Shameful secrets in the fields of the Holocaust

A new book has outraged hardline Polish nationalists by exposing the widespread plundering of Jewish graves by their countrymen

At first glance it looks like an ordinary rural scene from the middle of the last century. Squinting in the bright sunlight, a group of Polish farmhands pose for a portrait after a successful day of toiling in the fields.

Only on closer inspection is it possible to make out what the scene truly depicts – a mass graverobbing exercise that shines an uncomfortable spotlight on a little-known chapter of Polish history during the Second World War.

Resting on the ground in front of the first row of farmers is a gruesome stack of skulls, the last vestiges of thousands of Jews who were killed at a Nazi-run death camp outside the village of Treblinka. Far from harvesting their own crops, these Polish farmers were treasure hunting in the killing fields of the Holocaust, looking for gold teeth and trinkets that their Nazi murderers may have missed.

The photograph is the starting point of Golden Harvest, a controversial new book by the Princeton historian Jan Gross and his former wife which details how some Poles profited from Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. The revelations have touched a raw nerve in a country still deeply scarred by the Second World War and proud of its record of opposing the Nazi occupation against horrendous odds.

The English edition, published by Oxford University Press, is not due to come out in Britain until spring 2012. But the Polish version, produced by the pioneering publishing house Znak, is already causing a stir thanks to a small number of copies that were obtained and then condemned by hardline Polish nationalists.

They have been incensed by Gross's suggestion, not only that the plundering of Jewish property and corpses occured during the Nazi occupation and beyond, but that it was far more widespread than previously admitted.

Znak's offices in Krakow have received hate mail and scrawled with graffiti since excerpts of the book were published in the Polish media, forcing Henryk Wozniakowski, the CEO of the publishing house, to publicly defend the novel before its release. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Mr Wozniakowski said he hoped most Poles would realise that the book's contents should not detract from the bravery many Polish people showed in saving Jews from death squads.

"It's a sensitive and controversial subject but it is a chapter of history that needs to be told," he said. "This book concentrates on the black moments between Poles and Jews. While a majority of Poles were passive observers of the Holocaust, and a minority were active helpers, a significant minority were engaged in criminal activities against the Jews."

Gross's books have often caused a storm in Poland, a country he left in the 1960s for the United States. Ten years ago he examined the 1941 massacre of 1,600 Jewish villagers by their Polish neighbours, causing outrage followed by soul-searching and a government investigation which found that Poles, and not the Nazis, were indeed responsible for that atrocity.

Poland was home to approximately 2.5 million Jews before the Second World War, but the vast majority perished at Nazi hands after 1939. Holocaust researchers have estimated that about 250,000 Polish Jews managed to avoid the death camps while remaining in Poland, but that only 40,000 of them survived the war.

Gross's book says that Poles killed tens of thousands of the remaining 210,000 or denounced them to the Nazi occupiers. Speaking from New York, Professor Gross said he believed debate in Poland over attitudes towards the country's Jews during the Second World War had matured to a level where most could accept that some atrocities were carried out against Jews, largely for material gain.

"There will be a reaction, but I think it will be calmer and more restrained than [after] some of my previous works," he said. "There is a group of Polish historians who for the past eight years or so have engaged in the study of Polish Jewish relations. They have shown that bravery and cruelty co-existed. It is part of human nature."

Bearing witness

* Jan Gross was born in Poland in 1947 to a Jewish father, but fled in 1968 during an anti-Semitic campaign waged by communist authorities. He is now a professor in the history department at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey.

* His co-author, Grudzinska Gross, a researcher in the department of Slavic languages at Princeton, was active in the political opposition in Poland and left her homeland at the same time. The pair were once married.

* Although their book investigates a dark chapter in Poland's Holocaust, the country also showed remarkable courage in defending Jews. The Yad Vashem institute commemorating the Holocaust has awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to 6,200 Poles – the largest single nationality.