What a difference a President can make! The previous Polish presidential incumbent, Bronislaw Komorowski, was widely praised and acknowledged for recognising Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Less than a year after Poland elected Andrzej Duda, a previously little-known right-wing politician as president, Warsaw’s nationalist government has moved to strip a leading Jewish Holocaust scholar of a national honour for asserting simply what Komorowski acknowledged, that Poland was in part responsible for Nazi war crimes against its Jewish population during World War II.
The Guardian reported on Sunday that Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish-born Princeton University history professor, was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1996 for his extensive work documenting the fate of Polish Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. His notable 2001 book “Neighbors,” examined the massacre of some 1,500 Jews from the village of Jedwabne, as part of which Gross concluded it was the Poles, not the Nazis, who committed the atrocity.
The book inspired the 2012 film “Aftermath,” the first Polish movie to address the responsibility of local residents for the massacres of Jews during the Holocaust.
Gross’s work in recent years has triggered furious reactions by Polish nationalists, who claim there is insufficient evidence to support assertions which they say blacken the country’s reputation by falsely depicting Poland as a perpetrator rather than a victim of Nazi occupation.
In October, Polish prosecutors opened a libel probe against Gross after he sought to explain Poland’s wariness regarding accepting Syrian migrants streaming into Europe by referring to widespread anti-Semitism during the war in an op-ed published in the German newspaper Die Welt.
“The Poles, for example, were indeed rightfully proud of their society’s resistance against the Nazis, but in fact did kill more Jews than Germans during the war,” the 68-year-old historian wrote.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry at the time called Gross’s article “historically untrue, harmful and insulting to Poland.”
Reports that Gross was to be stripped of the honour were met with outrage by Holocaust scholars and academics worldwide, who submitted a number of letters in defense of the historian and slammed Warsaw for attempting to whitewash history.
“The government says Gross is unpatriotic. But he is a patriot who looks at both the darker and lighter periods in Polish history,” wrote one of the signatories, University of Ottawa history professor Jan Grabowski, according to The Guardian.