Polish Envoy Rejects Israeli Criticism of Holocaust Libel Trial: 'Risky' to Give Historians Immunity

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Poland's ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski meeting with President Reuven Rivlin three years ago.
Poland's ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski meeting with President Reuven Rivlin three years ago.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO

The Polish ambassador to Israel has rejected criticism of the libel trial underway in his country against two Holocaust historians, defending what he called the plaintiff’s “right to defend the memory of her close relative," in a letter to the Israeli head of a group that represents survivors.

Ambassador Marek Magierowski wrote in the letter posted on his Twitter feed on Wednesday that “granting blanket immunity to historians is a risky concept, to say the least.” The letter was addressed to Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and lawmaker currently chairwoman of the center of organizations of Holocaust survivors.

Avital had written to the ambassador on Monday that the trial damages the freedom of academic research.

The trial, expected to be concluded next week, has been underway for the past few months against historians Prof. Barbara Engelking and Prof. Jan Grabowski, who jointly edited a book of research on the Holocaust against the Jews of Poland.

In a chapter written by Engelking, she tells the complex story of Holocaust survivor Estera Drogicka, who lost her family in the genocide and hid in a forest next to the village of Malinow. When she asked Mayor Edward Malinowski for help, he provided her with shelter and food in his barn, where she hid for several weeks along with other Jews, according to the book. But the book goes on to say that Malinowski robbed and denounced about 20 other Jews to the Germans, who murdered them.

The lawsuit was filed by Malinowski’s niece who lives in Poland and says her uncle is a “national hero” who saved Jews and did not murder them, and that the book harms his good name and that of every Pole, wherever they may be. The plaintiff has been helped by the Polish League Against Defamation, which is supported by Poland's present conservative right-wing government.

Magierowski, the Polish ambassador, casts doubt on the veracity of the historical research the book is based on, and warned against “scholars” (the quotation marks are in the original) and the “dubious allegations of a historian.” Magierowski seems to be hinting that the claims made in the book, which are at the center of the libel suit, are intentional mistakes, meant to blacken Poland’s reputation – as the libel suit claims.

He wrote that the plaintiff “has the right to defend the memory of her close relative, also in court.”

“Let me put it personally: Were my grandfather, a decent person as far as I remember, posthumously and ‘mistakenly’ accused of denouncing Jews or committing a heinous crime, I would like to know that there is a legal way to defend his integrity against dubious allegations of a historian, a writer, an artist or a journalist,” he wrote to Avital.

“Being deprived of such an option, in the name of freedom of research, would be a brazen breach of democratic and liberal standards,” Magierowski added. Historians are not entitled to blanket immunity because of their profession, and “I could come up with a long list of scholars (or ‘scholars’) you would probably never accord such a privilege to,” without adding any details.

The ambassador mentioned that a decade ago the daughter of Lech Walesa, A former president of Poland and a Noble Peace Prize laureate, won an “almost identical” libel suit she filed against her father’s biographer. She claimed his book included all sorts of falsehoods that greatly damaged Walesa’s reputation.

Magierowski also mentioned the libel suit in Israel against the director of the movie “Jenin, Jenin,” Mohammed Bakri. “The Israeli soldiers had the right to sue the director. Mohammed Bakri had the right to defend himself in court. And I, as a diplomat, can only say: this is Israel’s law and Israel’s internal affair.”

The cover of the book at issue in the Polish libel suit.Credit: Centrum Badan nad Zaglada Zydow

Responding to Avital’s claim that the trial has triggered antisemitic public reactions in Poland, Magierowski condemned such comments but alleged that similar accusations against Poland appear in Israeli media, and then provided a number of examples.

Dr. Stanley Bill, an expert in Polish literature and culture at the University of Cambridge, rebutted most of Magierowski’s claims. In a series of posts on Twitter, Bill wrote: “Mr Ambassador, though some of your points here are fair, you neglect to mention that these historians have faced a sustained propaganda campaign to discredit them led by Poland’s PiS-controlled public media, politicians, the IPN [Institute of National Remembrance], some of your colleagues, and other pro-PiS media,” referring to the ruling Law and Justice party, known by its Polish initial PiS.

“You also neglect to mention that the lawsuit is being sponsored by an NGO very close to PiS. This organization has received significant public funding,” tweeted Bill. “So unfortunately this is not just a case of private citizens defending their family’s good name (I agree with you on their right to do so), but part of a much broader pattern of attacks on historians publishing work that does not suit the Polish government’s politics of history.”

“The attacks on the historians result from the significant evidence they present on the collaboration of some Poles in the Holocaust. Like any book of its size, it may contain mistakes, which other historians will discuss or correct. But the attacks have little to do with truth,” Bill wrote.

“The PiS government wishes to whitewash history. In my view, this endeavour is both wrong and counterproductive. Poles were predominantly victims of the terrible German occupation and have much to be proud of in their history. Some risked their lives to save Jewish neighbours.

"The new research shows that a greater number of Polish individuals were pulled into the German killing apparatus than was previously thought, many against their will and in diverse circumstances of terror. Reflecting on that past is a difficult task that has only just begun,” he wrote.

Many organizations, in Israel and around the world, have expressed their support for the historians in recent days and criticized Poland over the libel trial. The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center and museum came out in support of the two historians being sued, as have the Historical Society of Israel and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews .

On Wednesday the council of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities also voiced support for historians Grabowski and Engelking.

“Any attempt to constrain academic discourse by extraneous means, such as political or legal pressure, is unacceptable,” academy said in a press release adding that such actions “threaten to severely severely affect academic freedom in general and, specifically, the efforts to probe the period of the Holocaust and to present a full, credible and balanced depiction of the terrible events of that period.”

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