Holocaust scholar tests Poland’s freedom of speech, and its WWII narrative
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Did Jan Tomasz Gross publicly insult Poland? Is he right?

Holocaust scholar tests Poland’s freedom of speech, and its WWII narrative

Princeton professor who claims Poles killed more Jews than Germans could face three years in prison

In this April 13, 2016 file picture , Princeton professor Jan Tomasz Gross speaks to The Associated Press in Warsaw, Poland. (AP/Alik Keplicz,file)
In this April 13, 2016 file picture , Princeton professor Jan Tomasz Gross speaks to The Associated Press in Warsaw, Poland. (AP/Alik Keplicz,file)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s nationalistic leadership is refusing to give up a fight against a Polish-American scholar who has claimed that more Jews than Germans were killed by Poles during World War II, a hugely controversial statement in a nation proud of its resistance against the Nazis.

The question is whether Princeton professor Jan Tomasz Gross publicly insulted Poland, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. A prosecutor recently ordered a yearlong investigation be continued until April, overriding a lower-ranking prosecutor who recommended dropping the case after finding no intent to defame Poland.

Gross’s lawyer, Agnieszka Wardak, said she thinks the chance he will face criminal charges is small, noting a similar case in the past was dropped. Although Gross lives in the United States, he did return willingly to Poland this year for questioning.

The case is seen as a test of freedom of speech under a right-wing government that has been centralizing power. Government critics believe the ruling party is using state institutions to intimidate Gross, who has Jewish roots and left Poland in the wake of an anti-Semitic purge in Poland in 1968. They fear the authorities’ moves will discourage other Holocaust scholars from freely pursuing historical truth.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, called the decision to continue the investigation “alarming” and said it “bears all the hallmarks of a political witch-hunt.”

“It’s also a form of alienating minorities and people who were victimized,” the center’s director of government affairs, Mark Weitzman, said. “It’s writing their experiences out of the national narrative.”

At a gathering of Holocaust scholars in Los Angeles running through Sunday, historians have been adding their names to a letter to Polish President Andrzej Duda condemning the moves against Gross as well as a proposed law they fear will suppress Holocaust scholarship.

A visitor to the site of the former World War II Nazi death camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland, examines a display case containg the ashes and bones of victims of the camp's gas chambers, Nov. 6, 1987. The mound in the background is formed by human ashes. (photo credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
A visitor to the site of the former World War II Nazi death camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland, examines a display case containg the ashes and bones of victims of the camp’s gas chambers, Nov. 6, 1987. The mound in the background is formed by human ashes. (photo credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Those developments “will place Poland among the states which try to inhibit free speech and censor historical debates,” they say.

On the other side are Poles who want to see Gross brought to account for what they see as unfair attacks on the nation’s honor over the past 15 years, starting with “Neighbors,” a book about a wartime massacre of Jews by Poles. Critics accuse Gross of using dubious methodology and of overstating the extent of Polish crimes to gain attention and in bitterness against his homeland.

Gross made his statement in an article published by Project Syndicate in September 2015 in which he harshly condemned the refusal by Poland and other countries in Central Europe to help migrants, who were then arriving in huge numbers. He argued that the attitude is rooted in the region’s “murderous past.”

“Consider the Poles, who, deservedly proud of their society’s anti-Nazi resistance, actually killed more Jews than Germans during the war,” he wrote.

The piece was also published by the German newspaper “Die Welt,” which seemed like another act of betrayal to Polish nationalists.

The article prompted scores of complaints by Polish citizens to prosecutors.

Gross told the AP on Friday that “while one could accept, when they opened the investigation, that they are responding to a number of complaints from the public and that it’s a matter of a prosecutor’s office doing its job, now it is clear that this is a political case in the making.”

A villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo where dozens of Jews were sheltered during World War II, in Warsaw, Poland, April 9, 2015  (Photo credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
A villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo where dozens of Jews were sheltered during World War II, in Warsaw, Poland, April 9, 2015 (Photo credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

For decades Poles have been raised on wartime stories of Polish suffering and heroism — the military defense against the German invasion in 1939, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Poles who saved Jews. Many react viscerally when confronted with a growing body of scholarship about Poles who participated in handing Jews over to the Germans or killed them directly, often profiting from the property and other wealth the slain Jews left behind.

In his 2015 article, Gross relied on the research of another Polish historian who estimated that Poles could have killed up to 30,000 Germans in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Gross and some other researchers believe the numbers of Jews killed by Poles is in the tens of thousands.

That number has not been definitively established, given the difficulty of measuring these deaths in the chaos of World War II.

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