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Wiesenthal Center fears ruling will have 'chilling effect'

Poland orders Holocaust scholars to apologize in case that could muzzle research

Court rules Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski disseminated false information and harmed the honor of a man they said helped kill Jews in WWII; his niece brought the suit

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)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — 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.

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, Tuesday Feb. 9, 2021.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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 stressed discrepancies in the testimony, given at different times, by the Jewish woman whose testimony was the basis of the description of Malinowski’s behavior.

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

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.

Leszczynska has been backed by the Polish League Against Defamation, a group that fights harmful and untruthful depictions of Poland.

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.

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)

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.

Jewish rights organizations expressed dismay at the ruling, arguing that any mistakes in scholarly works should be left to other scholars to raise in a process of reviews and revisions. Mark Weitzman with the Wiesenthal Center said he feared it would have a “chilling effect” on scholars and “will open the door to other cases.”

The judge rejected the demand for financial compensation, saying such an amount could have a negative effect on future scientific research.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, denied there was any attempt to stifle research or speech. She said Leszczynska had not decided whether to appeal, but “compensation wasn’t the most important claim of this lawsuit for the plaintiff. The apology was and is of the greatest importance.”

Illustrative: Israelis with national flags march by the monument to some 900,000 European Jews killed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944 at the Treblinka death and labor camp, at Treblinka memorial, Poland, October 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war and its population subjected to mass murder and slave labor. While 3 million of the country’s 3.3 million Jews were murdered, so were more than 2 million mostly Christian Poles. Poles resisted the Nazis at home and abroad and never collaborated as a state with the Third Reich. Thousands of Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem in Israel for risking their own lives to save Jews.

Yet amid the more than five years of occupation, there were also Poles who betrayed Jews to the Germans. The topic was taboo during the communist era and each new revelation of Polish wrongdoing in recent years has sparked a backlash. Historians debate how many Poles aided the Nazi death machine, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Poland has never admitted to complicity on any large scale and in 2018 Warsaw passed a law prohibiting people from blaming the Polish nation for Holocaust atrocities; the law was subsequently amended to remove criminal penalties.

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 “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.

The libel case has raised concerns internationally because it comes amid a broader state-backed historical offensive aimed at stressing Polish suffering and heroism.

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.”

Poland’s conservative authorities don’t deny that some Poles harmed Jews, but they believe the focus on Polish wrongdoing obscures the fact that most of these killings occurred under German orders and terror.

The Polish League Against Defamation is ideologically aligned with the country’s ruling party, and the scholars see that as an indication the case is part of a government-backed effort to promote its historical narrative.

Far-right groups hold a demonstration in front of the presidential palace to call on President Andrzej Duda to sign a bill that would limit some forms of Holocaust speech, in Warsaw, Poland, February 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“Night Without End” focuses of 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.

At the center of the case was testimony given in 1996 by a Jewish woman, born Estera Siemiatycka, to the USC Shoah Foundation, a Los Angeles-based group that collects Holocaust-era oral histories. When she spoke, she had changed her name to Maria Wiltgren.

Wiltgren, who is no longer alive, described Malinowski, the elder of the village of Malinowo, as someone who helped her to survive under an assumed “Aryan” identity by putting her in a group of Poles sent to work in Germany after she had purchased false papers. But she also said he cheated her out of money and possessions. Two of her sons testified that she considered him a “bad man.”

The book states that Wiltgren “realized 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, yet she gave false testimony in his defense at his trial after the war.”

The judge said that Wiltgren gave a different narrative, more favorable to Malinowski, in other testimonies.

Engelking, who wrote the chapter, acknowledged one error. In the book, she mentioned that when Wiltgren was in Germany during the war, she traded with Malinowski. The book didn’t make clear that was a different man with the same name. Engelking argued the mistake had no bearing on the larger question of the village elder’s behavior toward Jews.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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