Polish historian Lukasz Krzyzanowski begins this impeccably well-researched book with a question: how was life for those Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and returned to their homeland? The short answer is: hellish. These "ghost citizens" returned from ghettos and death camps across Poland to communities they once called home. But they found themselves isolated in a society that was a universe away from Poland pre-September 1939.
An estimated 90pc of Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis, so there were not many friends or family members left to help survivors. Aid did come, mostly from charitable Jewish organisations that surfaced across Poland immediately after the war. They provided finance and a friendly face to destitute Jews who were confronted with theft, abuse and violence. These threats came mostly from Polish citizens struggling in a country ravaged by war, poverty and political chaos. The police also had clear-cut discriminatory anti-Semitic agendas.
Krzyzanowski treats some of the primary historical sources with a much-needed pinch of salt. Emotions were high after the war and prejudices were abundant. The historian applies an even-handed judgment call or educated guess when the need arrives.
His book aims to have a nuanced conversation about Poland's negative relationship with Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. The specifics of the topic take place in one location, Radom: a medium-sized industrial city in east central Poland.
Jews wishing to return to their previous addresses there found themselves in a tricky situation. They returned to houses they once owned, but which were now inhabited by strangers. The story of the complex legal battles that the Jewish homeowners had to go through to win back their properties has the potential to be tiresome, but Krzyzanowski makes it lively and fascinating. Holocaust victims' properties were generally passed on to the Polish state, which passed them on to private citizens. This was based on the assumption that homeowners who had not perished in the Holocaust would clearly have shown up by now.
Some Jews won back their properties in the courts. Most ended up selling: and well below the market rate. Racial prejudices played a part in these legal wrangles, as did the shadow of Moscow politics. The Iron Curtain was descending and Poland was on course to become a satellite Soviet state. Stalinist socialism theoretically regarded private property as the devil incarnate. Legal sympathy for Jewish bourgeois business owners and mercantile traders was not high on the political agenda.
The focus of Krzyzanowski's attention is purposely narrow and specific: the immediate post-war period when a rare number of Polish Jews who survived Nazi persecution returned to their desolate, rubble-strewn, ruinous empty communities. There is also some small footnoting of Polish Jewry in a broader European historical context too, before and during the Holocaust. The history of the Jews in Poland goes back more than 800 years. On the eve of World War II, the country's Jewish population of 3.3 million was Europe's largest. Yiddish was the lingua franca of this vibrant community, who played a vital role in the public, civic, commercial, intellectual and spiritual life of sophisticated cosmopolitan Polish cities such as Warsaw, Kraków, Lublin and Lwów.
That tragically changed with the sudden collapse of European empires, the rise of fascism, and the bizarre logic of Nazi racial pseudoscience. It's a story with four major turning points. It began with Poland's occupation by both the Soviet Union and Germany in September 1939. The 1.8 million Jews in German-occupied Poland imprisoned in urban ghettos. Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 led to the remaining Polish Jews being ghettoised.
This all happened as Hitler continued to bang the drum of lebensraum: it promised a land of milk and honey for a master race of perfected German super-humans in an ever-expanding Reich in the east. Polish Jews became the victims of that warped racial fantasy.
The "Jewish question" became the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference, a formal meeting by senior Nazi leaders in January 1942. The systematic slaughter of Jews began with industrial efficiency. Once the Jewish ghettos of Polish cities were liquidated, a transport process began. Jews were sent to gas chambers by train in six secretive purpose-built death camps across occupied Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This is one of the most well-documented episodes in modern European history, yet the tragic fate that befell those few Polish Jews who decided to stay in their country after the liberation of Nazi death camps has been almost completely ignored until now. Unsurprisingly, its been overshadowed by the monumental literature of the Holocaust itself.
There are other reasons too: post-war Poland - like most other nations in central Europe at the time - was a place where politics was extremely complex as the Cold War began to heat up. Communist governments hadn't much time for political pluralism and open debate was almost non-existent. Krzyzanowski concludes by suggesting that there are some similarities in Poland today: a far-right populist government has just been elected in a country that still continues to hide uncomfortable guilty ghosts of history in the closet.