Polish Court Rules in Favor of Holocaust Researchers, Decrying 'Unacceptable Censorship'

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A concentration camp survivor holds a candle during a ceremony at the former death camp Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland
A concentration camp survivor holds a candle during a ceremony at the former death camp Auschwitz Birkenau in PolandCredit: Peter Andrews/Reuters

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 it's not the responsibility of the courts to judge scholarly research. "It would be unacceptable censorship," the judges said "the court is not the place to settle historical disputes." The ruling was welcomed by the two researchers, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, who declared it a “great victory” in a Facebook post.

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“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.” In the book the scholars relay a holocaust survivor's testimony from the 90s claiming the man, who was the mayor of a Polish village during the war, helped the Nazis locate the hiding places of roughly 20 Jews.

A concentration camp survivor wipes his tears during a ceremony at the former death camp Auschwitz in Birkenau, PolandCredit: Katarina Stoltz/Reuters

Lawyers for the niece, 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 by suggesting the uncle was also involved in the killing of Jews.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, argued in February that there was no attempt to stifle research or speech. She did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Monday.

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 subjected to mass murder and slave labor. Yet amid the more than five years of occupation, there were also some Poles who betrayed Jews to the Germans or took part in their killing, while other Poles risked their lives to save Jews.

Children rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto, PolandCredit: Universal History Archive

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.

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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