Yad Vashem on Polish Libel Verdict: Blow to Academic Freedom in Holocaust Research

The verdict handed down by a Warsaw court this week ruled that two senior historians must apologize for allegations in their book that a Polish mayor had turned Jews over to the Nazis

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The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, July 9, 2020.
The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, July 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority said on Thursday it was “profoundly concerned” over this week’s libel verdict by a Warsaw judge requiring two senior historians to apologize for allegations in their book that a mayor of a Polish village during the Holocaust had turned Jews over to the Nazis.

The verdict came in a civil suit filed by the late mayor’s niece.

“[Yad Vashem] again stresses the importance of academic freedom in comprehensive historical research,” the statement said, adding that the Jerusalem-based authority acknowledges the Polish court’s verdict but “but remains deeply disturbed by its implications. Any attempt to limit academic and public discourse through political or legal pressure is unacceptable and constitutes a substantive blow to academic freedom.”

Both defendants in the case, Prof. Barbara Engelking and Prof. Jan Grabowski, were sued for a passage of the book that they coedited. The plaintiff, the late village mayor’s niece, argued that her uncle had saved Jews and that testimony that he assisted the Germans in the killing of other Jews was false and damaging to his reputation.

The researchers presented other testimony of witnesses who had been silenced after World War II and even beaten by Poles seeking to dissuade them from providing their account of the events. A Jewish woman who was saved by the mayor has herself alleged that he was an accomplice to the murder of other Jews.

Yad Vashem’s statement said that historical research must reflect the complex reality and n “grounded in the scrupulous analysis of a body of existing documentation, as was done in this thorough book by the researchers.”

Officials at Yad Vashem expressed concern that the “prosecution of researchers and journalists who deal with these issues, instead of pursuing academic discussion as is the norm throughout the world, constitutes a real threat to academic and press freedom.”

The statement added that, “as with all research, this volume about the fate of Jews during the Holocaust is part of an ongoing discussion and as such is subject to critique in academia, but not in the courts.”

Yad Vashem added that “the existing diverse documentation, along with many decades of historical research, shows that under the draconian Nazi German occupation of Poland and despite the widespread suffering of the Polish people under that occupation, there were Poles who were actively involved in the persecution of the Jews and in their murder.”

In recent weeks, the Polish libel trial has condemned in Israel and elsewhere such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and from Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Shudrich. On the political right in Poland, on the other hand, the case has been seen as a “flagship” lawsuit that it was hoped would prove the contention that the historians researching the Jewish Holocaust in Poland were sullying Poland’s reputation in a biased manner.

The court ruled that both defendants must apologize but denied the niece’s monetary claim for 100,000 Polish zlotys ($27,000) in compensation. The court also made it clear that the verdict related only to the specifics of the case and that it was not a sweeping opinion regarding Holocaust research in Poland, which needs to be permitted to continue freely.

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