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Holocaust scholars in Poland win closely watched libel case on appeal

Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were ordered in February to apologize for their research on Poles who collaborated with Nazis

Holocaust scholars Barbara Engelking, left, and Jan Grabowski, right. (Yad Vashem via AP / courtesy)
Holocaust scholars Barbara Engelking, left, and Jan Grabowski, right. (Yad Vashem via AP / courtesy)

An appellate court in Poland on Monday rejected a lawsuit brought against two Holocaust scholars in a case that has been closely watched because it was expected to serve as a precedent for research into the highly sensitive area of Polish behavior toward Jews during World War II.

Poland is governed by a nationalist conservative party that has sought to promote remembrance of Polish heroism and suffering during the wartime German occupation of the country. The party also believes that discussions of Polish wrongdoing distort the historical picture and are unfair to Poles.

The Appellate Court of Warsaw argued in its explanation that it believed that scholarly research should not be judged by courts. But its decision appeared not to be the final word: a lawyer for the plaintiff said Monday that she would appeal Monday’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

The ruling was welcomed by the two researchers, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, who declared it a “great victory” in a Facebook post.

“We greet the verdict with great joy and satisfaction all the more, that this decision has a direct impact on all Polish scholars, and especially on historians of the Holocaust,” they said.

Monday’s ruling comes half a year after a lower court ordered the two researchers to apologize to a woman who claimed that her deceased uncle had been defamed in a historical work they edited and partially wrote, “Night without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.”

Copies of ‘Night without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland,’ are shown for sale in a bookstore at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland, February 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Lawyers for the niece, 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, argued that Leszczynska’s uncle was a Polish hero who had saved Jews, and that the scholars had harmed her good name and that of her family by suggesting the uncle was also involved in the killing of Jews.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that Leszczynska was “astonished” by the judgment and intends to file an appeal to the Polish Supreme Court.

Brzozowska-Pasieka stressed that Leszczynska thinks that the depiction of her uncle in the book was defamatory and that the historians “failed to conduct their research with due diligence.”

“We want to emphasize that the right to academic freedom, including the right to carry out historical research and publish its results, is subject to legal protection (but) this protection does not cover statements that do not pass the test of reliability,” the statement said.

Some researchers and others feared that if the researchers were punished, it could have a chilling effect and dissuade young scholars from taking up the sensitive issue of Polish behavior toward the Jews in World War II.

Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war and its population was subjected to mass murder and slave labor. Yet during the more than five years of occupation, there were many Poles who betrayed Jews to the Germans or took part in their killing, while others risked their lives to save Jews.

In this 1943 photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter (AP Photo)

“Night without End” focuses on the fates of Jews who escaped as the Nazis were “liquidating” ghettos and sending inhabitants to extermination camps. It documents cases of Jews who tried to hide, with those who survived doing so thanks to the help of Poles. It also presents extensive evidence of individual Poles who collaborated in betraying Jews to the Nazis.

The topic of Polish crimes against Jews was taboo during the Communist era and new revelations of Polish wrongdoing in recent years have sparked a backlash.

A 2019 study on Holocaust remembrance in Europe argued that the Poles are among the “worst offenders” when it comes to efforts to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators and war criminals and in “minimizing their own guilt in the attempted extermination of Jews.” According to the study, conducted by researchers from Yale and Grinnell colleges, the government in Warsaw has “engaged in competitive victimization, emphasizing the experience of Polish victims over that of Jewish victims. “The government spends considerable effort on rewriting history, rather than acknowledging and learning from it,” the study found.

Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice party has vowed to fight what it considers unfair depictions of Polish wrongdoing, preferring to promote remembrance of heroism and sacrifice. Many researchers and the Israeli government have accused the Polish government of historical whitewashing.

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