WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A prominent Polish-American academic whose scholarship has explored Polish violence against Jews during World War II says Poland’s new right-wing leadership is taking “a step back to the dark ages of anti-Semitism” with a threat to strip him of a state honor and other measures.
Poland’s president is considering stripping Princeton professor Jan Tomasz Gross of an Order of Merit he received in 1996. The president’s office said recently that it received some 2,000 letters from citizens asking it to take that step.
“They want to take it away from me for saying what a right-wing, nationalist, xenophobic segment of the population refuses to recognize as facts of history,” Gross told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Israel.
Gross received his medal for activities as a dissident in communist Poland in the 1960s, before he was forced to leave Poland as a result of an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, and for his scholarship.
The 68-year-old sociologist and historian has stoked controversy in Poland with works that expose dark chapters in a wartime history that Poles are otherwise proud of thanks to a strong resistance by Poles to Nazi Germany.
The latest uproar surrounding him came after Gross asserted last year that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during the war.
Polish prosecutors are now looking into whether to indict him for slandering the nation with that comment, and Gross said that he will soon have to travel to Poland to give a deposition.
He insisted that he is not the first and only historian to make that claim and that there is historical evidence to back it up. Though the exact numbers are difficult to measure, Gross said evidence indicates that Poles killed up to 30,000 Germans during the war, at most, while they probably killed 70,000 to 90,000 Jews, but possibly more.
Some scholars feel such comparisons are meaningless because they don’t take into account the fact that the occupying Germans were armed, powerful and difficult to kill, while the Jews were defenseless and being hunted by the Nazis.
Gross said that even though he simply tries to describe historical facts, he finds himself treated as traitor to the land of his birth by some Poles. And he argues that violence against Jews was not at all unique to Poland — that as Nazi Germany exterminated the Jews, populations across Europe joined in the killing, from Ukraine to Lithuania to France, with the exception of Denmark and Bulgaria.
“In Poland it took place on a particularly nasty scale partly because there were so many Jews living in Poland before the war,” he said. “But there is nothing peculiar to Poland.”
He decried other developments in Poland under Law and Justice, which swept to power last year, including moves that weaken the constitutional court and other measures that European and U.S. officials have also criticized as attacks on democratic norms.
Gross is also disturbed by government plans for a new law which would see five-year prison sentences for anyone found guilty of using the expression “Polish death camp” to refer to Auschwitz or other extermination sites that Nazi Germany operated in German-occupied Poland.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.