Warsaw acts over claim 'Poles killed more Jews than Germans'

Polish-born US historian Jan T. Gross pictured in Warsaw on January 16, 2008 (AFP Photo/)

Warsaw (AFP) - Polish prosecutors on Thursday opened a libel probe against a US historian after he claimed Poles killed more Jews than Germans during World War II.

Last month, German newspaper Die Welt ran an article by the Polish-born Princeton University professor Jan T. Gross in which he sought to explain Poland's wariness of accepting Syrian migrants streaming into Europe by referring to anti-Semitism during the war.

"The Poles, for example, were indeed rightfully proud of their society's resistance against the Nazis, but in fact did kill more Jews than Germans during the war," wrote the 68-year-old Jewish historian.

The Warsaw prosecutor's office has since received more than 100 complaints from individuals and organisations saying they found Gross's claim offensive, according to office spokesman Przemyslaw Nowak.

Nowak told public television that the office was acting under a paragraph of the criminal code that "provides that any person who publicly insults the Polish nation is punishable by up to three years in prison".

Foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski said last month that Gross's article was "historically untrue, harmful and insulting to Poland".

Warsaw historian Andrzej Paczkowski told AFP "there are no reliable figures regarding the number of Jews killed by Poles and the number of Germans killed by Poles."

But Paczkowski, who is also a council member of the National Remembrance Institute (IPN) that is charged with investigating Nazi and Communist-era crimes, said he "would not be totally surprised if Gross were right".

"But his vision of things runs counter to the heroic image Poles have of themselves."

Gross is well known in Poland, where he caused shock in 2001 with his book "Neighbours" in which he revealed that in 1941 during the Nazi German occupation, several hundred Jews were massacred by their Polish neighbours in the town of Jedwabne.

Between 340 and 1,500 Jews died during the massacre, according to historians.

IPN concluded in 2003 that the killings were indeed committed by Polish villagers at the instigation of German Nazis.

"Neighbours" drove then Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologise to Jews worldwide for the crime. It provoked unprecedented soul-searching about the complex relationship between ethnic Poles and Jews before, during and after the war, in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland.

Prosecutors had twice already looked into whether Gross defamed Poland in his earlier books "Fear" and "Golden Harvest".

But those preliminary investigations in 2008 and 2011 were shelved after prosecutors found no evidence of a crime.