Holocaust Scholars Ordered to Apologize in Polish Libel Case

89- year old Holocaust survivor Shmuel Blumenfeld at Maydanek death camp, Poland, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 14, 2015. ( Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

A court in Warsaw ruled Tuesday that two prominent Holocaust researchers must apologize to a woman who claimed her deceased uncle had been slandered in a historical work that suggested he helped kill Jews during World War II.

Lawyers for 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska argued that her uncle was a Polish hero who had saved Jews, and that the scholars had harmed her good name and that of her family.

The District Court in Warsaw did not, however, rule that they should be forced to pay her 100,000 zlotys ($27,000), as her lawyers had demanded.

The case has been closely watched because it is expected to set an important precedent for independent Holocaust research. The ruling can be appealed, however.

At stake in the case was Polish national pride, according to the plaintiffs, and according to the defendants, the future independence of Holocaust research.

Judge Ewa Jonczyk ruled that the scholars, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, must make a written apology to Leszczynska for “providing inaccurate information” that her late uncle, Edward Malinowski, robbed a Jewish woman during the war and contributed to the death of Jews hiding in a forest in Malinowo in 1943, when Poland was under German occupation. They were also ordered to apologize for “violating his honor.”

The judge drew attention to the discrepancies in the testimony, given at different times, by the Jewish woman whose testimony was the basis of the description of Malinowski’s bahaviour.

It ordered Engelking and Grabowski to issue a written apology to Leszczynska for having disseminated inaccurate information about her uncle.

Malinowski was acquitted in a communist court in 1950 of being an accomplice to the killing by Germans of 18 Jews in a forest near the village of Malinowo in 1943.

He is mentioned in a brief passage of a 1,600-page historical work, “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland,” which was co-edited by Grabowski and Engelking. They researched and wrote parts of it, along with other researchers.

Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian history professor at the University of Ottawa, and Engelking, founder and director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, are among Poland’s most prominent Holocaust researchers.

They view the case as an attempt to discredit their overall findings and discourage other researchers from investigating the truth about Polish involvement in the German mass murder of Jews.

The libel case has raised concerns internationally because it comes amid a broader state-backed historical offensive. The government had tried to criminalize falsely blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust crimes in 2018, but the law was withdrawn after sparking a diplomatic dispute with the Israeli government.

Last week, a journalist, Katarzyna Markusz, was questioned by police on suspicions she slandered the Polish nation, a crime with a penalty of up to three years in prison, with an article that mentioned “Polish participation in the Holocaust.”

The Polish Consulate in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

Konstanty Gebert, a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, told the Jerusalem Post that the court ruling was based on a previous court ruling that Malinowski was innocent. In that 1947 case, however, the witnesses for the prosecution were threatened with violence and even death, so they were intimidated into not testifying against Malinowski. Gegret noted that survivor Estera Siemiatycka testified against Malinowski in 1996, accusing him of stealing from refugees and revealing Jews hiding in the nearby forest.

“The court has essentially ruled that Estera’s 1996 testimony is inadmissible and that the court ruling from 1947 cannot be disputed,” Gebret said. “Historians don’t deal with final rulings and put evidence in context. This is a clinical example of why a court is not the right place to decide history.”

“The telling of history must not be blocked or restricted – this decision damages an open and honest coming to terms with the past,” said Gideon Taylor, President of Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and Chair of Operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “Poland must encourage open inquiry into its history, both the positive and the negative aspects, in order to build a society for the future, based on solid ground and a genuine understanding of the past.”

World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder said he was “dismayed” by the court’s ruling in the “misguided libel case that was brought against” Engelking and Grabowski.

“It is simply unacceptable that historians should be afraid of citing credible testimony of Holocaust survivors,” said Lauder.

“This outcome 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.”

“This is a sad day for everyone who cares about Poland, the memory of the Holocaust and academic freedom,” said Dr. Havi Dreifuss, historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at The International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem.

“Transferring historical debates to the legal arena serve as a tool for the Polish government (and related organizations) to intimidate researchers and journalists from engaging in important aspects of the Holocaust of Polish Jews, including Polish involvement in the persecution of Jews. Nowadays it is even more important to say clearly that Prof. Engelking and Prof. Grabowski’s work is a masterpiece of intellectual integrity, and that their research is a methodological and historical source of inspiration. We must wait patiently for the appeal while continuing to present the difficult and complex reality that existed during the Holocaust in light of the research and documentation – just as our those colleagues did.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.