is also handled deftly for effect. The individual poems often build to climactic endings which provide a focus but not an easy resolution of the incident described. Recall the endings of the poems cited in this review.

In “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” the “four days that became six years / six years that became sixty” forces readers to confront the lifelong trauma of the war years on the mother while in “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg'” the climax of the poem in a very powerful way stresses the mother’s futile efforts to protect her son and herself from the experiences: “Even though you’re a grown man / and a teacher, we saw things / I don’t want to tell you about.” In a similar fashion, the conclusion of “What the War Taught Her” documents the ultimate lesson which the mother has learned: “She learned that you don’t pray / Your enemies will not torment you. / You only pray that they will not kill you.” And, of course, in “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father,” just cited above, the last two stanzas provide an insight into the dynamic of the parents’ relationship which changes everything.

At a different level, the arrangement of the poems in Lightning and Ashes manipulates the action in a way that reveals a deliberate movement from the universal to the particular circumstances of this ethnic group, this generation, and this family. Part I, “What It’s Like Now,” deals primarily with the death of his parents a half century after the war and is, in many respects, universal in its appeal. Some of the details of the deaths of Guzlowski’s parents, however, will not become clear until the poems of the later sections of the volume reveal specific details of the family’s history. The poems of Part II, “When My Mother and My Father, My sister Danusha and I Came to America,” tells the story of the family’s arrival in America as displaced persons with the peculiar challenges which these circumstances created, thus taking the universal story of immigration and adapting it to this family’s special situation both for general American audiences and even for Polish American audiences. The final section of the volume, Part III, “What the War Was Like,” records the experiences which have made his parents who they were and forces all readers to deal with the peculiar history of this family; it introduces audiences, many for the first time, to the Polish experience of the War and confronts them with the tragedy of all wars. Finally, the single poem of the Epilogue, “How Early Fall Came This Year,” returns to the present, introduces the poet’s daughter, and forces a consideration of the effects of the family’s history in the war on the third generation; it also suggests the need and the difficulty of preserving memories of the war and the difficulty of doing so properly. This violation of chronology in the overall plan of the volume skillfully brings the reader into the story in a way which provides maximum engagement.

The lyric dimension of Guzlowski’s poetry is conveyed largely through narrative strengths; but at least three specific poetic strategies deserve comment. The first of these is Guzlowski’s innovations with verse and meter. In a decision dictated in large measure by his subject matter, Guzlowski has adapted traditional meters and verse forms to suit the topics he addresses: the tragedy of war, the trauma of displacement, the pain of immigration, and the consequences of all these experiences for family life. Thus, instead of traditional blank verse—i.e., unrhymed iambic pentameter—in his longer poems Guzlowski alters the normal patterns, varying the number of syllables allowed per line (sometime more than ten, sometime fewer) and the regular iambic foot. The effect is a less harmonious verse form which underscores the complexity and anguish of so much of his subject matter. In a similar fashion and for much the same reason, in his shorter poems Guzlowski resorts to what he terms “exploded sonnets.” Here he trades the number of lines traditionally employed in sonnets, the usual rhyme patterns, and the meter for “repeated sentence units” such as prepositional phrases or compounded elements to create the effect for which he is striving. Here is not experimentation for the sake of experimentation but creativity in the service of art and artistic effect and affect.

One particular effect to which these adjustments to meter and form contribute is a certain conversational tone—not always a pleasant or flowing conversation but a spoken tone, nonetheless. Remember that many of Guzlowski’s poems originated in conversations which he had with his parents; some were conversations which he initiated and in which he pressed his parents; others were exchanges in which his parents forced the issue. Regardless of the circumstance, Guzlowski strives to recreate that reportorial and conversational impression.

Despite the pain of some of these conversations and the complexity of the subject matter, perhaps precisely because of these considerations, Guzlowski makes every effort to ensure the accessibility and clarity of his poems. This should not be confused with a simplicity of vision or with easy answers to the issues raised. Complexity notwithstanding, Guzlowski insists that his readers not be daunted by convoluted forms or language; and this points to one other feature of his poetry, and that is his diction—his choice of words. Guzlowski’s poems are written in accessible and earthy language but with words that convey both clarity and emotional power; his poems are direct, almost blunt, but not inflated. On the topic of diction, it is also worth mentioning that Guzlowski’s poetry, although non-traditional in form and meter, makes careful use of repetition and sound patterns to achieve its effects.

Like all good poets, John Guzlowski writes poems that have universal relevance; his poems, for example, deal with parent-child relations, husband-wife bonds, new beginnings, death (especially the death of parents), family connections (and disconnections), tragedy, trauma, and endurance. In the case of Guzlowski, however, these universal themes are anchored in Polish and Polish American experiences and also importantly in a segment of the Polish American community which has, until recently, been virtually voiceless—without, at least, a strong and clear literary voice. As a talented poet and a powerful voice for Polonia, John Guzlowski deserves our attention, our thanks—and our support.

Monday, January 24, 2022

77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

77th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

On January 27, 1945, the Russian army came upon Auschwitz and its various camps and subcamps.  

What they found was terrible.

Afraid of anyone seeing what they had been doing in Auschwitz, the Germans went on a killing spree before the arrival of the Russians.  They also tried to blow up the ovens where the murdered had been burned for years.  

When the Russians arrived, they found corpses and 7000 starving prisoners.

A conservative estimate is that 1,000,000 people died there.  Two of the them were my mother's aunts, Polish girls who married two Jewish boys.  

Here is a poem I wrote about Auschwitz.  It is based on an incident Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of Auschwitz, describes in his memoir This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.  

I wrote the poem after a student at one of my readings asked me if I had one word for everything that happened in Auschwitz and the other German camps.  

The word was fear.

The poem appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.  


During the war, there was only work and death.

The work broke you down, filled your stomach

with rocks and threw you in the river to drown.

The work shoved a bayonet up your ass

and twisted the blade till you were dead.

In the camps, there was only what we ate

and those we worked with—sometimes women.

But we never made love. I’ll tell you why.

Fear. I remember once a thousand men

were working a field with sticks, and trucks came

and dumped naked women in front of us.

Guards were whipping them to the ovens,

and the women screamed and cried to us, pleaded

with their arms stretched out—naked mothers,

daughters, and sisters, but not one man moved.

Not one. Fear will blind you, and tie you up

like nothing else. It’ll whisper, “Just stand still,

soon it will be over. Don’t worry, there’s nothing

you can do.” You will take this fear to the grave

with you. I can promise. And after the war,

it was the same. I saw things that were as bad

as what happened in the camps. I wish

I had had a gun there. I would have

pressed it here to my forehead, right here.

Better that than what I feel now. This fear.

The painting is by Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk from his series of paintings of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Danusha Goska’s Review of The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland

 The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland

Andrew Kornbluth 

Published March, 2021

Harvard University Press 


The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland was published in March, 2021 by Harvard University Press. The book addresses post-war trials of World-War-II-era Polish collaborators with the Nazis. Author Andrew Kornbluth focuses on trials of Poles who caught, handed over to German Nazis, or murdered Jews seeking refuge. Kornbluth estimates that Poles killed 'tens of thousands' of Jews. Iaddition, in the post-war era, Poles killed 'anywhere from 600 to 3,000 Jews.' The August Trials cites previous work by Polish-Canadian scholar Jan Grabowski, author of Hunt for the Jews, Polish scholars Dariusz Libionka, Alina Skibinska, and Barbara Engelking, and Polish-American scholar Jan Tomasz Gross. Kornbluth is a Research Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He is a former fellow of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. 


The August Trials has received laudatory reviews. Mark Glanville, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, reports that 'As a result of actions taken by Germans and Poles … 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jewish population was exterminated.' The reader will note 'Germans and Poles.' Glanville and Kornbluth's goal is to locate Poles, Poland, and Polish culture and Catholicism in the same historical dock occupied by German Nazis, Nazi Germanyand NazismThe crime of which both sets of perpetrators stand accused, and, in the author's belief, convicted, is genocide. Kornbluth refers to Poles killing Jews as 'the conveyer belt of genocide.' Polish blue police and village leaders constituted 'genocidal infrastructure.' Konstanty Gebert, writing in Moment, reports that Kornbluth describes a Soviet-era process that 'strengthened the legend of Polish innocence.' Ronald Grigor writes that 'Polish Communists asserted the wartime innocence of all Poles.' Communists, Kornbluth argues, thereby earned the support of the Polish populace. 


'Innocence' is a concept that appears repeatedly. Kornbluth dedicates his book 'To the innocent.' Kornbluth's first chapter title invokes the Biblical Cain. Cain introduced murder into the human experience, and was forever afterward stigmatized. 'Cain' is eponymous with 'guilt.' Poles are Cain; Poles cannot escape stigma for the murder of Jews. The transcendent power of myth, in the authority of Genesismust be invoked to establish the quality of Polish guilt. 


Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939. The USSR invaded from the east later that same month. After World War II, The USSR again invaded and took control of Poland. Post-war Poland occupied a different geographic territory than the Poland of 1939. Poland lost eastern territory and moved west, into formerly German territory. Soviet domination ended in 1989. The years 1939-1989 were not Poland's only experience of foreign domination. Poland had been a large and wealthy country in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Beginning in 1772, Poland was partitioned and colonized by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Poland regained political status as a nation after World War I, in 1918. Kornbluth does not dwell on this history; I mention it that readers might better understand subsequent summaries of Kornbluth's points. 


In the immediate post-World-War-II period, a reconstituted, USSR-dominated Poland conducted more than 32,000 'August trials.The term 'August trials' is a reference to the August 31, 1944 decree that established them. These trials were of Poles who had collaborated with the Nazis. Over the course of twelve years, judges handed down20,000 guilty verdicts and 1,835 death sentences. Kornbluth's study focuses on 'over 400 trials conducted between 1944 and 1952 for crimes committed against Jews by Poles' in the Generalgouvernement (General Government). The Generalgouvernement was name German Nazis gave to the center and southeast of Poland.


The bulk of Kornbluth's book consists of one-or-two-paragraph summations of crimes, and summaries of how the accused pleaded, and also of how judges and attorneys handled cases. Kornbluth's introduction telegraphs his intention. The introduction's title is 'A Country without a Quisling?' Those outside the fevered realms of Polish-Jewish relations will not recognize the import of that title. Poland was exceptional among European countries occupied by Germany. Occupation was longer and much harsher in Poland. Depending on what calculations are used, Poland is often assessed as having lost a greater percentage of its prewar population than any other country. Poland produced the Home Army, one of the largest resistance forces in occupied Europe. Nazi Generalplan Ost called for the elimination of Poles and Poland. Kornbluth does not mention these facts; I mention them in order that the reader of this review can better understand the meaning of the introduction's title. 


In spite of the uniquely horrific conditions of occupation in Poland, Poland, as a state, did not collaborate with the Nazis. In Norway, Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling was the nominal head of state during Nazi occupation. Poland's government was in exile, in London. Poles fought against the Nazis in an organized way from the first day of the war to the final Nazi presence. Polish patriots are proud to say that, under the hell-on-earth that the Nazis instituted in Poland, Poland was a state without a Quisling. With his introduction's title, Kornbluth announces that one of the goals of his book is to disprove that statement, and to remove Poland's source of pride. 


Kornbluth is a skilled writer. The book is well organized and never succumbs to academic jargon. Throughout, Kornbluth's writing is economical. He never uses more words than necessary; thus, accounts are clipped in style. For the most part, his writing is dry. Anger does seep through, especially in the book's conclusion and in a couple of spots where trial proceedings are assessed as 'galling.' Kornbluth uses anachronistic phrases like 'outsourcing genocide' and 'it takes a village.' Kornbluth also protests against resistance in today's Poland to gay rights. Contemporary phrases applied to past events reflect Kornbluth's intention to use past events to reinforce his position in contemporary debates, for example, the debate over Jewish claims for financial restitution from Poland.


Though Kornbluth's accounts of Poles' crimes against Jews are skeletally brief, Kornbluth manages to include repugnant details. Assailants are spectacularly stupid, crude, and sadistic. If they revealed any decent human characteristics at all, none of those characteristics are included in Kornbluth's summaries. One criminal takes pleasure in shooting Jews in their genitals. Another leads a captured teenage Jew by a rope around his neck. Others murder Jews that they had previously agreed to rescue. Nazis most notoriously murdered their victims with modern machinery and chemicals.With Jewish Sonderkommandos handling the dirty work, Nazis could keep their Hugo Boss uniforms clean. Polish peasant villagers killed their victims with fists, axes, and shovels. More than one victim was buried while still breathing. Parents had to watch their children being killed. Poles picked over the possessions of dead Jews, laying claim, inter alia, to blood-spattered linens. This is a grand guignol inhabited by ghouls. 


In spite of the brevity of these accounts, the sensitive reader will live these atrocitiesthrough the eyes, hearts, and final breaths of the victimized Jews. One can imagine being Jewish during Poland's interwar period, 1918-1939. Poland was reborn, a cause for celebration and hope, but in that reborn Poland, in a reflection of wider world trends, anti-Semitism was rising. Thugs beat Jews in the streetsuniversity seats were limited, and anti-Semites called for Jews' expulsion. Polish Jews watched Hitler's rise in Germany, and, finally, Nazi Germany's invasion. They watched Einsatzgruppen massacre Jews and Catholic Poles and ghetto walls arise. Finally, in desperation, they begged Polish neighbors for help. These neighbors toyed with them, promising help, but responded with the back of a shovel against a head. Former neighbors rifled through the pockets of the dead for 'Jewish gold.' The reader wishes that her hands could reach through time itself and pull victims back from shallow graves, wishes that her fingers could rewrite history. The reader has no such power, and must soldier on, and read the next account. 


What propels this reading of account after accountof multiple sets of foreign names that she will soon forget and struggles to pronounce, even when reading silently, is the conviction that at least to read is to witness, is to relieve, retroactively, the victim's anonymity and isolation at that intimate, sacred moment of confused, horrifying, and unjust death. May the pain of these deaths, may the outrage the reader feels, inform future action with compassion, understanding, and an unbending commitment to justiceand against hate


Poland's thousands of rescuers appear in The August Trials only to reinforce the author's point. The rarely mentioned rescuers here are too afraid to let others know that they have rescued Jews, because they will be punished by their fellow Poles for that rescue. Readers familiar with World War II in Poland will have read, or have heard from survivor friends, of entire villages that conspired to keep one Jew safe in a hayloft or behind a false wall. Kornbluth never attempts to reconcile the disconnect between accounts of villages that sheltered Jews and other villages where many united to persecute Jews and profit from their elimination. Roman Solecki, a Jewish Pole who served in the Home Army, was my friend. I don't know how to reconcile his accounts with this book's accounts of Home Army units killing Jews. Perhaps a future volume will systemize what differentiates not just individuals who rescue from individuals that persecute, but the village collectives that made the same choices. 


Those interested in Polish-Jewish relations should and will read The August Trials. We want to know about these victims. We want their pain to inform our involvement in Polish-Jewish dialogue. I want to say that Hersz Flechtman, who was bashed in the head by the nephew of the Polish man who was hiding him, that three-year-old Mojzesz Kwint, drowned by a Polish woman who didn't receive enough money to keep him, the unnamed Jewish woman who was repeatedly raped by a szmalcownik, or blackmailer, were seen, known, heard and mourned by me. 


Kornbluth reports on the various rationalizations for their crimes offered by Polish perpetrators, their defense attorneys, or judges. Poles killed Jews or handed them over to Nazis because the Nazis threatened to kill any Poles who didn't do so. Poles wanted Nazi rewards, for example food. Poles wanted Jewish people's possessions. Poles were overwhelmed by the brutality of the occupation and had sunk into lawlessness. Poles suspected Jews of 'banditry,' that is theft of limited food and other resources. Poles suspected Jews of collaboration with Soviet communists. Inevitably, blame-the-victim excuses are offered. A given Jew didn't do enough to save himself, so his killers had no choice. 


Kornbluth argues convincingly that there were important differences between crimesPoles committed against other Poles and crimes Poles committed against Jews. Crimes committed against Jews were more public, communal, deadly, and sadistic than crimes committed against Poles. Poles who otherwise served honorably in anti-Nazi resistance also committed crimes against Jews; thus, one cannot write off anti-Semitic violence as the signature of social deviance. To be a Polish hero in the war against Nazism was not mutually exclusive with being a sadistic anti-Semitic killer. 


As mentioned, the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and then again, during andafter the war. The USSR dominated Poland until the fall of communism in 1989. Post-war Soviet crimes against Poles interfered with Poland's ability to address Polish criminals who collaborated with the Nazis. In the post-World-War-II era, heroic Poles who had fought honorably against Nazism were variously defamed, arrested, tortured, paraded in show trials, killed, buried in unmarked graves, and all but erased from history. Their persecutors were Soviet-allied communists. Most of these communists were Poles. A disproportionate number of communists were Jews, including Maria Gurowska, the judge who sentenced anti-Nazi hero August Emil Fieldorf to death, and Helena Wolinska-Brus, who prosecuted FieldorfUnder Jakub Berman, at least 200,000 Poles were arrested for alleged political crimes and at least 6,000 were executed. Kornbluth writes, 'Of roughly 400 "leading" positions in the Ministry of Public Security between 1944 and 1954, it has been calculated that 37 percent were occupied by ethnic Jews.' Note the word 'ethnic.' Kornbluth differentiates between those descending from Jewish ancestry and those who actually practice the religion. Space is created between Jewishness and crimes committed by Jews. Equity would require the same treatment accorded to Catholics. 


Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be smuggled into Auschwitz in order to help the resistance against Nazism, was also killed. Other notable victims include those persecuted in the Trial of the Sixteen, that is, Home Army leaders who were tortured in Moscow and falsely accused of fascism and Nazi collaboration. The last of these 'cursed soldiers,' Jozef Franczak, was not killed until 1963. Post-war communist propaganda denigrated heroic Home Army, anti-Nazi soldiers as 'spittle-flecked dwarves of reaction.' Further, many Poles believe that the post-war Soviet occupier exploited the Kielce pogrom to discredit Poles as hopelessly primitive and violent anti-Semites incapable of self-government, and to boost Western acceptance of Soviet hegemony. In other words, Poles know that enemies of Poland weaponized the criminal behavior of anti-Semitic Poles to defame and disempower all Poles. In any case, the West had aligned itself with the Soviet Union in order to defeat Nazi Germany, and any Soviet propaganda against Poland may have been merely gratuitous. Roosevelt and Churchill both knew about the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, for example, and Roosevelt and Churchill both lied about the event, attributing it, falsely, to German Nazis. The West never protested the Trial of the Sixteen. 


For the above-mentioned reasons, many Poles reflexively dismiss post-war trials in Soviet-dominated Poland as illegitimate. Kornbluth argues that the August Trials, though, were carried out by dedicated, respectable judges and attorneys and that they cannot be dismissed as Soviet-influenced propaganda. At the same time that he asks for respect for the trials, however, Kornbluth argues that the trials were not really legitimate, because the communist state and Polish society came to a cozy agreement to erase Polish crimes against Jews from memory, and rewrite World War II history in Poland as one of complete Polish innocence and heroism. This reader accepts Kornbluth's argument that the trials record real crimes that deserve attention. This reader was not convinced of Kornbluth's latter point. 


Andrew Kornbluth deserves recognition for his research into material that would cause many to shrink back in horror, and for his presentation of that material to the public. Readers should be aware of the brute Polak stereotype and its uses when reading Kornbluth. 


Normal people do not drown defenseless children. What makes it possible for a human being to defy normal behavior? Kornbluth attributes these crimes to 'racial hatred and greed,' plus Polish Catholicism and nationalism. 


Kornbluth describes Roman Dmowski, an interwar politician, diplomat, and author, as the 'father of modern Polish nationalism' and leader of interwar Poland's 'single strongest political grouping.' Polish nationalism existed long before Dmowski, and its various incarnations include an expansive understanding of Polishness that includes Jews. 


Dmowski was a Social Darwinist. Social Darwinism was a significantly anti-Christian innovation from Western Europe and the United States. Social Darwinist ideas were very popular on American campuses and in American culture in the early twentieth century. A co-founder of the Bronx Zoo; the president of the Museum of Natural History, whose tenure lasted twenty-five years; the inventor of what became the SAT; and the founder of Planned Parenthood were all invested in Social Darwinism. American Social Darwinists declared Poles, Italians, and other Eastern and Southern Europeans to be a lesser subspecies of humanity, and impeded their entry to the US as immigrants on those grounds in 1924. The Catholic Church actively opposed Social Darwinism. Kornbluth does not so much as allude to these facts


Kornbluth quotes Dmowski praising Germans. In fact Dmowski, wrote, 'Every Pole will be an enemy of every German he meets.' Thirty-three percent of Germans were Catholic; their Catholicism earned these Germans no acceptance from Dmowski. Dmowski's anti-Semitism was not informed by his devout Catholicism – he wasn't a devout Catholic. 


Kornbluth describes Dmowski as the leader of interwar Poland's 'single strongest political grouping.' Interwar leader Jozef Pilsudski supported a traditional concept of Polish nationalism that included Jews. Pilsudski is revered by Poles, both in Poland and abroad, in a way that Dmowski has never been. In fact Pilsudski's nickname is 'dziadek,' grandfather.  


Kornbluth makes brief references to Cardinal August Hlond and Archbishop AdamSapieha. For example, of Sapieha, Kornbluth says, 'Sapieha declined to protest the Holocaust.' Kornbluth cites Dariusz Libionka. Indeed, as of this writing (6/1/21) Wikipedia includes Kornbluth and Libionka's accusation against Sapieha in its page dedicated to Sapieha. Sapieha criticized Jews; Sapieha did not inform the Nazis that genocide was a bad idea; Catholicism is responsible for the Holocaust. 


This review cannot fully address this charge or this logic, but this reader was not convinced by Kornbluth's reasoning. One cannot help but mention, though, that Sapieha was responsible for the priestly formation and ordination of Karol Wojtyla. Indeed, Sapieha saved Wojtyla from a Nazi roundup of 8,000 Polish men and boys. Wojtyla, as John Paul II, would later be praised as the most pro-Jewish pope in history.


Hlond and Sapieha both did make critical comments about Jews, comments that should never have been made. Neither made genocidal comments. Both were persecuted by Nazis and participated in anti-Nazi resistance, including resistance against Nazi persecution of Jews. Both condemned violence against Jews. 


Regarding the practice of selecting unattractive quotes and using those quotes to prove a religion's complicity in genocide. Perform an internet search of the word 'Talmud' and immediately encounter pages that select unattractive passages from the Talmud and go on to argue that these passages prove that Jews are complicit in communist genocides and world domination. This is not an intellectually respectable exercise. 


To return to the question of how a Polish woman could drown a Jewish child she volunteered to safeguard. There is scholarship that addresses such atrocities, scholarship Kornbluth does not citeReading The August Trials reminded this reader ofother works, including accounts of Ukrainian genocidal activity against Poles that also took place under Nazi occupationDeath toll estimates of Poles killed by Ukrainians range between fifty and one hundred thousand. These killings were public, communal, and sadisticUkrainians sawed Poles in half, including Father Karol Baran, crucified Poles, gang-raped Polish women, and cut off their breasts. I would not see the logic of conflating these crimes with Nazism and identifying Ukrainians as German Nazis' co-equals. Nazism, not Ukrainian nationalism, was the author of Poland's devastation. Saying that does not exculpate Ukrainian killers of Poles. It merely acknowledges what Nazism was and what its intent was in relation to Poland, and Nazi Germany's horrifically awesome ability to realize those intentions, no matter what Ukrainians decided to do. I have read accounts of Ukrainians' crimes against Poles, and not feltanimus against Ukrainians per se, or come to understand these crimes as expressions of any Ukrainian essence. Historians like Timothy Snyder have worked to explain the tensions between Ukrainians and Poles, and the pressures of occupation, that contributed to anti-Polonism among Ukrainians. 


Reading The August Trials reminded me also of first-person accounts of the Rwandan genocide. Neighbor turned on neighbor, not just to kill, but to torture. One method was to rape Tutsi women with spiked plants. One thinks, too, of the 1846 Szela jacquerie. Polish peasants killed and in many cases decapitated an estimated 1,000 nobles and destroyed 500 homes. Again, in reading these accounts, authors worked to make me, the reader, understand why a human like myself would commit hideous crimes against a neighbor. 


While reading The August Trials I also confronted vexing events in my own countryand on the streets of my own city. A Jewish family, mother, father, and infant, were all stabbed in broad daylight in Manhattan on March 31. An 84-year-old Thai grandfather was murdered on the street in San Francisco on January 28, 2021. In May, 2021, a 67 year old Asian woman was raped in an otherwise quiet and safe neighborhood. Her assailant broke her bones. On March 23, 2021, Mohammad Anwar, an Uber Eats driver and recent immigrant from Pakistan, was killed by a thirteen-year-old girl and a fifteen-year-old girl, just three miles from the White HouseAll of these attacks took place in broad daylight. Video of these attacks are visible on the internet. On December 10, 2019, five people were killed in an attack on a kosher grocer in Jersey City. The attackers had bombs and planned much greater carnage. On December 28, 2019, five Jews were stabbed inside a private home by an intruder. One died. Hate crimes against Asians have increased in the US by 164%. Hate crimes against Jews have increased by 63%. 


In the attacks mentioned above, the attackers are African AmericansAfrican Americans are disproportionately represented among the committers of hate crimes. Influential African American leaders have made anti-Semitic statements, including Patrisse Cullors, the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and James Baldwin. My state's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, accused Jews of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks. His son is the mayor of New Jersey's largest city. After the Jersey City terror attack against Jews, a black school board member, Joan Terrel-Paige, accused 'Jewish brutes' of 'threatening, intimidating, and harassing' black people by 'waving bags of money.'Terrell-Paige is still a Jersey City school board member. 


Open discussion of black anti-Semitism and anti-Asian racism are all but taboo in America. Ross Douthat, a columnist at the New York Times, states that media is afraid fully to cover these attacks because of the demographics. For thorny reasons too complicated to plumb here, it would be far easier to cover attacks by white supremacists against Jews and Asians. Covering African American attacks on Jews and Asians violates too many taboos, so the attacks are under-covered, little understood, and ongoing. On May 21, 2021, Aaron Keyak, who led Jewish engagement for the Biden-Harris campaign, advised American Jews to remove kippah and stars of David for their own safety. 


There is an unstated premise in The August Trials. Poles got it wrong, and they got it wrong because of flaws in Polish character, flaws rooted in nationalism and Catholicism.We, the readers and authors of books like The August Trials, are not Polish, not Catholic, and not nationalist. We do not share Polish flaws, and, therefore, we are in a position to correct Poles. We have figured out and transcended ethnic strife. We have mastered free speech. The contrast between our superiority and Poles' inferiority emphasizes how badly Poles are handling things, and how flawed is their nature. 


These premises are wrong. America has never known, perhaps no other country has ever known, the extreme conditions Poles suffered during World War II. And yet America faces the same problems Poland faces in addressing ethnic strife. 'Polish Catholicism' or 'Polish nationalism' are inadequate tools to understand anti-Semitic crimes or any suppression of discussion of anti-Semitic crimes. America is rapidly secularizing, and yet, America is playing, in a more subdued way, the same games that Poles who would cover-up Polish crimes play. Secular Americans do not hold the same things sacred as Polish Catholic nationalists, but secular Americans also have taboos and sacred cows that Americans protect against the harsh glare of truth. A jacket blurb calls The August Trials courageous. It doesn't take courage to condemn anti-Semitism in Poland. It would take great courage to speak plainly about the American hate crimes mentioned above. 


No one would argue that the current epidemic of black attacks on Jews and Asians renders black pride invalid. No one would argue that black attacks on Jews and Asians means that blacks have never been victimized by white supremacy. No one would argue that, because some blacks were free and did own slaves, that black slaves were not 'innocent' and did not deserve to be enslaved. And yet the hideous crimes of a minority of Poles during World War II invalidate Polish celebration of Polish heroes, and erase Nazi and Soviet aggression. Particularly disturbing is the use of the word 'innocent.' Poles are not innocent, these commenters insist, including in quotes above. If Poles are not 'innocent,' the implication is that Poles deserved what they suffered under the Nazis.


One reads account after account of Polish peasant villagers behaving like monsters. One watches video after video of blacks violently assaulting innocents in broad daylight. The easiest thing to do, the conclusion our Darwinian lizard brain, hardwired to us-and-them dichotomies wants us to reach, is to write the behavior off as the sole possession of the hated ethnic other. Ron Slate, writing in On the Seawall, illustrates his review of The August Trials with a photo of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who sheltered 2,000 Jews in his monastery, and gave his life for another in Auschwitz. Even the good Poles are bad, this juxtaposition informs the viewer. Slate begins his review of The August Trials with an anecdote about 'rabidly anti-Semitic' illiterate Polish janitors. For Slate, even the heroic Poles are stupid, have low-class jobs, and are infested with a disease associated with dogs: rabiesThe August Trials, he appears to believe, licenses him to perpetuate ethnic stereotyping and hate. 


Anyone arguing that Poles committed atrocities against Jews because they are Catholic and nationalist rewrites important Holocaust history and human psychologyIn the same way that we ask how Poles could commit the atrocities Kornbluth records, we ask how rescuers could save Jews. Rescuing a Jew in Poland was a life-threatening, all but impossible task, and yet Yad Vashem tallies 7,112 Polish rescuers, an incomplete number. To make that impossible task possible required a mythology more powerful than just being a nice person. Many rescuers cited their Catholicism and their Polish nationalism as their very reasons for rescuing Jews. Myths of Polish heroes and Polish saints were powerful enough to inspire humans to transcend a manmade hell. The entire Ulma family was murdered by Nazis for helping Jews. Their devout Catholicism inspired their sacrifice. Just like the monsters in The August Trials, the Ulmas were Polish, Catholic, peasant villagers. Liron Rubin, an Israeli and my friend, is married to a man whose mother was rescued by Sister Teresa Janina Kierocinska, a Polish nun and daughter of a nationalist Polish family. As Yad Vashem puts it, 'The survivors of the Sosnowiec convent later remembered Mother Teresa-Janina as someone of exceptional humanity whose love of mankind was rooted in her deep religious faith.' Liron's mother-in-law remained a Jew, but in honor of the nun who saved her life, she took the name Teresa. 


Scholars have struggled to understand what, other than psychosis, would predispose an otherwise normal person to commit heinous crimes. Edna Bonacich, Amy Chua, and Thomas Sowell have worked on what they variously call middleman minorities and market dominant minorities. Polish anti-Semitism reached its peak in the interwar period. Why? The middleman minority theory helps to explain why. How to understand atrocities? Thomas Sowell describes Sinhalese in Sri Lanka clapping and dancing as they burned a random Tamil woman alive. Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. No serious scholar would attempt to write off Sinhalese violence against Hindu Tamils, against mosques, and against Christians as prompted by Buddhism. 


Kornbluth tells his reader that Poles killed Jews because Poles saw Jews as implicated in 'Christ-killing.' But Kornbluth quotes Polish anti-Semites mouthing typical grievances voiced in middleman minority economies. Kornbluth quotes one such Pole saying that Poles interpret Nazi removal of Jews as liberating them from 'their former state of slavery to the Jews' 'a nightmare never to be repeated.' Without an understanding of Poland's caste-like socioeconomic structure, readers could never understand such a comment. Early in the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington, a former slave, traveled to Poland in search of 'the man farthest down' and found that man in Polish peasants, whom he felt to be comparable to the descendants of former slaves in the US. Numbers support Washington's assessment. In 1913, the Negro Almanac published a comparison between freed slaves and their descendants and descendants of Russian serfs, a population that included Poles. Hard numbers showed that African Americans had made greater economic progress than former serfs. 'Wherever in Poland money changes hands, a Jew is always there to take charge of it,' Washington wrote. This is the middleman minority pattern, and it has been applied in analyses of atrocity not just in Poland, but in Southeast Asia, regarding vicious Indonesian pogroms against Chinese, and in reference to African American conflict with Korean shopkeepers in Los Angeles. 


Any attempt to understand Polish peasants' sadistic and criminal behavior towards Jews during World War II is not complete unless it addresses middleman minority theory, and how populations around the world have behaved in these economies. Scholars James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, in their 2020 bestseller Cynical Theories, describe how modern leftwing scholarship often rejects class-based analyses in favor of identity-based analyses. Polish Catholicism and nationalism make for convenient and currently trendy targets, but their use as explanatory tools is limited. 


When discussing the support that some Jews offered the Soviet invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and later Soviet hegemony over Poland, it is customary for responsible authors to argue against any association of support for communism with Jewish identity. Poles collaborated with Nazis, we are too often told, because Poles are Catholic and nationalist. No responsible historian would argue that Jews collaborated with communists because of Jewish theology or pride in Jewish identity


In The August Trials, Poles collaborated with Nazis because they were Poles, but Jews collaborated with communists because they faced temporary, changing, and unique historical circumstances that militated for their collaborationGiven anti-Semitic hostility, Kornbluth writes, 'it was unsurprising' that some Jews 'embraced a utopian ideology … that espoused colorblindness.


That 'utopian ideology,Soviet communism, was genocidal in its persecution of Poles. As early as 1921, in its anti-religion campaign, communists in Russia began killing tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns. The Holodomor, the wartime ethnic cleansing of Poles from eastern Poland, and the Katyn Massacre announced in neon that the communist road to a 'colorblind' 'utopia' was paved with the bodies of Slavic Christians. Anyone, of any ethnicity, who supported communists in 1945 had every reason to know that. Communists should not be robbed of their agency retroactively, any more than Nazi collaborators should.  


It is logical and ethically necessary to point out that those Jews who did support or collaborate with invading Soviets did not do so out of any treacherous or power-hungry Jewish essence, biological or theological, but, rather, because of changing and changeable historical circumstances peculiar to a given time and place. Any person, no matter his ethnicity, might make the same decisions under the same circumstances. It is important to point out the universality of human decision-making because Jews are subject to stereotyping and ethical people do not want to fuel that stereotyping. 


No scholar unfamiliar with stereotyping of Jews could be relied on to produce scholarship about crimes committed by Jews under the aegis of communism. We must apply the same approach to Polish Catholics. Any scholar writing about crimes committed by Poles should be familiar with, and should resist, stereotyping. 


Besides contemplating what causes ugly ethnic violence, readers of The August Trials will wonder how justice could have been achieved in Poland's post-war circumstances. Warsaw, the capital, was flattened. The population was decimated, and in flux, as borders changed. Poles were returning from battlefields, concentration camps, and guerilla warfare with Soviets. Given these conditions, it is remarkable that any attempt at justice took place at all. 


Criminal Poles were accused by other Poles who witnessed their crimes. The accusers express outrage, horror, and pity, and they repeatedly cry, just as we, the readers, do. Apparently not all Polish peasants were monsters. But village life is inescapably communal. How do you continue to exist in a tiny village after accusing your neighbor of hideous murder? A comparison of how post-war Poland handled this question with how it was handled in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa might offer insights. 


Kornbluth and others, as mentioned in the reviews quoted above, insist that Poland crafted a self-image as a blameless nation of heroic victims. 'Unflattering stories' of collaboration 'disappeared from view' until white knight Jan Tomasz Gross rode to the rescue in 2000. In this Promethean scenario, Gross must be depicted as outside Polish identity. Poles are too intellectually stunted and morally venal to confront their own flaws. Thus, Kornbluth, Gross, Grabowski, et al, provide the conscience that Poles, given their debased nature, lack.


I do not recognize my own admittedly limited experience of Poles or Poland in this assessment. During my first visit to Eastern Europe, that is to Slovakia in 1974, my relatives told me stories about a local man who had done labor for the Nazis. One of my aunts, I was told, physically assaulted him. He protested that he was doing it only for food. He was hungry. People volunteered such stories of Nazi collaborators. I first visited Poland in 1978. In a university classroom, I was introduced to Tadeusz Rozewicz's poem 'Saved' ('Ocalony'). 'I saw,' Rozewicz writes, 'A human that was at once / Vicious and virtuous.' Subsequent discussions touched on the ambiguities of the war. Poles taught me the word 'szmalcownik' – 'blackmailer.' A Polish woman volunteered to me that she suspected that her brother-in-law had collaborated, and that was why her family kept their distance from his family. Conversations like this were every bit as troubling as reading The August Trials. 


Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Pozegnanie z Maria), published in 1946, hardly reflects the charge that Poles saw themselves as uncomplicated heroes. Borowski clearly presents the difference between the fate of most Jews sent to Auschwitz and most Poles, and he acknowledges that the despoiling of murdered Jews is what feeds him during his imprisonment thereIn films like Ashes and Diamonds I encountered a far more ambiguous treatment of the cinematic World War II hero than I ever saw in any American movie. Though made in 1958, the film still spurs discussion. Czechoslovakia produced The Shop on Main Street in 1965 and Agnieszka Holland directed Angry Harvest in 1985; both films treat material goods stolen from murdered Jews.


Many Poles, for the past eight decades, have struggled to come to terms with every aspect of World War II in Poland, including Polish anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. One need only mention Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Czeslaw Milosz, Jan Blonski, Alina Cala, and Father John T. Pawlikowski. Marcel Lozinski, a child of Jewish parents, made a devastating documentary about the Kielce pogrom in 1987, the same year that the Kosciuszko Foundation ran a summer session at the Jagiellonian University in Polish-Jewish relations. I participated and I can report that no one shrank from the topic's darkest aspects. From the early days of the internet, Polish and Jewish participantshave been having frank conversations in online groups. In 1946, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Auschwitz survivor and cofounder of Zegota, cofounded the All-Polish Anti-Racist League in response to the anti-Jewish violence in post-war Poland. Bartoszewski would later write, 


'Both in the Polish press and on the radio at that time there was no lack of voices to oppose these tragic incidents, and the recent suffering and extermination of Jewish society in Poland were also mentioned. Articles, memoirs, and references to the subject can be found … [Former members of Zygota] were unanimous in recognizing the importance of using their own authority and enlisting the public support of others of importance in the struggle against the degrading chauvinism in Poland, against manifestations of national, religious, and racial hatred, and, above all, against all unsympathetic or hostile attitudes towards Jews who had survived … An initiative was taken during the first weeks of 1946 by former members of the Council for Aid to the Jews. This was to establish a loosely structured, all-Polish society to discuss the problem for the moral and political danger for Poland and the Poles of actions dictated by anti-Semitic views and anti-Jewish prejudices, whatever their causes.'


More recently, Polish diplomat Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska said, 'If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers.' She speaks for me and millions of others. 


Nor have I ever encountered a culture that has done a better job of assessing its past than Poland. I don't say that as a compliment to Poland. I remember the look on the faces of Chinese-born students when a Japanese-born student gave a speech in my English language class about how peace-loving Japanese people are. Turks still refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. An sui generis giant of American culture, Gone with the Wind – both as a novel and as a film – distorts slavery, the Civil War, and the KKK. 


Processing the Holocaust, crafting the narrative, revising it and telling it again, has taken decades in the United States at large, among American Jews, and among Israelis. See the 2001 This American Life broadcast "Before It Had a Name," Peter Novick's book The Holocaust in American Life, the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Lucy Dawidowicz's articles "Indicting American Jews" and "American Jews and the Holocaust," and Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the HolocaustAmericans, never-occupied, enjoying free speech, a stable government and domestic peace and security still stumbled for decades, struggling to tell the story of the Holocaust accurately. American anti-Semitism, American Jews' survival guilt, and a fear of offending Germany, and cutting off important markets, impeded that struggle over narrativeTo attribute Poland's missteps to rotten Polish nationalism and Catholicism is to fall into stereotyping and to create a chimeric ethnic other scapegoat we sacrifice for our own sins. 


Indeed, the scholars that Kornbluth relies on, like Grabowski, Gross, Libionka, Engelking, and Skibinska are themselves products of Poland, Polish educations, Polish ethics, and Polish conversations


Years ago in Poland, at dinner one night, a friend took a call from her grandfather. Afterward, I absentmindedly asked, 'Did you talk to your grandmother, too?' My friend, whom I had known for months and who had never mentioned this previously, replied coolly, 'No, she died in Auschwitz.' She never mentioned this death again. I knew peoplewho never disclosed their wartime heroism, or their wartime suffering. Later I learned from others what they had done, or what they had gone through. In contrast, in my own country, America, it is normal to believe that Americans single-handedly defeated the Axis powers. In America people are encouraged to dwell on their suffering and to use that suffering to obtain scholarships, jobs, or government apologies. The concept of 'microaggression' is taught to students and employees to encourage sensitivity to every imaginable slight. No American, or indeed anyone in the Woke West, is in any position to tell Poles that they think or talk too much about their suffering. 


The very first sentence of Kornbluth's book establishes Poland as economically well off and militarily secure, 'prosperous and stable.' Kornbluth is discussing 2018 Poland, but this sentence's initial position is powerful, and Kornbluth does little to revise the impression it creates. No extreme circumstances help to render comprehensible the depths to which Polish society sank. No invitation is extended to Kornbluth's reader to ask, 'If overwhelming forces took over your country, and put a price on the head of a subset of your fellow citizens, what would happen?' 


In The August Trials, German Nazis and Soviet Russians are remote presences who don't do much to interfere with Polish life. Occupying German Nazis, rather, were fearful of Poles. Germans 'lived under the threat of partisan attack.' No one reading this book, without previous knowledge, would have any idea of the realities of Nazi or Soviet occupation, or the predecessors, the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian culturally genocidal, colonial presence. This depiction of Polish villages as peaceful places during World War II is contradicted by Norman Davies, who writes, 'The well-known fate of the one Bohemian hamlet of Lidice, whose 143 men were killed in retaliation for the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, was repeated in hundreds of Polish villages. An incomplete post-war count put their number at 299.' Kornbluth refers to a Polish 'SS volunteer.' I contacted Herbert F. Ziegler, an historian of the SS. He confirmed that the SS would not accept Polish volunteers because of their racial inferiority. As for the Soviet occupation, as Jan Tomasz Gross has written, 'Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction.' 


In the West, acknowledged victims gain platforms, respect, and remuneration for having suffered. Poles cannot be allowed these commodities. That Poles were themselves victims, and that, even in the midst of their victimization, they victimized others, is an uncomfortable reality with equally uncomfortable repercussions for those Jews who, under the worst imaginable coercion, worked for Nazis. No, there is no moral equivalence between a Polish woman who drowns a defenseless Jewish child she had agreed to shelter and the Sonderkommandos. But crafters of master narratives resist ambiguity. They have to – large audiences respond poorly to ambiguity. Jews must be victims and victims must be pure. Poles must not be victims and must not be innocent. Innocence itself, as Shelby Steele has pointed out in the American context, is a coveted commodity. 


Reading about atrocity isn't easy. When reading such material, one can sense that one is in the hands of an author who is not much different from a computer search engine. That is, the author is cold, has no agenda, and is merely coughing up facts in response to the reader's query. One can sense that the author is a mensch, that is, someone who is as tormented by the material as the reader is. This author has reached some higher state, and is writing about this material as part of an effort, however quixotic, to make the world a better place, to expand understanding of what humans are capable of, and to commission the reader to take part in an effort of tikkun olam, or the repairing of the world. One can sense that the author has an agenda, one of score-settlingenemy-creating, othering, or one-ups-man-ship. This kind of writing, rather than trying to untie the knot of human hate, pulls the ends tighter and makes the knot more intractable to unraveling. While reading this book, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I might be in the hands of the final kind of author. 


Danusha V. Goska 


I thank Karen A. Wyle for reading this review and offering very helpful comments. 


Danusha V. Goska, PhD has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, Europe, and on both coasts, and in the heartland, of America. Her work has received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, a Stephen King Haven Award, and others. Her essay "Political Paralysis" appears in the book "The Impossible Will Take a Little While." Her memoir "Save Send Delete" tells the true story of her debate about God, and love affair, with a prominent atheist. Julie Davis named "Save Send Delete" one of the ten best books of the year. Her latest book is "God through Binoculars," available now through Amazon and Shanti Arts Press


Goska's book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype" won the PAHA Halecki Award. The Shofar Journal of Jewish Studies called it "Groundbreaking." American Jewish History said that Bieganski points out that the Brute Polak stereotype "gives the illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity" during the Holocaust. The book has been the subject of cover stories in the highly respected "Tygodnik Powszechny" and the "Polish American Journal."


Goska has been an invited speaker at Brandeis, Georgetown, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at Krakow's Galicia Jewish Museum as part of the world famous Jewish Culture Festival, and in American synagogues, churches, libraries and universities. She has appeared on WABC's longest-running talk show, "Religion on the Line," hosted by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack.