Yad Vashem decries Polish libel suit as ‘attack on free research’

Senior historian at Yad Vashem says libel suit against two Holocaust academics designed to ‘sue into submission’ anyone departs from Polish government’s view of history.

HALL OF Names, Yad Vashem.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
HALL OF Names, Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Yad Vashem has called the current trial of two Holocaust historians in Poland an attack on free and open research and said such legal pressure was “unacceptable.”
Prof. Barbara Engelking, founder and Director of the Polish Center of Holocaust Research, and Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian historian of the Holocaust at the University of Ottawa were sued for libel last year in a civil court under a Polish law passed in 1998 and amended in 2018 allowing for civil suits against anyone claiming that the Polish nation or the Republic Poland was responsible for Nazi atrocities committed.
The last court hearing was January 12, and a ruling is expected on February 9.
The suit alleges that Engelking and Grabowski libeled the mayor of a village in eastern Poland when they included in their book testimony of a Jewish woman who accused him of betraying 22 Jews who were hiding in forests near the mayor’s village to the Nazis.
“Any effort to set the bounds of academic and public discourse through political or judicial pressure is unacceptable,” said Yad Vashem in a statement to the press.
“It constitutes a serious attack on free and open research. Legal proceedings against Holocaust scholars because of their research are incompatible with accepted academic research norms and amount to an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust and on the veracity and, reliability of its underlying historical sources.”
Engelking and Grabowski edited a book in Polish in 2018 called Night Without End which examined the fate of tens of thousands of Jews who escaped various Nazi ghettoes established throughout Poland and fled into the countryside between 1942 and 1945.
The book found that the large majority of Jews who escaped the ghettos were ultimately murdered by the Nazis and that many were betrayed by Poles.
One chapter, authored by Engelking, told the story of a Jewish woman, Estera Siemiatycka, who fled into hiding in the countryside and sheltered in the village of Malinowo in the Podlaskie region of eastern Poland.
The village elder, Edward Malinowski, arranged – at a price – for Siemiatycka to obtain false identity papers and she was sent to Germany where she worked for the rest of the war.
The mayor, however, was put on trial in 1947 for collaborating with the Nazis and betraying Jews hiding out in the forests near the village, but Siemiatycka testified in his defense and he was acquitted.
Yet, in subsequent testimony given in the 1990s to the Shoah Foundation, Siemiatycka said she knew Malinowski had been involved in hunting and betraying Jews in the region but had lied in court because she felt indebted to him for saving her life.
Engelking cited this account in her book and was subsequently sued by Malinowski’s 80-year old niece, Filomena Leszczyńska, according to the Warsaw daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, for damaging her right “to enjoy the remembrance of a deceased person,” her “right to one’s national pride and identity,” her “right to a fact-based history of WWII,” and her “right to the protection of dignity.”
The newspaper also alleges that it was the Polish Anti-Defamation League – strongly aligned with the ruling populist, nationalist Law and Justice Party that passed the 2018 Holocaust libel law – that had urged Leszczyńska to file the suit against the two historians.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Senior Historian at the Yad Vashem Research Institute Dr. David Silberklang said the lawsuit was being advanced by the current government and that similar suits are expected to be filed against other Holocaust historians. 
“This is part of a larger effort to implement the government’s history policy that ‘history is what we say it is and anyone who departs from that will be sued into submission’,” said Silberklang.
“It is part of a concerted government campaign in Poland to stifle academic freedom on this issue specifically,” he said.