By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008
WARSAW -- Polish prosecutors are considering taking the unusual step of filing criminal charges against an Ivy League professor for allegedly "slandering the Polish nation" in a book that describes how Poles victimized Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II.
Jan T. Gross, a Princeton University historian and native Polish Jew, has raised hackles here with the publication of "Fear," an account of Poland's chaotic postwar years in which Jews who barely survived the brutal Nazi occupation under the Germans often went on to suffer further abuse at the hands of their Polish neighbors.
The book was first published in 2006 in the United States, where reviewers found it praiseworthy. Gross's work, however, generated bitter feelings among many Poles who accused him of using inflammatory language and unfairly stereotyping the entire population as anti-Semitic. When the Polish-language edition of his book was released here last Friday, prosecutors wasted no time in announcing that he was under investigation.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office in Krakow, which is handling the case, said a decision was expected this week on whether to press charges against Gross or summon him for questioning.
The law in question was adopted in 2006, around the time that "Fear" was published in English; Gross and some other historians say it was partly a response to the book. The measure prohibits anyone from asserting that "the Polish nation" was complicit in crimes or atrocities committed by Nazis or communists. The maximum penalty is three years' imprisonment.
The threat of legal action has not deterred Gross so far. He arrived in Warsaw on Monday for a nationwide tour to promote his book, which has already sold out in some stores. In an interview, he said he doubts prosecutors will charge him.
"It's completely bizarre," he said, seeming to relish the attention. "There's an old saying in Polish that if God wants to punish someone, he takes away their brains first."
Poland has prosecuted Gross for his views before. In 1968, during communist rule, he was arrested as a student for participating in a free-speech movement and served five months in prison. He departed for the United States a year later, taking advantage of a Polish government policy that encouraged Jews to leave the country. He enrolled at Yale University and ultimately became a U.S. citizen.
In 2001, as a scholar, he provoked an intense public reckoning in Poland by publishing "Neighbors," a book about a 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne. Uncovering new evidence, he documented how hundreds of Jews were massacred by Polish villagers in an atrocity that had previously been blamed on the Nazis. Although the book caused an uproar, its findings were later corroborated by an official historical commission and endorsed by the government.
Many Polish historians are less enamored of Gross's most recent book. But several have slammed the authorities for even thinking about taking the Princeton professor to court, saying it makes the country look backward.
"As a historian, I quite simply consider it a scandal," said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. "It jeopardizes the standing of Poland as a democratic nation. We must demonstrate that we are not afraid of any historical truths, no matter how devastating."
At the same time, Machcewicz and other scholars have strongly criticized "Fear," arguing that Gross has sought to inflame public opinion by exaggerating the Polish attacks on Jews as "ethnic cleansing." They also said he ignored how Polish society was filled with ethnic and religious recriminations after the war and that many Catholics, Poles and Ukrainians found themselves the target of violence.
"I'm not going to say the majority of his facts are wrong," said Machcewicz. "It is true: Polish anti-Semitism existed. There were pogroms. Many Jews were killed. There is no reason to deny it or hide it. . . . But the language he used is counterproductive."
Poland's tragic wartime history remains a highly sensitive topic here. The Nazis exterminated an estimated 3 million Jews in Poland, or about 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population. But 3 million other Poles were also killed, and many people see them as forgotten victims in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Many Poles are still reluctant to engage in an open discussion of those years. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow, suggested this week that the publisher of the Polish-language edition of "Fear," a printing house with close ties to the church, had made a mistake.
"Your task is to promulgate the truth on history and not to wake up demons of anti-Polishness and anti-Semitism at the same time," he said. "Reading the book filled me with pain."
Andrzej Paczkowski, a well-known Polish historian and board member of the Institute of National Remembrance, said Gross had succeeded in stirring up emotions but questioned whether the public debate would do much good.
"This book is as much for psychologists as historians," he said. "I think in this case he's not a very good teacher. If you want to persuade someone of your own opinion, in my view, you should avoid scandals and media circuses and instead slowly demonstrate the course of events by relying on facts."
As he prepared to launch his book tour, Gross said he was not surprised at the hostile reaction.
"The memories of the war here are fixed, of people being victims and heroes," he said. "The truth of the matter is that European societies during the war did not behave as they'd like to think toward Jews."
He also said he was not intimidated by the risk of a legal backlash or any other dangers. Next week, he is scheduled to make a public appearance in Krakow, the city where prosecutors are weighing legal action.
"People have warned me that I should worry and not walk at night alone, but I don't feel any threats," he said. At the same time, with his photograph in dozens of newspapers and magazines these days, he admitted to wearing a hat to disguise himself on the streets. "We'll see what happens," he said with a shrug.