Poland’s Libel Ruling Worries Scholars

Monika Rice, assistant professor at the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Gratz College. | Courtesy of Gratz College

Scholars are concerned about a recent Polish court ruling that compels two Holocaust historians to apologize for publishing their research.

“It’s important that anybody who cares about scholarship, intellectual inquiry, anybody who believes that there’s value to it, should find it really distressing when a national government is seeming to support real impediments on the freedom of academic inquiry and exploration,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American Jewish history at Temple University.

The case has sparked concern in the international Jewish community as it is the first Holocaust-related scholarship case to be decided since Poland enacted its controversial 2018 legislation that makes it a civil offense to attribute Nazi Germany’s crimes during the Holocaust to Poland or its citizens.

The background to the current libel case, which was not tried under the new national law, is this: Barbara Engelking, a historian with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, and Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian history professor at the University of Ottawa, are the authors of “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland,” a 2018 book about the behavior of Polish people and government during the Nazi occupation.

In the book, the authors briefly mention Edward Malinowski, the mayor of Malinowo during the war, and quote a Holocaust survivor who said that Malinowski robbed her and was complicit in the death of a group of Jews hiding in the woods. Filomena Leszczynska, Malinowski’s niece, believed those statements to be libelous, and in 2019 sued Engelking and Grabowski.

On Feb. 9, Judge Ewa Jonczyk, a district judge in Warsaw, agreed with the 81-year-old Leszczynska, and issued a ruling saying the authors must apologize for publishing incorrect information about her uncle. Lawyers for Leszczynska had asked Jonczyk to award Leszczynska $27,000 in damages and for the apology to describe Malinowski as “a Jew-saving hero.” The judge did not award damages and rejected the demand for specific wording.

Engelking and Grabowski plan to appeal.

Michael Steinlauf, professor emeritus at Gratz College. | Courtesy of Michael Steinlauf

Though this case was brought by an individual and not related to the new national law governing representation of Poland during the Holocaust, it is being seen within the context of the country’s increasingly aggressive efforts to rehabilitate its World War II-era image. In fact, The New York Times reported that the current libel lawsuit was initiated by the Polish League Against Defamation, a partially state-funded organization dedicated to the “good name of Poland and that of the Polish nation.” It was PLAD, the Times said, that alerted Leszczynska to the book and its reference to her uncle, and then solicited funds to pay for her legal representation.

Backlash to Judge Jonczyk’s recent decision has been swift.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a statement about the case, saying that independent scholarly research “must not be subject to inappropriate efforts at pressure by politicians and the courts.”

The Association for Jewish Studies also issued a statement, saying, “The use of judicial pressure against scholars because their academic work demonstrates Polish culpability during the Holocaust goes against the core values of academic freedom.”

Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also expressed concern.

The Polish government has denied involvement in the affair.   

Monika Rice, an assistant professor at the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Gratz College, provided some context for the recent decision.

In 2015, the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in Poland on a wave of populist anger, Rice said. Its supporters consisted of a reactionary voting bloc of nationalists who had been disappointed by the lack of economic security in post-
Soviet Poland. The party, which emphasizes Catholicism, nationalism and social conservatism, provided a home for that bloc, and is now the largest party in the Polish parliament.

One of the party’s messages was that Polish people should be “getting off our knees” when it comes to the Holocaust, and refusing to accept responsibility for German crimes, Rice said. The passage of the 2018 law against indicting Poland and its citizens in Nazi crimes was evidence to some liberal and democratic groups that the Law and Justice party was discouraging independent research into Polish activities during the Holocaust.

It was against this background that the case was brought against Grabowski and Engelking, and Rice believes the ruling will have a chilling effect. The pressure to teach the Holocaust as a period of heroic Polish resistance will be borne most heavily, she said, by elementary and secondary school teachers.

“They don’t have the support of larger academic groups, they don’t have the support of academic institutions, they don’t have universities,”
Rice said.

Michael Steinlauf, professor emeritus at Gratz College, said that many countries have political groups that try to filter history through the lens of “heroes and martyrs” — including the United States. But in Poland, the ideological attachment to a clean past can have drastic consequences for Holocaust scholars.

“What’s happening now is not the first time that people have lost it [when] looking at their own past,” Steinlauf said.

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  1. During a long train ride in 2006 from suvalki ,my grandfathers home until 1895,to Warsaw Poland my Jewish ancestry was known by my fellow travelers.
    When I arrived in Warsaw my two compartment companions,Students at the famed Warsaw college of economics ,were very kind and gracious.they invited me to give a lecture, spoke to strangers who accompanied me on the tram ride to my hotel and assured my early wake up for my flight home .
    Not at anytime was there a hint of antisemitism..
    During my visit to Vilna Lithuania, my hosts took me to the site of the Nazi massacres,a soviet era monument recorded the atrocities..my hosts verified the…Jew shooters..that killed the victims as they were marched to their ultimate slaughter.
    While my young polish students were so helpful, I have no doubt as I watched an elderly woman place flowers at the monument of the Warsaw ghetto, that she understood polish complicity.


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