Two leading Polish historians lost a libel suit Tuesday, which was filed against them by the niece of a Polish mayor whom the historians claimed in their book had denounced Jews to the Germans and robbed a Jewish woman during World War II. They were ordered to publish an apology for the passage.
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The two scholars are Prof. Barbara Engelking, the director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research; and Prof. Jan Grabowski, a native of Poland and the son of a Holocaust survivor, who lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Ottawa. They were sued by the Polish resident, who claimed that they had damaged the good name of her uncle, who helped Jews rather than murdered them, as well as the good name of the Polish nation, in their Polish-language book “Dalej jest noc” (“Night without End”).
The court, however, did not accept her demand for compensation in the sum of 100,000 zloty ($27,000). The researchers declared that they would appeal the decision, but added that one of the paragraphs in their book would be amended “in order to be more precise.”
In one paragraph in one of the thick tome, “Dalej jest noc” includes the testimony of a Holocaust survivor given in an interview in the 90s, in which she claimed that the mayor of a Polish village during World War II, helped the Nazis locate the hiding place of 20 Jews and robbed her after helping her hide.
The lawsuit claimed that this information about the man is false, and that the historians failed in conducting their research, suppressed testimony that could have cleared the man’s reputation, confused him with another man with the same name, and more.
According to the lawsuit, the Holocaust survivor quoted in the book had testified in the mayor's favor in a post-war trial in which he was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Jews, but was found not guilty, despite the testimony she gave decades later. The prosecution also relied on the testimony of other Jews who praised the man after the war.
The court chose to believe the earlier version of the survivor's account, and ruled that the claim that the man betrayed Jews to the Germans was incorrect. It obliged the historians to publish a public apology, send a letter of apology to the plaintiff and correct this information in the next edition of the book.
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The lawsuit centered on the claim that the damage to the man’s reputation is by extension damage to the reputation of all of Poland, but the court treated the lawsuit as one brought by a relative and meant to defend the reputation of a private person, without any sweeping national context.
In recent weeks, the trial aroused widespread condemnation from major organizations and figures in Israel, Poland and worldwide, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich. They warned of the blow to academic freedom, and the judicialization and politicization of historical discourse.
The Polish right, on the other hand, saw it as a “flagship lawsuit,” and hoped that it would prove their claim that historians who study the Holocaust of Polish Jews are tendentiously vilifying Poland. The court stressed, however, that the decision refers to one specific case and should not be seen as a sweeping statement against the study of the Holocaust in Poland, which should be allowed to continue freely.
The lawsuit was brought with the assistance of the Polish League against Defamation, an organization supported by the right-wing Polish government, as part of Poland’s new “memory policy,” through which the government and its affiliates combat negative references to Polish history for the sake of “historical truth.”
Over the past few months, the two scholars have become the target of a vilification and delegitimization campaign in some of Poland's right-wing media and on social networks. “We respect the court’s decision, but we intend to appeal,” said Engelking at a press conference she held on Zoom after the ruling.
She said that the entire affair has three aspects – historical, legal and political – and “is an attempt to show researchers that there are subjects that it’s better not to touch.” However, she added, “It won’t succeed because history is far more complex than what the [ruling] Law and Justice Party and the Polish League against Defamation want to see.”
In 2018, following international and Israeli pressure, Poland rescinded the criminal section in a law dubbed the “Holocaust law” and which would have sought jail time for anyone claiming that the Polish nation was involved in the Nazis’ crimes, with the exception of academic research or works of art. After the law's controversial clause was overturned, Israel and Poland signed a joint declaration affirming freedom of research and of expression regarding the Holocaust.
However, researchers, journalists and others can still be sued in Poland for statements and studies relating to the Holocaust. In addition to a civil suit of the kind the court decided on Tuesday, one can also file a complaint for “damaging the good name” of the nation, a criminal offense with a maximum punishment of three years in prison.
Last week, Polish journalist Katarzyna Markusz was questioned by the police because of a complaint based on this section of the law, after she wrote an article saying that there were Poles who participated in the Nazis’ crimes. On Tuesday, a number of Jewish figures and organizations in Poland, among them the chief rabbi, published a letter of support for Markusz. The letter draws parallels between her interrogation and the lawsuit against the historians.
“The court is not the place for clarifying the historical truth,” the letter said. The signatories noted that there has been increasing support recently from Polish state institutions for "an unreliable historical narrative." They added, "The state does not need to take a side in a historical discussion, and especially not to support historical falsifications or expressions of hatred. We condemn such attempts, whose victim is the search for historical truth… We prefer that our history look rosy, but history is what it is.”
In reference to the police investigation of the journalist, the message noted that the statements that she wrote and for which she was questioned “have been confirmed in many historical studies and in the collective memory of Polish Jews.” Therefore, they said, “If a criminal investigation is opened against her, it must include us as well.”