"A Scholar's Legal Peril in Poland"
"Princeton Historian Could Face Criminal Charges Over Book"
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008; A14
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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