Poland's threat to strip scholar of state honor sparks anger

AP News
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Posted: Feb 17, 2016 6:33 PM
Poland's threat to strip scholar of state honor sparks anger

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A threat by Poland's president to strip an esteemed Polish-American scholar of a state honor in punishment for work that exposes uncomfortable historical episodes of Polish anti-Semitism has infuriated many people in Poland and abroad.

The office of President Andrzej Duda said recently it might strip Princeton-based historian and sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross of the Order of Merit he received in 1996 for his services as a dissident in communist Poland and his contributions to historical research.

The move against Gross is part of a broader effort by Poland's new conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, to focus on honorable episodes in Polish history and fight any messages that the new leaders feel are harmful to the country's image.

In an open letter, several Polish historians and other scholars said stripping Gross of the award would represent a threat against "freedom of scholarly research" and that Gross deserves only "gratitude and respect" for sparking needed debates about the past.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization, called Tuesday on the government "to stop the harassment" of Gross and said the move against him "appears to be a politically motivated attempt to intimidate and threaten all those who expose the history of anti-Semitism in Poland."

The move comes after Gross caused a huge uproar in Poland last year with a claim that Poles killed more Jews during the war than they did Germans, something that deeply offended a nation proud of its anti-Nazi resistance.

The government is also preparing a bill which could see five-year prison sentences for anyone found guilty of using the expression "Polish death camp" to refer to Auschwitz or other extermination sites that Nazi Germany operated in German-occupied Poland.

That phrase, infuriating to Poles, has been used from time to time by foreign journalists and politicians, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II and Poles were among those who were imprisoned and killed in the camps, and had no role in running them.

However, there were cases of Poles who killed Jews during the war, and Gross has touched a nerve in the country with books that expose some of those incidents, including the 1941 massacre in Jedwabne, which involved Poles burning Jews alive in a barn.

Liberal Poles accept the overwhelming evidence of Polish guilt in the Jedwabne massacre and have supported public apologies for it. But supporters of Law and Justice and other right-wing Poles argue that the Germans inspired the massacre and armed the local thugs — and that Polish society should not be saddled with the blame.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the Jedwabne massacre took place in 1941, not 1943.