Ottawa

U of O Holocaust scholar ordered to apologize in Polish libel case

A Canadian Holocaust researcher and his co-editor have been ordered by a Polish court to apologize to a woman who claimed they slandered her deceased uncle in a historical work that suggested he collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Polish woman claimed historian slandered her uncle in book that suggests he was a Nazi collaborator

University of Ottawa history professor Jan Grabowski appears at a news conference in Tel Aviv. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

A Canadian Holocaust researcher and his co-editor have been ordered by a Polish court to apologize to a woman who claimed they slandered her deceased uncle in a historical work that suggested he collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

The ruling has angered Jewish rights organizations in Canada and abroad, who say it serves to cover up the history of Poles who were complicit in the genocide of Jews during the German occupation.

Judge Ewa Jonczyk ruled Tuesday in Warsaw that scholars Jan Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, and Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, must issue a written apology to 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska for "providing inaccurate information" and  "violating [her uncle's] honour."

Grabowski and Engelking co-edited Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, a two-volume study published in 2018. A short passage in the book said that Edward Malinowski, Leszczynska's late uncle, robbed a Jewish woman during the war and contributed to the death of over a dozen other Jews who were hiding in a forest in 1943.

The passage relied on testimony given in 1996 by a Jewish woman to the USC Shoah Foundation, a Los Angeles-based group that collects Holocaust-era oral histories.

Lawyers for Leszczynska argued that her uncle was a Polish hero who had saved Jews, and that the scholars had harmed her good name and that of her family. In her ruling, the judge ruled there were discrepancies in the woman's description of Malinowski's behavior.

Three million Polish Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation, along with millions of others. Many Poles resisted the Nazis and fought back, while others collaborated and betrayed Jews to the Germans.

While the court ruled in favour of Leszcynska, it did not order the two scholars to pay 100,000 zlotys ($34,000) as requested by the plaintiff. Grabowski and Engelking plan to appeal.

Dangerous precedent

Critics say the case sets a dangerous precedent that threatens independent research into one of the 20th Century's darkest chapters. 

"The ramifications of this decision go beyond two historians and their work," said Grabowski in an interview with CBC's All In A Day from Warsaw. "They will spill over and have an impact on the way historians work in Poland on the Holocaust and I believe also that can have certain impact beyond the Polish borders."

Grabowski said he stood by the credibility of the survivor's testimony and that it should be historians who evaluate the validity of historical sources, not courts.

The libel case has raised concerns internationally because it comes amid a broader state-backed historical offensive in Poland. 

"It is shocking and shameful to see this effort unfold to hide and obscure the truth about the crimes committed against Polish Jews during the Holocaust," said Michael Levitt, president and CEO of the Toronto-based human rights organization Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Poland cannot continue to bury the facts and silence Holocaust scholars, and its actions must be roundly rejected by Canada and the rest of the international community."

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the ruling opens the door to further intimidation of scholars and researchers and threatens to whitewash aspects of Polish history.

The group said it is is reaching out to government leaders to urging them to speak out in the strongest possible terms against "Holocaust distortion in Poland."

A Polish court has ordered two Holocaust researchers to apologize to a woman who claims her uncle was slandered in their work. We talk to one of them about that ruling 9:41

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

now