The Polish-American historian Jan Gross set off a fierce debate in Poland with his account of how the Christian residents of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors during World War II. (The English edition, Neighbors, appeared in 2001.) Although Gross’s findings were vociferously denied, and he was the object of ugly personal attack, the book led to much greater openness in Polish society concerning the Holocaust (a taboo subject until the fall of the Iron Curtain), and the Polish government even bestowed on him the Order of Merit, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. Now, however, Poland’s new president, Andrzej Duda, has called for the prize to be rescinded. Anna Bikont, the author of a book on the same subject, writes:
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 . . . Andrzej Duda, did not deal with the state of the Polish economy, nor relations with Ukraine and Russia. . . . Duda admonished his opponent, then-incumbent President Bronisław 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 Duda, [who] then proclaimed a “new historical-policy strategy” that 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. . . .
For many Poles, the most important thing about the Holocaust is proving to the world that Poles conducted themselves in exemplary fashion during that period. This has always been our obsessive question: what will the world think of us? And the revelation of the crime at Jedwabne led to Polish-Jewish relations during the time of the Holocaust becoming an even more sensitive spot, a nerve where the Polish ego suffered damage.