Fears rise that Polish libel trial could threaten future Holocaust research

Case brought in wake of rightwing government criminalising blame of Polish nation for Nazi crimes could have implications for further research

Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, during the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in February 1943. Photograph: AP

Two Polish historians are facing a libel trial over a book examining Poles’ behaviour during the second world war, a case whose outcome is expected to determine the future of independent Holocaust research under Poland’s nationalist government.

A verdict is expected in Warsaw’s district court on 9 February in the case against Barbara Engelking, a historian with the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, and Jan Grabowski, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa. While the case is a libel trial, it comes in the wake of a 2018 law that makes it a crime to falsely accuse the Polish nation of crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The law caused a major diplomatic spat with Israel.

Since it won power in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has sought to discourage investigations into Polish wrongdoing during the Nazi occupation, preferring instead to almost exclusively stress Polish heroism and suffering. Critics say the government has been whitewashing the fact that some Poles also collaborated in the murder of Jews.

The Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem said the legal effort “constitutes a serious attack on free and open research”.

A number of other historical institutions have condemned the case as the verdict nears, with the Paris-based Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah on Tuesday describing it as a “witch hunt” and a “pernicious invasion into the very heart of research”.

The case centres on a 1,600-page, two-volume historical work, Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, which was co-edited by Grabowski and Engelking. An abridged English version is due to be published later this year.

Grabowski and Engelking say they see the case as an attempt to discredit them personally and to discourage other researchers from investigating the truth about the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland. “This is a case of the Polish state against freedom of research,” Grabowski told the Associated Press on Monday.

Filomena Leszczyńska is suing Grabowski and Engelking over part of the book that mentions her uncle, Edward Malinowski, former mayor of the village of Malinowo. According to evidence presented in the book, Malinowski, who is no longer alive, allowed a Jewish woman to survive by helping her pass as a non-Jew. But the book also quotes witnesses who had accused Malinowski of being an accomplice in the deaths of several dozen Jews in the town.

Malinowski was acquitted of collaborating with the Nazis in a trial after the war.

Leszczyńska is demanding 100,000 zlotys (£19,600) in damages and an apology in newspapers. She has been backed by the Polish League Against Defamation, a group that receives funding from the Polish government. That organisation argued that the two scholars are guilty of “defiling the good name” of a Polish hero, and by extension harming the dignity and pride of all Poles. The lawsuit was filed in court free of charge as allowed under the 2018 law.

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called Night Without End a “meticulously researched and sourced book … that details thousands of cases of complicity by Poles in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust”.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. Yet a small number collaborated with the Germans in hunting down and killing Jews, in many cases people who had fled ghettoes and sought to hide in the countryside.

Grabowski said Night Without End was “multifaceted, and it talks about Polish virtue just as much. It paints a truthful picture.”

He added: “The Holocaust is not here to help the Polish ego and morale, it’s a drama involving the death of six million people – which seems to be forgotten by the nationalists.”

Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Paweł Jabloński, described the case as a private matter. “It is everyone’s legal right to seek such a remedy before (a) court if they feel that their rights have been infringed by (another) person or entity,” Jabloński told AP. “The government is not involved in the proceedings, it is a private matter to be decided by the court.”

Yet those who fear that the case could stifle independent research take a different view.

“The involvement in this trial of an organisation heavily subsidised with public funds can be easily construed as a form of censorship and an attempt to frighten scholars away from publishing the results of their research out of fear of a lawsuit and the ensuing costly litigation,” said Zygmunt Stępiński, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

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