Jan Gross, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, discussed the 81st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on March 27 in Williams Hall. Gross is a Jewish and Polish historian and was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1998. (Sydney Floch/B&W Staff)

Historian honors Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary


Jan Gross, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, looked up from his podium in Williams Hall and addressed the audience.

“How do you convince people that what they think in their minds is inconceivable — is actually taking place?”

On March 27, Gross discussed the 81st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Over 35 attendees were present, including both Lehigh and Lafayette College community members.

Gross is a Jewish and Polish historian who was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland for his work as a professor in 1998. He had received backlash from the country after criticizing them for disregarding institutional antisemitism and complicity during the Holocaust.

Despite the controversy, Gross said he prides himself on sharing Poland’s history, as he believes it is integral to moving forward. 

“It’s a crazy idea that you can suppress the truth, it has short legs,” Gross said.

As an author of six books on the Holocaust and Poland’s complicity, Gross derived inspiration from other authors to draw in the audience. He cited various authors’ poetry and experiences, one of which likened the black ash coming from the ghettos to falling snow. 

Jodi Eichler-Levine, director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization, noted the power of the figurative language.

“What really moved me about Professor Gross’ talk was the way he used this haunting poetry of everyday images of things like a merry-go-round drowning out violence,” Eichler-Levine said. “He used literature to also frame his historical work.”

Another excerpt described the laughter heard from the other side of the wall outside the Warsaw Ghetto; hearing children singing and laughing on a carousel, whilst the author himself was trying to survive another day.

Gross said it was not uncommon at the time to hear gunshots and explosions from inside the Warsaw Ghetto. He said these noises came from Nazis killing Jews within the ghetto.

Before the Holocaust and the beginning of the Pogroms, Gross said Jewish people made up approximately one-third of the Polish population. During the Holocaust, six million Jews died, three million of which were Polish.

After Gross’ hour-long lecture, Nitzan Lebovic, host and professor of Holocaust studies and ethical values, opened the event up to questions from the audience.

Brigid Wallace, a graduate student in the history department at Lehigh, asked Gross about his thoughts on the current bans imposed on books that discuss Black, Jewish and other minorities’ history in the U.S. and internationally.

“People are picking and choosing what parts of the American story they want to teach while leaving out other parts,” Wallace said. “You can’t just pick and choose history. History is history, and we have to deal with all of it.”

Josh Freiheiter, ‘27, traveled from Lafayette College to hear Gross speak. 

“A key takeaway from me was during the Q&A section,” Freiheiter said. “(Gross) said that the way to fix antisemitism is education, and that’s the real truth behind this issue.”

Gross said while studying the Holocaust and other parts of history, personal testimonies are imperative. 

“History is like a biography: it’s a collective story,” Gross said. “We think of ourselves as belonging and being rooted in society and collective life. We need to know where we come from and what challenges we braved.”

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