Academic Freedom Threatened in Poland


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.

Princeton historian Jan T. Gross

Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross

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.

Grabowski concludes:

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.

10 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Threatened in Poland

  1. The move to strip Gross of his Order of Merit comes not from the Polish government or the President, but from the Poles themselves and fully independend of their political symphaties. Thousands of petitions from the citizens were submitted to the Polish president before the parliamentary elections after Gross claimed that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during the war. Gross is not a representative of accademia but a publicist writing stories, which are not based on facts and which are defamating to Poland and Polish people. Gross gets support only from a selected group of people like Grabowski. Most scholars do not regard him as a serious historian.

    • So if any group petitions against a controversial professor, even a large group, that’s enough to rescind honors? You make my point for me! But anyone who believes that “most scholars” don’t see Gross as “serious” is unbelievably uninformed if not simply prejudiced.

      • Gross violates the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behavior, he just committs scientific fraud. In “Neighbors” he claimed that one half of the city of Jedwabne (1,600 Polish citizens) killed another half (1,600 Jewish people). The forensic research, unfortunatelly interrupted, found out that there were about 340 victims and that there were about 40 Poles involved in the crime. The researchers from the Polish Institute for National Remembrance found also German bullets at the scene. Nobody in Poland during the German occupation was allowed to keep guns or to use gasoline (gasoline had been used to burn the Jewish victims in a barn). There are also testimonies that Poles were forced by Nazis to particiapte in the crime. There are also German documents confirming that German SS operated in the area of Jedwabne and committed crimes against humanity. Gross has never checked them. He made the quaint observation that he asked two German scholars, both of whom allegedly familiar with German archives, about Jedwabne and neither of them heard of it. Does asking two colleagues about the subject replace the need to immerse oneself personally in critical documents, which are absolutely essential to prove one’s allegations about what happened at Jedwabne?

        In his another book “Fear” Gross condemns a widespread Polish antisemitism among the catholic priests and claims that some of them carried out ritual mords of Jewish children. While the first claim might be partially true, the second is completely false. It has been also proved that many Polish clergymen saved Jews during the WWII risking their lives (for instance Maximilian Kolbe 2,000 human beings).

        I don’t know, what the Polish president will decide, but for me it is primary the American, German, Polish, Russian and Israeli historians, who should challenge Gross and find out what happened at Jedwabne. The best way would be to create an independent international experts group and to carry out a thorough exhumation (upon earlier approval of the Jewish side).

      • I am no expert on these events or this period, nor do I read Polish, although I have read and admired both Neighbors and Fear. And the comments section of this post is hardly the best place to engage in historical debate. However, even a quick Google search reveals the one-sided contentiousness of the Professor’s argument. Professor Gross, in his afterword to the 2002 edition of Neighbors, does not insist on the victim count of 1,600 to which Professor objects. Instead, he makes the point that exposes the shabbiness of this quibble: “The character as well as moral and historical implications of the Jedwabne mass murder remain exactly identical, no matter whether 400 people or 1600 were killed there” (p. 121).

        “Profesor” refers to the researches of the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, or IPN). But the two mammoth volumes, totaling over 1,500 pages, produced by the IPN on Jedwabne (Wokół Jedwabnego) in 2002 paint a far more complex picture. To be sure, the 2005 study by Marek Chodakiewicz suggests a lower number of participants and, more importantly shifts blame to the Germans. But IPN’s report of the commemoration, on July 10, 2013, of the seventy-second anniversary of the “pogrom of the Jewish inhabitants” of Jedwabne states in relevant part: “According to the conclusions [of the judicial investigation in Bialystok terminated in 2002] in July 1941 were killed in Jedwabne at least three hundred Jewish inhabitants of that small town. The perpetrators of this crime—a group of about forty Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—were inspired to commit it by Germans.” That the Germans were the instigators of the attack was never disputed by Gross, but in fact was something stressed repeatedly in his book.

        For a thorough and thoughtful review of not only Gross’s Neighbors but of the response to it by Polish and other scholars and journalists, including an extensive discussion of the IPN studies, interested readers might turn to the distinguished Yale historian Marci Shore’s 2005 review essay, “Conversing With Ghosts: Jedwabne, Zydokomuna, and Totalitarianism,” available via Project Muse here:

        One might also turn to the exchange between Gordon Black of the Polish-American Congress and the writer Louis Begley in the New York Review of Books earlier this year here:

        In that exchange Begley concludes: “Polish history is what it is. Trying to burnish it by explaining away or blaming on others pogroms such as those in Jedwabne in July 1941 or in Kielce in July 1946, or by denying the endemic virulent anti-Semitism that made the great majority of Catholic Poles at best indifferent to the slaughter by Germans of Jewish Poles during World War II, is both undignified and foolish.”

        But the point, of course, of academic freedom is that all sides need to be heard, and that is precisely what the current Polish government appears hostile to.

    • Very Well Said, Professor! The Gross supporters are trying, for their own purposes, to make a mountain out of a molehill. It was indeed this latest, specific comment by Gross which sparked this action – from grassroots Poles who saw that inflammatory, false comment as a step too far. But that won’t stop the liberal, anti-Polish mob with access to liberal media from using this to blow the actual, concise issue way out of proportion. Poles and Poland are quite happy that the Gross Bully, and his bedfellows, are finally being stood up to properly, visually and legally – and long overdue.

  2. Mr Reichman,
    Interestingly, you have provided a quote from Mr Bagley, but not from Mr Black, which most people would consider demonstrates a lack of balanced treatment. So, to add some balance, here is a reference, below, regarding the lack of scholarly research carried out by Gross, dating back to 2001.

    Also, please come back to the essential facts: the award-stripping process instigated by the Polish President came about due to the latest false comment made by Gross, not due to his “Neighbors” book, so all the anti-Polish snipers out there should stop trying to include that regrettable, poorly researched book in the current legal action. Academic freedom is NOT under threat anywhere, and especially not in Poland; all this action will do is to improve the academic rigor of proper, professional historical research – which I sincerely hope you would agree would be a good thing.

    • Hello Hank, thanks for posting the link for my Exchange on Jedwabne with Louis Begley in the New York Review of Books:

      However, Dan Zamoyski is correct in objecting to your acceptance of Mr. Begley’s position without also presenting mine.

      I presented a question that Mr. Begley failed to answer. It was the question asked previously in NYR by the respected Holocaust historian, the late Istvan Deak: Why didn’t the Jews fight?

      Deak wrote: “They may have been hopelessly outnumbered, but the fact that they did not fight back may also suggest that there were more than a handful of armed Germans present at that time.”

      The mob of Poles theory does not explain what disciplined management could have moved the Jewish population through ritual and field maneuvers culminating with their entrance into a barn.

      Professor Deak’s question remains to be answered. I’ll leave the point at that, as it continues to stand.

  3. Professor and Dan Zamoyski, thank you very much for your thoughtful and detailed, fact based comments.
    Hank Reichman,
    In historical research, numbers, dates, proportions and hard facts are of a paramount importance. I am shocked that you, an academic, dismiss this by saying: “no matter whever 400 people or 1600 were killed there’…Can you envision the grave consequences of such rationale? …when a number is changed from several hundred to forty perpetrators? Dont you see the significance? In any case, please see below a link to my article which details the often ingored hardships of the Polish clergy and intelligentsia. A number of members of my immediate family perished during World War II:

  4. PRESS RELEASE: Rally on Holocaust Memorial Day, Thursday, May 5th @ 1:00PM

    Rally Against Polish Government to Protest Attempt to Deny Polish
    War Crimes During the Holocaust
    Approximately 200 students including children and grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors will be holding a rally on Holocaust Remembrance Day to protest attempts by the Polish government to rewrite history and deny the significant role that Polish citizens had in perpetrating the Holocaust.
    Dr. Jan Tomasz Gross, a world-renowned historian and former professor of history at Princeton University, authored an earth shattering book, Neighbors, where he highlights the significant contribution of ordinary Polish citizens to the destruction of European Jewry. He writes in graphic detail how, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, Polish peasants, rounded up their neighbors, 1300 Jewish residents, and forced them into a wooden barn, locked the door and set the barn ablaze. This heartless and brutal crime was one of the first documented historical accounts of Polish anti-Semitism in World War II. Dr. Gross’ book was a National Book Award Finalist.
    The Polish government has long maintained that this event was an isolated incident.
    Recently, Dr. Gross mentioned in a recent interview that in his opinion, “Poles killed more Jews than Germans.” Responding to this statement, the Polish government reacted in an uproar. Charges were filed against Dr. Gross for “insulting the state” and a movement to strip him of his “Order of Merit Award” has been advanced. He also has been threatened with prison time for these “crimes.” The investigation is currently ongoing.
    According to rally organizer, Rabbi Zev Friedman, “I’ve heard many survivors speak of the glee that their Polish neighbors had when Jews were being mercilessly persecuted. It was reported that eyewitnesses in the Warsaw ghetto saw Poles watching approvingly or even helping out, acting as spotters as German soldiers shot Jews. Today’s rally calls on the Polish government not just to drop charges and exonerate Dr. Gross but to admit their history and take full responsibility for what its citizens did to their own neighbors during the Holocaust. The attempts of the government of Poland, which holds itself out to be a democracy, to stifle the free speech and historical documentation of an internationally acclaimed professor of history, smacks of charges one would expect to hear emanating from North Korea and other totalitarian regimes.”
    Place: Polish Consulate to the United Nations: 233 Madison Ave, New York, NY, 10017
    Time: Thursday, May 5, at 1:00pm
    Contact: Rabbi Zev Friedman, Dean of Rambam Mesivta High School

  5. Pingback: Scholars Defend Polish-Canadian Holocaust Historian | ACADEME BLOG

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