Jan Gross’ Order of Merit

Anna Bikont wrties in The Tablet:

We Poles had our presidential race last year. In a televised debate—the most important debate of the race—the two main candidates asked each other questions. The first round of these questions, posed by candidate Andrzej Duda, did not deal with the state of the Polish economy, nor relations with Ukraine and Russia. It had to do instead with a crime committed over 70 years ago in Jedwabne, a village in northeastern Poland where Polish Catholics incinerated their Jewish neighbors. This event was uncovered decades later by Polish-American historian Jan Gross, now a professor at Princeton. Duda admonished his opponent, then-incumbent President Bronis?aw Komorowski, for allowing Poles to be “wrongfully accused by others for participating in the Holocaust.” He asked why the president failed to defend the good name of Poland.

The election was won by Andrzej Duda, the candidate who resolutely rejected the painful truth of Jedwabne. The new president then proclaimed a “new historical policy strategy,” which would enhance the perception of Poland in the world. That policy is already in place. And an important component of it is a campaign against Jan Gross. In January, President Duda went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an opinion on the question of rescinding Gross’ Polish Order of Merit. According to his spokesman, the offices of the president had been inundated with letters bearing precisely this request from outraged citizens. The president could not simply ignore—or even silence—those voices.

This came across like a grim joke, given that in the freezing days that followed thousands marched in locations all over Poland to protest the president’s new policies, and yet the voices of the protesters has gone completely unheard. We were protesting the threat to democracy suggested by the president’s refusal to swear in three legally appointed judges to the Constitutional Tribunal. We protested—and the demonstrations took place in 36 cities—in the name of freedom, against the actions of a government restricting civil liberties in a variety of ways: through new surveillance regulations, new criminal procedures, the politicization of public services and the appropriation of public media by the ruling party. We write letters, too. They go unanswered. In defense of Gross, Poland’s most prominent intellectuals produced letters of protest, and historian Timothy Snyder (Yale University) announced he would renounce his own Polish order.

Gross, whose Order is now at stake, was previously decorated twice by the Polish state.

The first time was in 1996 (before he began writing the books that would upset so many Poles). He received the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland for his books on the underground structures of the state during World War II and Polish children sent to Siberia, as well as for his personal record of opposing Soviet rule, for his participation in the protests of 1968 and his support of the independent resistance movement after his emigration.

The second time was symbolic. It occurred on July 10, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the crime in Jedwabne. Then-President Aleksander Kwa?niewski apologized to the victims in a ceremony televised worldwide. All of this was due to a relatively slim volume written by Gross entitled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, which had been published the year before. A book that set off an avalanche, the biggest debate in Poland since it had regained its independence in 1989.

This second Order of Merit is what the regime now wishes to revoke from Gross and to erase from public memory. And while they’re at it, they’re also revoking the medal he received for absolutely uncontroversial service to Poland, even according to the newly imposed political criteria.

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