History professor Jan Gross is under investigation in his native Poland for slandering the Polish government — a crime punishable with a prison sentence of up to three years — after claiming in a new book that anti-Semitism was prevalent in the country after World War II.
Gross is being investigated by the Krakow Prosecutor's Office for allegedly violating Statute 132, which prohibits "publicly accusing the Polish nation of organizing or being responsible for Nazi or communist crimes." The conservative League of Polish Families party pushed the statute through in 2006.
Gross' book, "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz" was released in the United States in 2006 and published in Polish on Jan. 11. The book assesses post-World War II relations between Poles and Jewish Holocaust survivors, and accuses the Catholic church, the Communist party and the Polish intellectual community, among other groups, of complicity in wide-ranging anti-Semitism during that time.
The potential charges have been criticized by Gross, who continues to promote his book in Poland, where sales have shot up due to the controversy.
"I find it so inappropriate to put books on trial," he told Spiegel Online, an internet news source popular in Germany.
The prosecutors must release the conclusions of their investigation within 30 days. Gross is unlikely to face serious consequences, since the party that supported the anti-slander law is now out of power, and the statute will soon come up for review.
"You could say it's a case of bad timing that his book is coming out before the constitutional review," said Piotr Kosicki GS, who is currently studying Polish history in Poland.
"I'd be really surprised if anything actually came of [the charges]," he added. "There hasn't been anyone in the mainstream Polish press defending the investigation."
Despite such widespread disagreement with the decision to prosecute Gross, his book has generated heated debate in Poland. Major Polish newspapers have interviewed Gross, editors have commented on his book, and he has appeared on Polish television.
"It has become a national debate," Kosicki said.
Conservatives have criticized Gross for what they call inflammatory rhetoric and unfair generalizations about anti-Semitism in Poland. Some argue that his statistics and death tolls are exaggerated and claim that the postwar murders of Polish Jews should be blamed on German occupiers or the oppression of the Soviet communists.
Meanwhile, some who do not take direct issue with Gross' information still resent his reawakening of past controversies and call his language "unconstructive."
The issues that Gross raises may be especially controversial because they were taboo before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
"There is a consensus opinion in Polish historical circles that Communists repressed open discussion" of topics including Poland's postwar treatment of Jews, Kosicki said.
Gross' argument also reflects some entrenched divisions in Polish society. Some liberal Poles believe Gross' book raises important questions, while more conservative Poles are uncomfortable with the narrative the book traces. The latter are "more likely to say, 'Why do we want the world to think of us as people who killed people? We were killed, we suffered at he hands of the Nazis, we're the victims,' " Kosicki said.
But Gross said he hopes that more meaningful debate will emerge from the controversy his book has sparked.
"I think the discussion will slowly develop in a more substantive direction once people read it," he told Spiegel Online.
Gross said his intent is to force the Polish people to confront some uncomfortable aspects of their history.
"The memories of the war here are fixed, of people being victims and heroes," he told The Washington Post. "The truth of the matter is that European societies during the war did not behave as they'd like to think toward Jews."
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