WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — Two respected Polish historians of the Holocaust face a court verdict Tuesday in a controversial defamation trial that has raised pointed questions about the freedom to research Poland’s troubled past.
The researchers co-edited a book called “Night Without End” that documented cases of complicity of Catholic Poles in the genocide of Jews during the Nazi German occupation in World War II.
The trial is taking place in a tense political climate, with critics accusing the nationalist government of attempting to whitewash Polish history and discourage academic inquiry into cases of collaboration.
Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has condemned the case against Professor Barbara Engelking, chair of Poland’s International Auschwitz Council, and Professor Jan Grabowski from the University of Ottawa.
Yad Vashem said the charges “amount to an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust.”
“It constitutes a serious attack on free and open research,” it said in a statement.
The view is shared by numerous Jewish organizations and researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as by the two professors on trial.
The case is being brought by the niece of Edward Malinowski, who was mayor of the village of Malinowo in northeast Poland during the war.
The elderly niece, Filomena Leszczynska, is being supported by an organization called the Anti-Defamation League that sets out to defend “Poland’s good name.”
In a short passage, the book mentions that the mayor may have been implicated in the local massacre of 22 Jews by German soldiers.
The plaintiff says the mayor in fact helped Jews and points to “omissions” and “methodological errors” that have harmed her late uncle’s reputation.
The story highlights the complexity of relations between Polish Catholics and Jews during the war and the confusion of a period in which the same person could both denounce and protect Jews.
Maciej Swirski, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said the alleged mistakes made by the historians were harmful “to all Poles.”
“Academic research has to be conducted with probity,” Swirski told AFP.
He criticized “attempts at establishing an academic consensus on Polish co-responsibility for the Holocaust.”
The niece is demanding compensation of 100,000 zloty (22,000 euros, $27,000) in damages and a formal apology in the media.
Engelking said the real aim of the case was “to question the credibility and the competence of the people accused… and to have a dissuasive effect, specifically to discourage other researchers from finding out the truth of the Holocaust in Poland.”
“It is very dangerous for freedom of speech,” Engelking said in a statement published on the website of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, which published the book.
In 2018, the Polish government adopted a law banning anyone from mentioning any responsibility of the Polish nation or state in crimes committed by Nazi Germany on Polish soil.
The law carried a three-year prison sentence, which was later dropped after an international outcry.
Polish prosecutors investigated US historian Jan Tomasz Gross who accused Poles of “killing more Jews than Germans” during the war, although the case was later dropped.
Six million Poles, including three million Jews, perished between 1939 and 1945 during Nazi occupation.
The attitudes of Catholic Poles to their Jewish neighbors varied greatly at a time in which even offering a Jew a glass of water could be a death sentence.
There were many cases of indifference and sometimes cruelty against Jews that have been documented by historians but there were also many stories of courage.
More Poles — over 7,000 — have been named “Righteous Among the Nations” than any other nationality.
The honorific is used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination.