On February 9, 2021, a Polish court ordered two academics from the University of Ottawa and the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, respectively, to apologize publicly in a libel case brought by the niece of a wartime village mayor. The academics were found to have included “inaccurate information” in an academic study on Poland and the Jewish Holocaust.
Jan Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottowa, and Barbara Engelking, a historian at the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, published an edited volume of research on the role of Polish nationals during the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War titled “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.” The volume included an account by a Jewish woman in the town of Malinowo who said she had been able to survive the Holocaust because the mayor of the town had helped her pass as a non-Jew. The same woman is also quoted as saying that the mayor may have been complicit in the murder of 22 Jews who had taken shelter in a forest in Eastern Poland.
The case against the two historians was brought by the mayor’s niece with the support of the Polish Anti-Defamation League, an organization which purportedly aims to “defend Poland’s good name.” The plaintiffs alleged that the discussion contained “omissions and methodological errors” while Professor Engelking responded that the portrayal was based on the postwar account of a Jewish woman whom the mayor had reportedly both assisted and robbed, and that “in the history of the Holocaust, there are no black-and-white situations.”
The court ruled that the two authors must publish an apology on the website of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research and send a written apology to the wartime mayor’s niece. The judge rejected the plaintiff’s demand for compensation, citing the possible detrimental effect this would have on future academic and scientific research. Grabowski and Engelking intend to appeal the ruling.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about civil actions against scholars in connection to their academic research and publishing. Even in the absence of money damages, such incidents erode university autonomy and have a potentially chilling effect on academic freedom — particularly where they result in judicially compelled expression in the form of a written apology. The right to academic freedom and freedom of expression are expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Poland is a party.