Poland Drops Case Against Holocaust Scholar Who 'Insulted the Nation'

Jan Tomasz Gross claims that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during World War II, but authorities now say there's 'no unequivocal or persuasive data'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Historian Jan Tomasz Gross visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, 2016.
Historian Jan Tomasz Gross visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Poland has closed the case against prominent Polish-born American historian Jan Tomasz Gross, who revealed crimes committed by Poles against the Jews during the Holocaust.

Gross was questioned for "insulting the Polish nation," an offence which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

In a 2015 article, Gross argued that the Poles killed more Jews than Germans during World War II. This claim made waves in Poland and Gross was harshly criticized in right-wing circles that claimed he was distorting history in order to smear Poland.

Following complaints filed with the Polish public prosecutor general, the historian was summoned in 2016 for a five-hour interrogation, in which he was asked to provide proof backing his article.

On Tuesday the website notesfrompoland.com reported that the Polish prosecution decided to close the case and did not recommend legal proceedings against Gross. After consulting with experts, the prosecution said "there is no unequivocal or persuasive data about the number of Germans or Jews who died as a result of Polish actions during World War II."

The news website Onet reported that one expert, Dr. Piotr Gontarczyk of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, which investigates crimes against Poles, said there is no reliable academic study that could verify or contradict Gross' claims, and therefore the academia should discuss the matter.

The case drew international attention because Gross is an American citizen and Princeton University professor as well as his international reputation. Nevertheless, many in Poland consider him to be an "enemy of the state" and despicable because of his research.

Born in Poland and of Jewish descent, Gross immigrated in 1968 to the United States and became renowned for his 2000 book "Neighbors," in which he described the murder of hundreds of Jews at the hands of their Polish neighbors in the Polish town of Jedwabne in 1941.

The book sparked political, public and academic debate in Poland over the part Poles played in Nazi war crimes. Then-Polish President Alexander Kwaniewski apologized on behalf of the Polish people for their part in those crimes and unveiled a new memorial commemorating the victims.

Gross' interrogation was just one of the legal steps taken by Poland as part of shaping its national memory policy, led by its right-wing government headed by the Law and Justice party that rose to power in 2015 and was reelected this year.

In addition, the government enacted the Holocaust Law, which threatened to jail anyone suggesting that the Polish people had taken part in Nazi crimes. Ultimately and after widespread protest and a diplomatic clash with Israel, the law was softened.

Although the case against Gross was closed, another Polish historian, Prof. Jan Grabowski – also of Jewish origin who lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Ottawa – is expected to stand trial in the coming months.

Like Gross, Grabowski deals with crimes committed by Poles against Jews during WWII. His book "Hunt for the Jews" and his interview with Haaretz upon the book's publication in Hebrew also sparked outcry, evoked criticism and accusations of harming Poland's national dignity.

Grabowski's trial will deal with a book edited by him, in which an article by historian Barbara Engelking includes testimony that a Polish man was involved in murdering Jews. "I promise it's going to be a very interesting trial," Grabowski wrote on Facebook.    

Engelking founded the Polish Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Warsaw.