This piece was originally featured in Research Matters.
Mention Jan Gross and his 2001 book, Neighbors, and the word "controversy" will soon follow.
The book, which documents the murders of nearly the entire Jewish population of the town of Jedwabne, Poland, during World War II, explicitly challenges a long-accepted narrative that denies Polish complicity in the fate of Jewish Poles during the war. Since its publication, the book has provoked virulent responses from all sides: academic, political, media, popular. It has inspired renewed investigations and broad, heated conversations about the very heart of Polish identity. And it has made Gross — a former imprisoned student dissident who fled Poland in 1969 — again an unwelcome figure in his home country as he continues to publish research on anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in Poland during and after World War II.
Gross' commitment to disseminating knowledge in the face of dangerous opposition has earned him the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award from the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at The New School for Social Research (NSSR).
At a ceremony on March 7, 2019, sociology and liberal studies professor Elzbieta Matynia and former NSSR dean Ira Katznelson will honor Gross and welcome him into a growing family of award recipients.
In a Public Seminar article, Matynia recalls the genesis of the Courage in Public Scholarship Award, when an international group of alumni from TCDS’s annual summer Democracy and Diversity Institutes gathered in 2014 amid “an ethical and intellectual crisis facing academics in Europe and beyond”:
Drawing on the ethos of the University in Exile, and their own New School experience, and the conviction that especially in dark times universities carry a special responsibility vis-à-vis society, they considered in two intensive working sessions both the mounting problems and possible ways to address them….
The outcome of the debate was distilled in their final statement, known as the Wroclaw Declaration, which calls into being the "NSSR-Europe" initiative, an intellectually engaged microcosm of The New School for Social Research within the new post-cold-war Europe.
In the declaration, members stated that they would engage in “recognizing and honoring courage in public scholarship through awards and fellowships.” Acting quickly, they presented the first Courage in Public Scholarship Award on June 9, 2015, to Ann Barr Snitow, a “prominent American academic, writer, and activist committed to gender justice and equality, whose work in Central and Eastern Europe over a quarter of a century has helped to recast social discourse, reshape the culture, and empower women in this part of the world.” The ceremony was held at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland and was hosted by Minister for Equal Treatment Malgorzata Fuszara, a professor of law and sociology and friend of Matynia and of TCDS. In the years following, the award was presented to NSSR professor emerita and famed Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller and Professor Ewa Letowska, former ombudsperson and judge on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.
The coming 2019 ceremony, the first to be held at NSSR, is part of The New School’s Centennial celebrations. It’s a fitting moment for the award to come to New York; though it may be just four years old, the values it represents — a drive to bring scholarship to the general public, intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to challenging the status quo despite fierce opposition — build directly on the 100-year history and founding values of The New School itself.
“It’s a question of academic freedom, and we stood for it. That’s how we [The New School] were initially in 1919, in 1933, and then in 1989,” Matynia says, referencing the school’s founding as a progressive institution where no faculty would be bound by loyalty oaths; the University in Exile, which rescued nearly 200 scholars fleeing Nazism and fascism between 1933 and 1945; and the collapse of communism just 30 years ago — a period that marked a new era for both The New School and Matynia’s own life and academic career.
Arriving as a postdoctoral fellow at The New School in 1981, Matynia expected to return to Warsaw the following year. But when Poland declared martial law, she ended up staying in the United States, teaching at several colleges before returning to The New School in the mid-1980s. In 1990, she became the director of the East and Central Europe Program, now TCDS, to help revitalize postcommunist scholarly life and create relationships between universities in the region and NSSR.
TCDS’s Democracy & Diversity (D&D) Institute was established in Poland in 1992 to support scholars in eastern and central Europe. Gross taught courses at the first and second institutes and returned in the early 2010s as a guest lecturer. A sister D&D Institute also met in South Africa from 1999 to 2015 as that country grappled with its own democratic future.
Fittingly, Matynia’s research in political and cultural sociology addresses democratic transformations, especially in emerging countries with a legacy of violence. Like many others, she hoped that 1989 would mark a clear transition to democracy for eastern and central Europe. That transition hasn't materialized; today, Matynia notes, many freedoms — of gender expression, of movement, of speech, of public gathering — are endangered in the region as well as in the United States.
“The whole concept of freedom is something which is difficult for increasingly right-wing regimes to tolerate,” says Matynia. “At this moment, there are so many threats to knowledge in general that I think it’s even more important than ever to make everyone aware of it. The principles of the way we live, of our democratic life, of society are threatened” as institutions that examine history and society are silenced or closed. Matynia cites two recent alarming examples: the move of Central European University from Hungary to Austria after government pressure and the forced removal of the director of the Second World War Museum in Gdansk, Poland, for challenging accepted Polish narratives of the war — much like Jan Gross.
As centers of critical thought come under threat, suspicion, mistrust, and conspiracies spread even more quickly, making the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award that much more meaningful — and timely.