WARSAW – A court in Warsaw ruled Tuesday that two prominent Holocaust researchers must apologize to a woman who claimed her deceased uncle had been slandered in a historical work, citing alleged inaccuracies that suggested the Polish man helped kill Jews during World War II.
Lawyers for 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska argued that the scholars had unfairly harmed her good name and that of her family, violating the honor of the uncle. The family says he saved Jews during the German occupation of Poland during World War II.
The District Court in Warsaw did not, however, rule that they should be forced to pay her 100,000 zlotys ($27,000), as her lawyers had demanded.
The case has been closely watched because it was expected to set a precedent in the field of Holocaust research. The ruling was not final, however, and Barbara Engelking, the author of the passage in question, said her side planned to appeal.
At stake in the case was Polish national pride, according to the plaintiffs, and according to the defendants, the future independent research into an extremely sensitive issue.
Judge Ewa Jonczyk ruled that the scholars, Engelking and Jan Grabowski, must make a written apology to Leszczynska for “providing inaccurate information” about her uncle, Edward Malinowski. He was described in a Holocaust survivor's testimony saying he robbed her during the war and contributed to the death of 18 Jews hiding in a forest near the village of Malinowo.
The judge stressed discrepancies in the testimony, given at different times, by the Jewish woman whose testimony was the basis of the description of Malinowski's behavior.
Malinowski was acquitted in a communist court in 1950 of being an accomplice to the 1943 killing by Germans of the group of Jews.
He 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,” which was co-edited by Grabowski and Engelking. They researched and wrote parts of it, along with other researchers.
Leszczynska has been backed by the Polish League Against Defamation, a group that fights harmful and untruthful depictions of Poland.
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 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.
Jewish rights organizations expressed dismay at the ruling, arguing that any mistakes in scholarly works should be left to other scholars to raise in a process of reviews and revisions. Mark Weitzman with the Wiesenthal Center said he feared it would have a “chilling effect” on scholars and “will open the door to other cases.”
The judge rejected the demand for financial compensation, saying such an amount could have a negative effect on future scientific research.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, denied there was any attempt to stifle research or speech. She said Leszczynska had not decided whether to appeal but “compensation wasn’t the most important claim of this lawsuit for the plaintiff. The apology was and is of the greatest importance.”
Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany during the war and its population subjected to mass murder and slave labor. While 3 million of the country's 3.3 million Jews were murdered, so were 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 individual 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 that critics say largely whitewashes wrongdoing by Poles.
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 Polish League Against Defamation is ideologically aligned with the country’s ruling party, and the scholars believe the case is part of a government-backed effort to promote its historical narrative.
“Night Without End” focuses on the fates of Jews who escaped as the Nazis were “liquidating” ghettos and sending inhabitants to extermination camps. It documents cases of Jews who hid, 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 center of the case was 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 defense at his trial after the war.”
The judge said that Wiltgren gave a different narrative, more favorable to Malinowski, in other testimonies.
Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.