Academics defend prominent Holocaust scholar after Poland threatens to take away award

© Kacper Pempel
The Polish government is contemplating withdrawing an Order of Merit from a renowned US historian who said Poles killed more Jews than Germans in WWII. Academics have denounced the move, arguing that retracting the award endangers the freedom of scientific research.

Polish and foreign academics have written two open letters to the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, in support of Jan Tomasz Gross, a Princeton University professor of Polish origin, who may be stripped of an Order of Merit Poland granted him in 1996 for his studies into the Holocaust.

“Such a gesture would cast an unfavorable light upon the historical policy pursued by the current government and compromise Poland not only in its own eyes but in the eyes of international opinion,” reads the letter, which was published on the Gazeta Wyborcza website.

“The government says Gross is unpatriotic. But he is a patriot who looks at both the darker and lighter periods in Polish history,’’ said Jan Grabowski, professor at the University of Ottawa, who signed the first letter, as cited by the Guardian.

Gross is best known for his book “Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community at Jewabne, Poland,” in which he tells about documented atrocities, including the torture, slaughter and burning alive of some 1,600 Jewish people in the town of Jedwabne, which were committed by local Poles.

"We consider it far from appropriate to treat this man and a Pole like this, who – contrary to the law – was stripped of citizenship in 1969, then in a free Poland was awarded the honor designed for people that had made outstanding contributions to the cooperation linking the Polish Republic with other states and nations,” says the second open letter addressed to Duda, submitted to APA news agency on Friday.

Gross is controversial, but it is stupid and harmful to consider removing his award,’’ said Dariusz Stola, director of Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the signatory of the second letter, which was also backed by the International Council on Auschwitz.

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The controversy surrounding Gross has been mounting since his article titled “Eastern Europe’s crisis of shame” was published in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper in September 2015. In the article, Gross branded Eastern European countries, including Poland, as “intolerant, xenophobic and incapable of remembering the spirit of solidarity that carried them to freedom a quarter-century ago” for their unwillingness to share the refugee burden.

 To illustrate his point from the historic perspective, Gross cited findings indicating that "about 10 percent of the Jewish ghetto population in Poland – some 200,000-250,000 people – tried to save themselves by running away from the ghettoes and hiding on the so-called Aryan side. Out of this population, about 40,000 Jews survived the war." And the majority of those who didn't were killed either by Poles or Ukrainians “among whom they were hiding, or by being betrayed and delivered to German police outposts.”  The number of German Nazis killed by the Poles during the war Gross estimated at 30,000 people.

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“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,’’ said Agata Bielik-Robson, professor of Jewish Studies at Nottingham University, commenting on the proposal, as cited by the Guardian.

Margorzata Sadurska, a spokesperson for the presidential office, said it had received nearly 2,000 letters to President Duda calling on the government to take back the award on Tuesday. Duda asked the Foreign Ministry to provide an opinion on the matter, which has since reviewed the case and forwarded its statement back to the president for a final decision.