OPINION: The Polish Government's Shameful Attack on a Holocaust Historian

Poland, which recently elected a far-right government, is reportedly planning to strip Princeton University Professor Jan Tomasz Gross of a national honor because he has written that Poles share blame for Nazi war crimes.

Gross is the author of the 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.

An international group of intellectuals is rallying to Gross’s defense, signing two open letters objecting to the move to strip him of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.

Gross was born in Poland, but emigrated in 1969, a time of major anti-Semitic purges.  He received the Order of Merit in 1996.

Poland 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 bill drafted recently 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.

Critics of the Polish government’s offensive say that although the Nazis were responsible for establishing the death camps it was not accidental that major camps were placed in Poland, where there were extreme levels of anti-Semitism before and during World War II.

In an interview with The National Book Review, Polish historian Anna Bikont explained how 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, has become a Senator and announced that the winning party will launch a ‘historical offensive’ to fight against mendacious books such as Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors.

According to the Guardian, an announcement on whether Gross will be stripped of his award is expected “soon.”

The Polish government's recent turn toward the suppression of free speech and intellectual inquiry is deeply disturbing.  If it believes Gross and others are wrong in their descriptions of what occurred during World War II, it can encourage other historians to research and publish their own accounts. 

The way to get at the truth is through a contest of facts and ideas – not by taking back awards and threatening historians, journalists, and members of the public with prison.