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Scholars ordered to apologize over Holocaust study

by ANDREW HIGGINS THE NEW YORK TIMES | February 20, 2021 at 2:59 a.m.
Zygmunt Malinowski stands near a forest memorial stone (right) where Jews were killed in the early 1940s outside Malinowo, Poland. “The war ended 75 years ago, but it still lives on in our bones. It will last forever,” he said. (The New York Times/Maciek Nabrdalik)

WARSAW, Poland -- A Polish judge has ordered two Holocaust scholars to issue a public apology for including "inaccurate information" in a two-volume academic study that delved into the role played by individual Poles in the murder of Jews during World War II.

The order, given last week, came at the end of a closely-watched libel trial brought by the niece of a wartime village mayor who, according to a Jewish survivor cited in a 2018 study co-edited by the scholars, was complicit in the murder of 18 Jews who took shelter from the Nazis in a forest in eastern Poland.

But the judge, Ewa Jonczyk, rejected a demand for damages of $27,000 by the niece, Filomena Leszczynska, who was supported in her legal action by a partly state-funded organization dedicated to protecting the "good name of Poland and that of the Polish nation."

Jonczyk said she had ruled against awarding damages because court decisions "should not have a cooling effect on scientific research." She also rejected a demand that the apology describe the wartime mayor of Malinowo village, Edward Malinowski, as a "Jew-saving hero." The book had portrayed him as a thief and Nazi collaborator.

The libel case has caused alarm among Jewish groups and scholars around the world, who worry that Poland's nationalist government, led since 2015 by the conservative Law and Justice party, wants to curb independent research into the Holocaust. The government has denied any involvement in the case.

Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian history professor at the University of Ottawa and a defendant in the case, told Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading liberal newspaper, that "I find it hard to accept this particular ruling." He said he would appeal.

The second defendant is Barbara Engelking, a historian with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. "I don't feel guilty," she said after the verdict in a video statement.

Engelking said the issues "we are supposed to apologize for have no basis in fact." She said her account of the wartime mayor's actions, which included helping and betraying Jews, was based on the postwar testimony of a Jewish woman whom he had aided and also robbed.

"This case shows that in the history of the Holocaust, there are no black-and-white situations," Engelking said.

The two scholars edited "Night Without End," a 1,700-page study of Polish behavior under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945. During that time, around 3 million Jews were killed on conquered Polish territory, mostly in Nazi death camps but also sometimes by their Polish neighbors.

The book infuriated nationalists by describing the complicity of individual Poles in the murder of Jews. That is something that patriotic versions of Poland's history, which stress Polish suffering during World War II, have sought to avoid.

"The conclusion drawn from the numbers is grim: two out of every three Jews looking for rescue died -- most often because of their Christian neighbors," the scholars wrote in the introduction.

While declining to award damages, the judge's order that the scholars publish an apology on the website of Engelking's research center and send a written apology to Leszczynska, the wartime mayor's niece, marked a victory for the Polish League Against Defamation, the driving force behind the case, and other nationalist outfits.

Maciej Swirski, head of the league, welcomed the court's decision, posting a message on Twitter that Leszczynska is "fighting for all of us so that we don't have to bear the stigma ascribed to us by historians as perpetrators of the Holocaust."

Jewish groups condemned the verdict.

"The history of the Holocaust requires independent scholarly research that must not be subject to inappropriate efforts at pressure by politicians and the courts," said a statement by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a major sponsor of historical research on the Holocaust, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

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