The Changing Definition of 'Holocaust'

A Review
Published: 2001-11-01

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Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Jan T. Gross, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2001


Although erroneously charged with "denying" the Holocaust, revisionists have for years actually only sought to redefine "Holocaust." In the standard historiography, "Holocaust" is defined as the systematic destruction of over six million European Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II. Oftentimes the primary method of murder, gas chambers, is also worked into the definition. Revisionists have for years argued that the killings that did occur were in fact not systematic. They have also asserted that the number six million is a wild exaggeration and that the tales of mass gassings are simply false. For any one of these observations, revisionists have been denounced, imprisoned, beaten up, and otherwise persecuted in countries that were once considered to be the most enlightened in the world.

When Jan Gross sat down to write Neighbors, the story of the destruction of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, it is unlikely that he considered that his work was a revision of the Holocaust. Certainly he would be surprised to be called a revisionist and most likely horrified to be called a "Holocaust denier." Understanding however, that Neighbors did not fit into an existing paradigm, Gross points out that his book "belongs... to a genre – only now beginning to receive appropriate scholarly attention – that belabors the 'perpetrators-victims-bystanders' axis. But it shows that these terms are also fuzzy and can be read as a reminder that each episode of mass killing had its own situational dynamics." (p.12-13)

Gross's book challenges the standard definition of "Holocaust." Gross shows, rather conclusively, that a large number of Jews (approximately 1,600) were murdered in Jedwabne Poland on July 10, 1941. After an orgy of killing, the remaining population were herded into a barn and died when it was set ablaze. What makes Neighbors interesting and even controversial is that Gross proves that the murderers were not in fact German Nazis but rather the civilian Polish population.

For Gross, this episode, certainly one of many such episodes that occurred during this dark epoch is an important piece of the Holocaust puzzle. Yet, of course, the horrors of July 10, 1941 were clearly not systematic, they didn't involve gas chambers, and most importantly the murders were not committed by Nazis. By the conventional definition, if in fact this tragedy was a Holocaust episode, the Germans had to be responsible. But, they were not. Therefore we are entering a time when mainstream authors have recognized how untenable the current definition of "Holocaust" is. What is needed is, as revisionists have argued, a simpler definition. Clearly for Gross, the "Holocaust" is "the tragedy that befell Europe's Jews during the Second World War." With such a definition, the Jedwabne story begins to provide focus to the happenings of the time. Without such a redefinition, the time and its events remain incomprehensible.

Although Gross has provided a valuable service in mainstreaming a redefinition of "Holocaust" and revealing that the events in Jedwabne were carried out by the Polish population, the book relies on the same clouded reasoning as so many other books by conventional Holocaust historians. Perhaps grasping that the events at Jedwabne did not tie-in with the orthodox wisdom, Gross attempts to provide his own method of explaining the Holocaust:

"It is clear, from what happened in Jedwabne, that we must approach the Holocaust as a heterogeneous phenomenon. On the one hand, we have to be able to account for it as a system, which functioned according to a preconceived (though constantly evolving) plan. But, simultaneously, we must also be able to see it as a mosaic composed of discrete episodes, improvised by local decision-makers, and hinging on unforced behaviors." (pp. 124-25)

This strained definition is representative of Gross's reasoning throughout Neighbors. He tells a story that charts new territory, but almost afraid of its significance, he performs cartwheels to fit it back into more acceptable terms.

At several points, Gross explains that the Germans weren't involved, "As to the Germans' direct participation in the mass murder of Jews in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, […] one must admit that it was limited, pretty much, to their taking pictures." (p. 78) Gross even goes so far as to admit that the outpost of the German gendarmerie "was the safest place in town for the Jews, and a few survived only because they happened to be there at the time." (p. 78) Elsewhere however, Gross tries to implicate the Germans by claiming that "the tragedy of Jedwabne Jewry is but an episode in the murderous war that Hitler waged against all Jews." (p.78)

Perhaps one of Gross's worst bits of reasoning involves his view of survivor testimony. He argues that the Holocaust is such a unique event that testimony must be believed even if it is "incredible." Gross writes, "All I am arguing for is the suspension of our incredulity." (p. 141) He explains his method as follows:

"When considering survivors' testimonies, we would be well advised to change the starting premise in appraisal of their evidentiary contribution from a priori critical to in principle affirmative. By accepting what we read in a particular account as fact, until we find persuasive arguments to the contrary, we would avoid more mistakes than we are likely to commit by adopting the opposite approach, which calls for cautious skepticism toward any testimony until an independent confirmation of its content has been found." (p. 139f.)

With such a standard established, Gross's acceptance of some of the fantastic stories surrounding the Jedwabne episode are understandable. He builds his case primarily around the report of Szmul Wasersztajn. This document is filled with many "incredible" details, some of which could not have been known first-hand. Although the basic story may be true, revisionists and other thinking people must remain skeptical of some of the details not to mention Gross's method itself.

Although Neighbors could have been a more reasoned book, it is valuable for having begun to clear up this one episode in the long stream of episodes which make up the Holocaust story. As more mainstream authors grasp the importance of Gross's distinction from the dogmatic definition of "Holocaust," it is clear that the story of the tragedy of Europe's Jews during the Second World War will become more comprehensible. Shedding the mythical, the absurd and the propaganda-driven elements of the Holocaust story will not only make contemporary European history more understandable but will bankrupt the activities of Holocaust lobby. Neighbors is one more step towards correcting the historical record of the Holocaust in light of a more complete collection of historical facts.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Richard A. Widmann
Title: The Changing Definition of 'Holocaust', A Review
Sources: The Revisionist # 8, Nov. 2001, Codoh series
Published: 2001-11-01
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 30, 2001, 6 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: A review of 'Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland', by Jan T. Gross
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