Polish Libel Case Signals Chilling Limits in Polish Holocaust Research

Written by: Sophia Halverson

A judge ruled in a Polish libel case that two prominent Holocaust survivors must apologize to a woman who feels that her uncle was slandered in a 1,600-page book, Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland. 

In the book, a Holocaust survivor testified that Filomena Leszczyńska’s deceased uncle, Edward Malinowski, a wartime village mayor, robbed her during the war and contributed to the death of 18 Jews who had been hiding near Malinowo by telling the Germans about their hiding place. This was not the first time the testimony had come up, as a Communist court had acquitted Malinowski in 1950 of being an accomplice in the 1943 massacre. The judge’s decision was based on discrepancies in testimony (at another time, she says the witness had given a more favorable testimony to Malinowski) and the court ruled that the two scholars who co-edited the book, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking (the writer of the passage in question), must apologize to Leszczynska on their website and in writing. However, the court did not require them to pay the 100,000 zlotys ($27,000 USD) that Leszcyznska originally had demanded. Grabowski acknowledges that the study conflated the histories of two former Malinowo mayors named Edward Malinowski, but insists that the error only ascribes acts of kindness towards Jews by Leszczynska’s uncle that were actually performed by his younger namesake.

Leszczynska received support from the Polish League Against Defamation, who raised money from private donors to finance her suit and pay her lawyers. Although the group denies it acted on behalf of the state and the ruling Law and Justice party, it does receive funding from the state. Maciej Swirsk, the head of the League Against Defamation, said he helped to initiate the libel case because he told Leszscynska he had found errors in the book that proved her uncle had been maligned. “In a normal country this case would have been dismissed long ago,” Grabowski said. “But Poland can no longer be considered a normal democracy.” He went on to accuse the Law and Justice Party of a “reconquest of history” by highlighting what Poles suffered under the Nazi occupation while ignoring that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis. 

The subject of citizen collaboration with Nazis during World War II has become a contentious topic among Poles, particularly in the last few decades. Before the war Poland had a thriving Jewish population (the largest in Europe), but only 380,000 of the country’s 3.3 million Jews survived the war. Out of 27,712 people classified by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” (non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust), over 7,000 are Polish, more than from any other country. There is a lot of patriotic pride in Poland because it never formed a collaboration government with the Nazis and had a strong resistance movement. Two million non-Jewish Poles were also killed by the Nazis. However, there were still Poles who did collaborate with the Nazis and in some cases even massacred their Jewish neighbors, most prominently the massacre in Jedwabne in 1941 which forced Poland to reevaluate its wartime narratives. In the introduction to Night Without End, the scholars write, “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.” 

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research center, denounced the Polish court’s ruling and called it “unacceptable”, adding in a statement, “Any attempt to limit academic and public discourse through political or legal pressure is unacceptable and constitutes a substantive blow to academic freedom”. Other Jewish groups also condemned the ruling and said that this case will color how Holocaust research in Poland is conducted and presented in the future. 

The government helped make cases like this possible by amending the law in 2020 to waive court costs for all cases connected with “the struggle of the Polish Nation against Nazism and Communism”. Cases like this are an offshoot of Law and Justice’s increasingly intolerant national pride, which has been pouring money into research groups and museum projects that present Poland as the perpetual victim in WWII and minimize Polish collaboration with the Nazis. Law and Justice has also altered the courts in other ways to pass unpopular legislation, such as its extremely restrictive abortion ban which also tries to present a one-sided view of Poland as a very traditional and uniformly Catholic state. However, Poland used to have a large Jewish population before World War II, when most Jews were deported or killed. The idea that the Jews had collaborated with the Soviet Union against the Polish people led to a rise in anti semitism after the war that caused many other Jewish people to leave the country. However, Poland is now home to one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world since the fall of Communism. Critics of the ban see it as an attempt to censor Holocaust and other historical research that is not conducive to the state’s goals. 

Certainly, the Polish government seems to have taken a side: in addition to laws and interest groups, media outlets controlled by the Law and Justice party are overwhelmingly favorable and Night Without End has been denounced by the Institute of National Remembrance, an institute with prosecutorial powers to enforce its mission to “protect the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”. It takes a very narrow view of history that serves the ruling party’s views. 

Judge Eva Jonczyk said that she didn’t award damages because court decisions “should not have a cooling effect on scientific research”. However, her decision stipulates that in the apology the authors must describe Malinowski as a “Jew saving hero”. The decision is not quite finalized as the two scholars plan to appeal the decision. However, the soft interference of government into matters of national history and national narratives should be worrisome for those who support independent historical reporting.