WARSAW, Poland — A Warsaw court is due to deliver a verdict Tuesday in a closely watched libel case in which one side sees Polish national pride at stake and the other the future independence of Holocaust research.
Two prominent Polish scholars, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, are being sued by the 81-year-old niece of a wartime village elder who argues a book they co-edited defames her deceased uncle’s memory by suggesting he had a role in the death of Jews. The uncle 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.”
The woman, Filomena Leszczynska, is backed by the Polish League Against Defamation, a group that fights harmful and untruthful depictions of Poland. It argues the woman’s uncle, Edward Malinowski, was a hero who helped save Jews during World War II and accuses the scholars of research errors that resulted in Malinowski appearing as someone who betrayed Jews to the Germans.
Malinowski was acquitted in 1950 of being an accomplice to the killing by Germans of 18 Jews in a forest near the village of Malinowo in 1943.
The anti-defamation group says the authors slandered an innocent man and deprived the niece of her rights, including the right to pride and national identity. The plaintiffs are suing Grabowski and Engelking for 100,000 zlotys ($27,000) in damages and a published apology.
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. They were among several who researched and wrote parts of the two-volume work.
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.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, denied there was any attempt to stifle research or speech. She said it was a civil case brought by people who feel they or their families have been defamed.
“The ruling will determine whether the researchers properly examined the sources, made a correct assessment of these sources and applied an appropriate research methodology,” Brzozowska-Pasieka said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war and its population subjected to mass murder and slave labour. While 3 million of the country’s 3.3 million Jews died, so did 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 some 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.
The libel case has raised concerns internationally because it comes amid a broader state-backed historical offensive.
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, for an article that mentioned “Polish participation in the Holocaust.”
Jewish leaders in Poland issued a statement Monday saying they have seen an intensification of attempts to “repress historians and journalists … who are trying to honestly present the fate of Polish Jews under the occupation.”
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 government’s pushback against what it calls a “pedagogy of shame” is popular with many Poles.
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.
“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 centre of the case is 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 defence at his trial after the war.”
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 behaviour toward Jews.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Brzozowska-Pasieka, also pointed to other details that she believes the authors got wrong, including the discrepancy between 18 Jews killed and Engelking’s reference to several dozen deaths. Engelking says she believes they aren’t major issues, and they mean her critics could find no other real fault in the book.
Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft in New York, and AP writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, contributed to this report.
Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press