by Ralph Seliger
IT WAS the evening of February 22 when Prof. Jan Gross spoke to a packed hall at New York’s Center for Jewish History to discuss the newly amended Polish law “for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation” as well as other efforts of the current rightwing Polish government to outlaw references to the complicity of Poles in the Holocaust. (An English translation of the entire law, passed in January 2018, can be read here. The part of the law recently amended is Article 55a, clauses 1, 2, and 3.) This legislation was prompted by a misreading of a 2012 Obama reference to a “Polish death camp,” as if he were blaming Poles for the Nazi Holocaust, rather than his shorthand way of noting that Nazi Germany had placed the death camps inside Polish territory.
Gross is a pioneering scholar who has courageously been confronting both the history of Polish antisemitism and the actions of the current government. Led by the Law and Justice party, it is a government that is badly eroding the institutions of Polish democracy by undermining the judiciary’s independence and even the security of the private ballot; there’s now a provision to allow voters to cross out their first choice on a ballot and still have it counted — potentially weaponizing those who perform the vote-counting.
The government is now moving to strip Gross of the award he received over ten years ago from the previous centrist government for his book, Neighbors, which called attention to the Jedwabne pogrom — a July 1941 incident in which ethnic Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors en masse, entirely without Nazi encouragement. The current government is continuing to “investigate” him for allegedly insulting the Polish nation — overruling a state prosecutor who had recommended dismissing the case.
THE POLISH RECORD on the Holocaust is profoundly mixed, with discrimination and physical attacks against Jews — before, during, and after World War II, with as many as 200,000 Jews, according to historian Jan Grabowski, either murdered outright or betrayed to the Nazis. Still, there are more “Righteous Gentiles” from Poland (6,706), as recognized by Yad Vashem, than from any other country. The Polish Home Army provided woefully limited help to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, yet the Polish government envoy, Jan Karski, deserves our admiration for having conveyed heroic eyewitness testimony of the genocide to Franklin Roosevelt and (vainly) imploring him for more direct Allied action.
Now an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, Gross speculated that the Polish government may seek to prosecute him on the grounds that he’s not technically a historian, since his doctorate is in sociology. Otherwise, he would seem safeguarded by a clause (Article 55a (3)) that exempts prosecution for work pursued “in the course of one’s artistic or academic activity.”
Unfortunately, Gross’ conversation with YIVO’s executive director, Dr. Jonathan Brent, was disappointing. His halting, Polish-accented speech pattern made his responses to Brent’s questions hard to follow.
Yet Gross amused much of the audience with dismissive comments on Trump, drawing the obvious connections between what is going on in Poland and the ultra-nationalist and xenophobic wave in the U.S. and other countries. He admits to being perplexed by what’s now happening in Poland, positing that the Law and Justice Party is employing scapegoats and reviving old prejudices in order to seize control from the more liberal elements that had been in power between 2007 and 2015 and had brought the country unprecedented prosperity.
He also expressed his puzzlement that many Polish Gentiles insist upon divorcing Jewish suffering during the Holocaust from Polish suffering, when three million non-Jewish Poles also perished at the hands of the Nazis. In so doing, they underscore that Jews are not being regarded as part of the Polish nation.
This observation was supported by Dr. Brent, who mentioned that in the middle of the Oscar Schindler Museum in Krakow there’s an exhibit, entirely unrelated to Schindler, on the 1940 Soviet massacre of about 20,000 captive Polish soldiers in the Katyn Forest of the former USSR. It is neither widely known nor noted by Polish nationalists that about eight percent of those soldiers, systematically shot and disposed of by Stalin’s NKVD secret police, were Jews.
The video recording of this program can be viewed below. Other Center for Jewish History program recordings can be found at its media archive.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued as a print publication, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.