Warsaw, Poland: A Polish appeals court on Monday overturned a ruling against two leading Holocaust historians accused of defamation, in a case that raised questions about the freedom to research Poland’s World War II past.
The civil case was brought against the academics for a book they co-edited about the complicity of Catholic Poles in the genocide of Jews during the wartime Nazi German occupation.
“Night Without End” documented several such cases, but the court action was brought by the niece of Edward Malinowski, the wartime mayor of the village of Malinowo in northeast Poland.
The book mentions that he may have been implicated in a local massacre of Jews by German soldiers, but the plaintiff argued the mayor had in fact helped Jews.
In February, a lower court ordered researchers Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski to apologise to the plaintiff, saying their claim had been “inaccurate”.
On Monday, Judge Joanna Wisniewska-Sadomska overturned that ruling, though she did not speak to the accuracy of the book’s passage.
Instead, she said that the litigation constituted “an unacceptable violation of the freedom of scientific research and the freedom of expression”.
The “courtroom was not the right place for a historical debate”, she added.
Verifying research methodology or source material would make for “an unacceptable form of censorship and interference in the freedom of research and scientific work,” she added.
Tense political climate
A Warsaw-based organisation that supported the niece said it would appeal to the Supreme Court.
The court case took place in a tense political climate, with critics accusing the nationalist government of attempting to whitewash Polish history and discourage academic enquiry into cases of collaboration.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and various Jewish organisations and researchers from both sides of the Atlantic condemned the defamation trial.
Nearly six million Poles, including three million Jews, perished between 1939 and 1945 during Nazi occupation.
The attitudes of Catholic Poles to their Jewish neighbours varied greatly at a time in which even offering a Jew a glass of water could be a death sentence.
There were many cases of indifference and sometimes cruelty against Jews that have been documented by historians but there were also many stories of courage.
More Poles — over 7,000 — have been named “Righteous Among the Nations” than any other nationality.
The honorific is used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination.