New Polish law chills the work of historians; forbids accusing Poles of complicity with Nazis against Jews in WWII

February 17, 2021 • 9:30 am

In 2018, the right-wing Polish government, apparently eager to burnish their image, passed a law forbidding anyone from “unjustly and incorrectly blaming Poles for crimes committed by the Germans” during World War II. In other words, if you accused Poles of helping the Germans kill Jews, or of doing it on their own, you were breaking the law—unless you could prove that statement with 100% assurance. The penalty for purveying accusations of complicity against Poles that can’t be “proven” was up to three years in prison, but the prison term has since been dropped after an international outcry led by Israel. However, the law still applies, and applies worldwide, which is why one of the accused in the present case is a Polish-Canadian. Whether Poland would try to extradite foreign historians who violate the law isn’t clear!

Now there’s no doubt that many Poles did indeed kill Jews on their own (the Polish police were notorious for this), or helped the Germans with pogroms (viz., the Einsatzgruppen), as well as turning in Jews to the authorities, which of course would lead to their extermination. Some took lots of money from Jews to help them escape or hide them. There is no doubt that many Poles were complicit in the Holocaust, and this is historically documented. (Many Poles also helped the Jews during the war; I’m not implying that every Pole hated every Polish Jew!)

Nevertheless, Poland’s ruling “Law and Justice” party is trying to use the law to perpetrate injustice. The latest manifestation of this form of Holocaust denial, as described in the Guardian article below, is the prosecution of two Polish historians for accusing a Pole of having aided the Nazis by turning in Jews to authorities during the war. Click on screenshot to read.

The story is a bit complicated. Two Polish historians, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski (who works in Ottawa) mention in Night Without End, a new two-volume history, that a Pole, Edward Malinowski, denounced 16 hiding Jews to the authorities, who immediately killed those Jews. This comes, however, from the testimony of a woman, Estera Siemiatycka who Malinowski saved.  Her story changed after she left Poland, when she claimed not only that she had paid Malinowski to help her, but also asserted that he denounced 16 other Jews in hiding. Malinowski was tried by the Communists after the war for denouncing Jews, but because Siemiatycka hadn’t yet recanted, found him not guilty.

The historians Engelking and Grabowski present all these stories in their book, but conclude, based on their own research, that Malinowski was indeed guilty of denouncing Jews.  Because of this conclusion, Malinowski’s niece, Filomena Leszczyńska, sued the historians under the new law. She was supported by The Polish League Against Defamation, which is essentially part of the ruling Law and Justice party.

Apparently because historians’ judgment is not good enough (you have to be 100% sure, apparently, and who ever is in matters like this?), the court found Engelking and Grabowski guilty, ordering them to apologize to Leszczyńska (there was no fine or jail term). They refused, and both sides appealed the case to the next highest court. This could go on for a long time, and if the Supreme Court ultimately finds the historians guilty, and they still refuse to apologize, they could be fined or have their books censored.  To be sure, the Court said that the law wasn’t meant to stifle academic research; as the Guardian notes:

Leszczyńska and her backers took a different legal route in their case against Engelking and Grabowski, claiming that the historians had violated her personal rights. The court conceded that the claimant’s right to “respect for the memory of a relative” had been infringed, but threw out the other claims and did not award damages, stating that the judgment was not intended to stifle academic research. The historians are appealing the judgment.

That claim that the government didn’t intend to stifle research is pure cant, for what other purpose would it have than to obscure inconvenient truths?

In the end, whatever your interpretation of the law, two historians were still taken to court, essentially for dissing Malinowski. And others have argued (and I concur) that this will indeed have a chilling effect on historical research. During the murky days of WWII, how often do we have watertight proof that a Pole was indeed complicit in the persecution of Jews? Some criticism of the law:

“I’ve got real doubts about this judgment,” says lawyer Michał Jabłoński, who acted for the defence. “It is dangerous for freedom of speech and academic research. It is unprecedented that the court decides which historical source is reliable instead of researchers. This judgment requires that testimonies of survivors are verified before they are published anywhere, that researchers have to be 100% sure that testimonies are accurate before they publish conclusions, especially if they regard someone’s misconduct. In the view of the court, the existence of other sources that are contrary to a survivor’s testimony should prevent researchers from publishing their research if it interferes with someone’s personal rights. Such a standard makes historical research a dangerous job, in fact impossible, as in most cases survivors’ testimonies can’t be verified.”

International organisations and academics have also been swift to condemn the ruling. Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem said it was “deeply disturbed by its implications.” Sascha Feuchert, director of the Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur at the University of Giessen, Germany, said: “For many incidents in the Holocaust, we only have the testimonies from survivors. Of course they need to be checked and discussed in academic debates as far as possible. But this court ruling and its conclusions not only threaten the foundations of research based on survivor testimony, it could also be a gift for Holocaust deniers.”

. . . Mikołaj Grynberg, a writer who has documented Polish-Jewish accounts in his books, believes that the state’s agenda to promote Polish heroism goes against historical truth. “The aim is to feel good and be a chosen people – we are the only nation that has only noble people among us,” he says. “That’s adolescent thinking and bad news that we are not growing to be an adult country. So it will stay like this for years.”

The future of historical research in Poland is thus unclear, especially for someone like the distinguished historian Jan Gross, a Polish-American who has made his career documenting Polish persecution of Jews during and after World War II.  Gross was already subject to a defamation case for saying that the Poles killed more Jews than they did Nazis during the war, though the government dropped the charges in late 2019.

There’s really no doubt that many Poles were complicit in persecuting and killing Jews during the War. (I should add here that 6,000 of them were also honored for saving Jews, and have been awarded the honor of “Righteous Among The Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel, a title I’d love to have but is conferred only on non-Jews like Oskar Schindler.) The evidence for a Polish animus against Jews also comes from the fact that after the war the Poles continued pogroms on their own, without the Nazis. The 1946 massacre at Kielce is only one example of several instances of pogroms. Further, Poles often refused to give back the confiscated property and houses of Jews who had fled the country after those Jews returned following the war.

The two points here are that the historical record is clear, and that Poland’s government is bent on distorting it to further their own purposes. The government itself is right-wing and authoritarian, and needs to go. But it won’t, as it’s popular with a large number of Poles.

h/t: Malgorzata

26 thoughts on “New Polish law chills the work of historians; forbids accusing Poles of complicity with Nazis against Jews in WWII

  1. Whether Poland would try to extradite foreign historians who violate the law isn’t clear!

    I’m no extradition expert, but I had enough clients subject to it to know that extradition treaties generally contain a “dual criminality” provision — requiring that the act for which extradition is sought be a crime in both the country seeking extradition and the country from which extradition is sought.

    I should think Canada has no law similar to Poland’s in this regard.

    1. Canada does have hate speech laws, which might be construed to be addressing the same issue as the Polish law, and thus satisfy dual criminality. Of course, what a Canadian and a Pole consider hateful might differ. Perhaps a Canadian lawyer could weigh in?


    2. If I were the historian I would welcome the day in court! I’d like to go to Poland, point this out, & then wait for them to arrest me.

      Makes my blood boil…

    3. Came here to say the same thing. In the UK, if you can show that the crime for which you are being extradited would not be a crime under the relevant British law, your extradition will be denied.

      On the other hand, if you are a historian of Poland, not being able to visit Poland because of an outstanding arrest warrant, would probably be a bit restrictive.

    4. In that you mention extradition, I’m reminded of, and have tried to get up to speed on, the high-profile situation involving Meng Wenzhou, a Huawei executive, arrested at the Vancouver airport enroute to Mexico in late 2018, at the behest of the U.S., Meng fighting extradition to the U.S. How long can someone be held in extradition limbo? If the U.S. has such a strong case against her, why wasn’t she in U.S. custody long before now? If memory serves me, recently the U.S. has offered her the opportunity to return to China if she pleads guilty to certain crimes. She has refused to do so because she holds that she is not guilty. She has had at least one home in Vancouver for a decade or more and, until this incident, I don’t know of Canadians having a problem with her living in their midst.

      (The NYT, in high dudgeon, its delicate aesthetic sensibilities so easily offended, bloviates about her living in such opulent digs – which she has possessed a number of years in Vancouver, not surprisingly by a well-compensated corporate executive – while the two Canadian men, taken into custody by China about a week after Meng, endure in modest circumstance – as if she has any control over the plight of the two Canadians. Are all her neighbors in this exclusive section of Vancouver Chinese? The NYT manages not to say.)

  2. I have heard of Jewish people visiting Poland in the 80s who were followed along the streets by youths saying ‘Zhid’.

    I recall reading that Polish Jews were not allowed in the main Polish resistance – was that in Czesław Miłosz, perhaps, The Seizure of Power?

    Most countries that were occupied had enough haters & Quislings, so it should be no surprise. I am sure if it went all the way to the European Court it would not survive judgement. The EU has big problems with the vaguely fascistic governments of Poland & Hungary.

    1. My mother was in the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which was the main (nationalist) resistance force in Poland. She had a Jewish friend who was what she called a radio engineer (and therefore presumably potentially useful to the resistance) who was rejected by them because of his Jewishness. She herself came, on her father’s side, from a family that had converted from Judaism in a previous generation, and told me that apart from the fear of the Nazis, she also lived in fear of being discovered and betrayed by her own side (since the Nazis were trying to eradicate the taint of Jewish blood, not just avowed Jews).

      She witnessed the destruction of the Lwów (now Lviv) ghetto. She told me that she watched with her friend and landlord as German soldiers used fleeing Jews for target practice. In her description, her friend turned to her with tears pouring down his cheeks and said “At least it will solve our Jewish problem”. She also told me that the same man was later executed for sheltering a Jewish family. I obviously can’t vouch for the accuracy of these stories, which are some of my most vivid memories of childhood, but the ambivalence she described seems very telling of public attitudes to Jews in that era.

      When Israel whipped the Arabs in the Six-Day War, my mother told me that there was a kind of bemused and almost proprietorial pride among many Poles in the fact that the “Zhidovki” had stood up for themselves.

      Poland seems to be reverting to the country of her childhood. In primary school, they used to sing patriotic songs in praise of Marshal Pilsudski, then head of state and cult figure, and they would be taught about Poland “the Christ of nations”, crucified misunderstood and innocent victim. Plus ça change…

  3. This makes me think of a novel I read >20 yrs ago (which means it must have really moved me), In the Memory of the Forest, by Charles Powers. IIRC, the plot is a murder mystery, but the bigger story is how some Poles treated their Jewish neighbors. The author was a journalist who had spent time in Poland (as well as other foreign locations, including Uganda where he had been arrested and tortured), and died before his only book was published. Im thinking I may re-read it.

  4. I’m not sure I understand the logic behind the law. Was Poland’s reputation being dragged down by false accusations of war crimes committed by Polish people in World War 2? Were these accusations worse than the damage being done to Poland’s reputation by this law?

    1. I had the same thought; AFAIK the world does not think particularly bad of Poland’s role in WWII, so why the need to “save” their reputation? They were taken over by the Germans, and had a mix of Nazi sympathizers, resistance fighters, and civilian population just trying to manage. That makes them a normal European country of the era.

      1. Right-wing governments are stamped from the same mold. Their response makes exactly as much sense as Trump’s response to Covid-19. That which makes one look bad, must be denied; evidence is beside the point.

  5. “…the right-wing Polish government, apparently eager to burnish their image…”

    Alrighty then, back to the drawing board on that one.

  6. I remember hearing about this ridiculous law when it was introduced, but thought it had been dropped. (I’m guessing that I wasn’t paying attention properly when the custodial sentence aspect was rescinded.) Poland and Hungary are increasingly problematic these days.

  7. > “Gross was already subject to a defamation case for saying that the Poles killed more Jews than Nazis during the war,”

    I think this sentence is meant to read “saying that the Poles killed more Jews than they killed Nazis” (as the linked article is careful to do). The other reading would be… a rather larger deviation from received history.

  8. What appears worse about this is that historians will commonly need to use testimony from other people to build and support their accounts, and thru this ill-considered law those other people may be charged as well unless the accounts can be 100% proved. So it seems stifling to even cooperate in these investigations. Everyone is being gagged, it seems.

  9. “…the claimant’s right to “respect for the memory of a relative” had been infringed…”

    A law that allows a descendant to control what is said about a dead relative is essentially an attempt to extend the protection of libel laws to the dead, a legal concept that no civilized country recognizes. It also introduces an arbitrary condition: that the dead person must have a living descendant. Why, if a dead person can be libelled, can it only happen if they have a living descendant?

    1. According to the sources listed at the “Armia Krajowa” article, “[t]raditionally, Polish historiography has presented the Home Army interactions with Jews in a positive light, while Jewish historiography has been mostly negative.“

      That is, the German documentary was following the view of “Jewish historiography”. Interesting how this can be spun, too. I know nothing of the situation, but it became apparent that Poland has a last-century nationalist movement who cannot tolerate anything that might come across as unflattering. See the topic, too.

  10. Poland is on a fast move to the hard right – just lately they pretty much outlawed abortion (in the same brainless manner as South Carolina did this week).
    Anti-Semitism is “in their mother’s milk” it is said of Poland.
    That Duda clown and his “Law & Justice” (HA!) party are pulling all sorts of bs over there. They constantly criticize the EU and EU countries WHILE happily enjoying something like $40 Billion in EU funds (as does Hungary), funds they use to subsidize larger families.

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