Jan Gross’ views on Polish violence against Jews spark another controversy

History professor Jan T. Gross at a campus seminar in April.
Frank Wojciechowski

Jan Gross’ views on Polish violence against Jews spark another controversy

When history professor Jan T. Gross spoke in April at the Davis Center Seminar, colleagues praised him as a moral beacon whose groundbreaking Holocaust scholarship had forced an entire nation — Poland, his native country — to reckon with its past.

“We’re glad he’s here and not in jail,” Davis Center Director Philip G. Nord said.

Although a ripple of laughter greeted Nord’s words, the remark wasn’t entirely a joke. Just two weeks earlier, Gross had been questioned by Polish prosecutors weighing whether to charge him with publicly insulting the Polish nation, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Poland’s 7-month-old right-wing government is also considering stripping Gross of the Polish Order of Merit, awarded to him in 1996 in recognition of his historical scholarship, his 1960s-era anti-Communist activism, and his later support for political reform in Poland.

Although the latest controversy stems from an opinion article Gross published in a German newspaper in September, his work on anti-Semitism in Poland has long made him a controversial figure there. Twice in the past eight years, prosecutors have opened similar inquiries into his work, but neither investigation led to charges, and the outcome this time remains uncertain. 

“It’s up in the air,” Gross said in an interview after the seminar. “They never accused me of anything. They are thinking whether to accuse me.” (The Polish embassy in Washington said that no decision had been made in Gross’ case and that it did not know when a decision would be reached.)

As a student in 1960s Poland, Gross challenged the Communist regime, eventually spending five months in prison before emigrating to the United States. His early work dealt with Poland’s experiences under Nazi and Soviet occupation. 

It was his 2001 book Neighbors, which chronicled the 1941 murder of the Jewish citizens of the town of Jedwabne at the hands of Polish civilians, that ignited a national debate. A Polish government-sponsored investigation confirmed many of Gross’ findings, though it disputed his claim that 1,600 Jews had died.

“You’re a moral provocateur,” history professor Sean Wilentz told Gross during the Davis Center Seminar, “and you’re forcing the issue in a way that very few historians have the ability to do.”

Gross’ latest provocation came in the September op-ed, in which he decried Eastern European countries’ resistance to admitting refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. He traced that resistance to the legacy of World War II, arguing that Poles “actually killed more Jews than [they did] Germans during the war.”

Six million Poles, half of them Jews, died in the war, and Poland’s heroic resistance to Nazism is a key element of the country’s national self-image. Polish prosecutors say they received more than 100 complaints about Gross’ allegation.

In Poland, historians have publicly opposed the investigation as a threat to freedom of inquiry, Gross told the seminar audience. But among ordinary citizens, widespread ignorance of the Holocaust has licensed the development of a counter-narrative stressing Polish, rather than Jewish, suffering, he said. 

The latest response to his work is a distressing example of the new government’s approach, Gross added during the interview with PAW. “They are doing all kinds of frightening things to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a very destructive regime.”