BY HANK REICHMAN
Scholars in Poland have rallied to the defense of one of the world’s leading Holocaust historians after reports that Poland intends to withdraw a national honor because he claimed that Poles were complicit in Nazi war crimes. Polish-American scholar Jan T. Gross, Professor of History at Princeton University, is threatened with being stripped of a high state decoration, the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, which he has held since 1996. According to Jan Grabowski, Professor of History at the University of Ottawa, “the move is directly related to the dramatic political change sweeping the Polish Republic. Since last November Poland has had a right-wing government that has declared the ‘restoration of Polish national pride’ as one of its fundamental goals and the centerpiece of its political project.”
“Due to numerous petitions for the withdrawal of a medal granted to Jan Tomasz Gross, the President’s Office has asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the legal applicant, to take a position on the matter,’’ a statement said.
Gross is the author of the widely acclaimed book Neighbors, a history of a 1941 massacre in the Polish village of Jedwabne, in which as many as 1,600 Jews were murdered, most of them burned alive. Gross recounted how Polish villagers, rather than Nazis, were responsible for the massacre. The book inspired Aftermath (Pokłosie), a 2012 film directed by Władysław Pasikowski. Gross went on to publish two more books: one, Fear, discussed the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, where a Polish mob driven into a frenzy by tales of blood libel, massacred 40 Jewish men, women and children, survivors of the Holocaust. The last book, published in 2011, focused on the massive theft of Jewish property perpetrated by locals during the Holocaust and after the war. These works have compelled many Polish historians, filmmakers, and others to reevaluate their nation’s past and its experience during the Nazi occupation.
The move against Gross comes as the nationalist Law and Justice government, elected in 2015, comes under European scrutiny for law changes that, critics say, threaten democracy. President Andrzej Duda signed into law a controversial move bringing the attorney general under the control of the justice ministry. Critics say this will put political pressure on the judiciary. Poland also made headlines recently when it was reported that the government was drafting new regulations to punish anyone who uses the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi concentration camps – such as Auschwitz or Treblinka – that were located in Poland. A recent bill would make it a crime to say that Poland took part in, organized, or was responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich. Such statements would be punishable by up to five years in prison. The law would apply to historians, journalists, and the public at large.
“Historical politics should be conducted by the Polish state as an element of the construction of our international position,” Duda said at a recent conference dedicated to the country’s revision of history.
Gross was born in Poland but left the country in 1969 after an antisemitic purge of dissidents. Last September, in an article published in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, he denounced Poland’s reluctance to take in asylum seekers and in particular pointing out Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s reference to refugees as disease carriers, saying it could be traced back to Polish treatment of Jews during World War II. Law and Justice “itself is not overtly anti-Semitic,” Gross said. “But … it feeds on associations with anti-Semitic rhetoric. The language used about the refugees is sinister, these strangers in our midst that carry disease.” Prosecutors in Warsaw decided to investigate whether Gross had broken laws prohibiting the defamation of Poland.
Intellectuals who in the past few days have signed two open letters in Gross’s defense say the Law and Justice government wants to rewrite history, expunging any suggestion of Polish complicity in past horrors. The Polish historians said stripping Gross of the award would represent a threat against “freedom of scholarly research” and that Gross deserves only “gratitude and respect” for sparking needed debates about the past. The letter was signed by historians, Holocaust experts and others based at universities in Poland and abroad.
“The government says Gross is unpatriotic. But he is a patriot who looks at both the darker and lighter periods in Polish history,’’ said Grabowski, who is among 30 signatories of the first letter, published last week. Polish historian Anna Bikont said that after last year’s elections a well-known Polish historian, who sought evidence to prove that Poles were heroes and Jews guilty of their own misfortunes, became a Senator and announced that the winning party would launch a ‘historical offensive’ to fight against books such as Neighbors.
Dariusz Stola, director of Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, who signed the second open letter, submitted to the Polish Press Agency, said Duda should bear in mind the broad context of Gross’s work, which includes valuable studies of the German and Russian occupations of Poland. “He was awarded the Order of Merit for his scholarly work but also for his contribution, while in exile, to the democratic transition,’’ said Stola. “These are achievements you cannot take away.”
Agata Bielik-Robson, professor of Jewish Studies at Nottingham University, said: “Gross is one of the world’s leading Holocaust historians. Any normal liberal democracy has to have a voice of inner criticism, speaking in the name of minorities and different interests. Gross is one of those voices for Poland.’’ Bielik-Robson, who is Polish and also signed the open letters, added: “Law and Justice want to eliminate voices like his, to produce a uniform historical perspective. The trend is deeply worrying.’’
One of the central narratives of Law and Justice is that the end of communist rule in 1989 was in large measure a trick that allowed communist elites to enrich themselves with the help of corrupt leaders of the pro-democracy Solidarity labor movement. That means Poland’s independence over the last quarter century has been a sham. A central part of that account is that Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish president, was in fact a communist agent.
This week fresh allegations arose that Walesa worked for the communist secret services in the 1970s. He was cleared years ago by the Institute of National Remembrance, a body that investigates Nazi and communist crimes, but documents seized this week from the house of recently deceased General Czesław Kiszczak, a communist-era interior minister, suggest Wałęsa had been issued with the a code name ‘Bolek.’ Wałęsa has admitted to an “incident” with the secret police in the early 1970s, but has adamantly denied being an informant.
“You aren’t able to change the real facts with lies,” Walesa wrote on his blog.
Whether Jan T Gross’ decoration is taken away from him or not is – in the end – of little relevance. The fact that the government and the president of a large European country are seriously contemplating such a gesture is a different matter.
Even more disturbing is the news of new legislation moving at a rapid pace through the Polish parliament. According to Patryk Jaki, deputy minister of justice, the new law will impose a sentence of five years in jail for people who “blame the Polish nation for Nazi or Stalinist crimes”.
The chilling effect of these words on scholarly pursuits and on the independence of historical research in Poland will be obvious and immediate.