The ruling on Tuesday by a Polish court against two leading scholars of the Holocaust on trial for libel sent a chill throughout the Jewish world, as community and academic leaders warned that independent research into the Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II would be stifled as a consequence.
The much anticipated decision by Judge Ewa Jonczyk of the District Court in Warsaw ruled that historians Dr. Barbara Engelking and Prof. Jan Grabowski must apologize to the plaintiff in the case. However, they will not be forced to pay her 100,000 zlotys ($27,000) in compensation, as her lawyers had demanded.
At issue was a brief passage in Engelking and Grabowski’s 1,600 page volume “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties in Occupied Poland” that dealt with Edward Malinowski, a Polish civilian alleged to have assisted in the capture and killing of Jews hiding in a forest near Malinowo in north-eastern Poland.
The passage noted that a Jewish woman who was familiar with Malinowski had given false testimony in his defense after the war, despite her knowledge that he was “an accomplice in the deaths of several dozen Jews who had been hiding in the woods and had been turned over to the Germans.”
Malinowski’s niece, 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, accused the scholars of fabricating her uncle’s crimes, insisting that he was a hero who had saved Jews.
The court’s decision means that Engelking and Grabowski are obliged to provide Leszczynska with a written apology for having provided “inaccurate information” about her uncle and for “violating his honor.” They are expected to pursue an appeal.
Jewish leaders slammed Tuesday’s ruling as another attempt by the Polish authorities to police the research of the Holocaust so as to expunge any discussion of Polish civilian collaboration with the Nazis. Under Poland’s criminal code as well as legislation passed by the country’s parliament in 2018, anyone who examines the issue of local collusion during the Nazi occupation of 1939-45 can face a civil libel trial and possible imprisonment.
“It’s another sad day in Polish-Jewish history,” Abraham Foxman — a survivor of the Holocaust in Poland and the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — told the Algemeiner on Tuesday afternoon.
“As hard as Poland tries, it cannot hide the truth,” Foxman said. “Yes, there was honor in Poland during the Holocaust. I was saved by a Polish Catholic woman, Jan Karski risked his life to alert the world to the Holocaust. But there was collaboration, there was ugliness and antisemitism.”
Foxman noted that it was a sad fact that “while some Poles risked their lives to save Jews, many more collaborated and joined in the persecution.”
Said Foxman: “No Polish legislation or court decision can change the truth.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), declared himself “dismayed” by the ruling “in the misguided libel case that was brought against” the two historians.
“It is simply unacceptable that historians should be afraid of citing credible testimony of Holocaust survivors,” Lauder said in a statement.
Lauder added that Tuesday’s court decision “does not bode well for the future of historical research in Poland and sends precisely the wrong message to those who seek to stifle the work of scholars.” He expressed the hope that the verdict would be overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, in comments to the Polish news outlet Wyborcza on Monday as he awaited the ruling, Prof. Grabowski highlighted the role of right-wing, government-backed NGOs — or “gongos” — in pressing the legal case against himself and Dr. Engelking.
One particular group, the Polish League Against Defamation, provided the financial backing for Leszczynska’s libel case against the two scholars.
Founded in 2013 by Maciej Świrski, the League Against Defamation is closely tied with Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party. Formed to fight what it calls “anti-Polonism,” the group has previously brought libel actions against the US publication Newsweek and the Spanish daily El Pais. It has also received a $75,000 grant from Poland’s foreign ministry to monitor and counter anti-Polish sentiment in the international media.