Polish ruling on Holocaust libel case causes profound concern among Jewish groups

February 11, 2021 by  
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A ruling issued by a court in Poland on Tuesday is meeting fierce criticism from Jewish groups and others who claim that the decision will silence further examination of the role of Polish citizens during the Holocaust…writes Faygie Holt.

“Selection” of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland, May-June 1944, during the final phase of the Holocaust. Jews were either sent to work or to the gas chamber. Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives, Jerusalem.

The criticism comes after a court found that the authors of Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland—Jan Grabowski, professor of history at the University of Ottawa in Canada, and Barbara Engelking, director of the Research Centre for the Extermination of Jews—must issue a retraction of their work and apologize to the niece of Edward Malinowski, a Polish man, who was briefly mentioned in the book as being complicit in the murdering Jews during the Holocaust.

“There are those in today’s Poland who want to deny or deflect the fact that some of their countrymen abused and even killed Polish Jews during World War II. They only want to remember the horrors wrought on the Polish nation by the Nazis, while denying this sordid truth,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and global director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute, told JNS.

“The Jewish people simultaneously revere the memory of thousands of Righteous Poles who, often at great personal risk, saved Jews during this period, while at the same time denouncing the people who abused and killed Polish Jews. Polish history is complicated, and the only ones who should be apologizing are those who seek to rewrite it,” he said.

The libel case in Poland stems from a controversial 2018 law passed by the Polish government that made it a civil offence to make false accusations about Polish history in the Holocaust. The law originally included criminal penalties but was amended after an international outcry from Jewish groups, as well as outrage in Israel, which led to strained relations between the countries at the time. Despite the passing of some 75 years since the end of the war, Poland still struggles to come to grips with its history from 1939 to 1945.

In 1939, the country was home to 3.3 million Jews; in 1945, it had been reduced by 90 per cent to an estimated 300,000 survivors.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization issued a joint statement on Tuesday, saying, in part: “The history of the Holocaust requires independent scholarly research that must not be subject to inappropriate efforts at pressure by politicians and the courts. This verdict is a concerning example of Holocaust distortion against which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which Poland is a member has taken a stand.”

Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference and WJRO’s chair of operations, added that “Poland must encourage open inquiry into its history, both the positive and negative aspects, in order to build a society for the future, based on solid ground and a genuine understanding of the past.”

Last week, prior to the ruling, officials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum weighed in on the case and said that lawsuit “raises serious concerns about the future of independent Holocaust scholarship in Poland and elsewhere. This is one of several troubling trends in the region and beyond … . Honestly reckoning with Holocaust history is essential to the health of societies. Unfettered scholarship and open public discourse are necessary in order to uncover the full scope of Holocaust history and understand its continued relevance.”


Yad Vashem is profoundly concerned regarding the recent verdict rendered by the Polish court against researchers of the Holocaust of Polish Jewry, Professors Engelking and Grabowski, and again stresses the importance of academic freedom in comprehensive historical research.  Yad Vashem acknowledges the court’s verdict, but remains deeply disturbed by its implications.  Any attempt to limit academic and public discourse through political or legal pressure is unacceptable and constitutes a substantive blow to academic freedom.

Historical research must reflect the complex reality that existed in a given period, grounded in the scrupulous analysis of a body of existing documentation, as was done in this thorough book by the researchers.  Yad Vashem knows and respects the professional work of the scholars and moreover will publish the English edition of their book.  As with all research, this volume about the fate of Jews during the Holocaust is part of an ongoing discussion and as such is subject to critique in academia, but not in courts.

The existing diverse documentation, along with many decades of historical research, shows that under the draconian Nazi German occupation of Poland and despite the widespread suffering of the Polish people under that occupation, there were Poles who were actively involved in the persecution of the Jews and in their murder.

The prosecution of researchers and journalists who deal with these issues, instead of pursuing academic discussion as is the norm throughout the world,  constitutes a real threat to academic and press freedom.

Yad Vashem will continue to be committed to the research of the Holocaust and to provide opportunities and conditions for researchers and educators from Israel and around the world to confront the complex truth of the Holocaust period without limitations, not only regarding Poland but for all of the countries where the Holocaust took place.

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