Jewish News has won a decisive legal battle against Polish nationalists that threatened to silence allegations of the country’s complicity in Nazi crimes and historical antisemitism
A bitter 18-month fight with the Polish League Against Defamation (PLAD) concluded in a Warsaw civil court last Thursday with the judge dismissing a claim by the organisation’s president, Mira Wzelaka, against an article published on jewishnews.co.uk in October 2017 headlined, ‘Polish restitution law excludes most Holocaust survivors and heirs’.
Virtually every Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust fled the country after the war, making any new property claim almost impossible. Experts estimate the value of Jewish property in Poland stolen during the Second World War exceeds £750million.
Wzelaka claimed our article implied Poles were responsible for confiscation of Jewish property during the war and other atrocities against Jews. She also complained the word “German” should have been placed before the word “Nazi” to make it clearer that Poles were not guilty of property confiscation.
However, the judge ruled that Wzelaka, who did not attend court, failed to prove her case. She may now take her case to the Appeals Court.
The judge also admonished Wzelaka for attempting to manipulate the court by putting words that did not appear in the article in quotation marks.
Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer said: “This is an important ruling not only for Jewish News but all media. The implications for freedom of speech and freedom of the press had we lost would have been catastrophic. Our Polish lawyer cited relevant case law from the European Court of Human Rights and other Polish courts in our defence and I’m delighted the judge delivered such resounding vindication of our report.”
The case comes in the wake of a controversial new Holocaust law introduced in Poland last year criminalising references to Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust. The law was later downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence. PLAD’s claim against Jewish News was one of the first civil case brought under this new law in Poland.
The newspaper was represented by Andrzej Tomaszek, managing partner at Drzewiecki Tomaszek in Warsaw.
Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees, who assisted the newspaper during the case, said: “Jewish News’ victory illustrates the attempts in some quarters in Poland to manipulate the narrative of how the Holocaust is framed in public life.
“The advent of the law that was originally intended to criminalise the impugning of Poland’s name is a subject that colleagues and I at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) have been at the forefront of confronting, are deeply concerned about and continue to monitor. This forms part of IHRA’s objective to counter distortion and uphold the historical truth. Separately, the failure of successive Polish governments to return properties that belonged to Jews and which were originally confiscated following Nazi occupation is a travesty and one that differentiates Poland from all other European countries.”
Dr Kathrin Meyer, executive secretary of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), said: “This is an important victory. Our work is centred on safeguarding the historical record of the Holocaust and the IHRA Working Definition of Holocaust Distortion and Denial makes clear that any efforts to distort the facts must be challenged and denounced. Poland is a valued member of the IHRA and we will continue to work with our 32 member countries to ensure the record of the Holocaust is protected appropriately.”
Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Simon Johnson said: “This is an important judicial statement on maintaining freedom of the media. Scrutiny by the media may sometimes be inconvenient to those in public life, but a free press is essential to a modern democracy and to the rule of law. Jewish News is to be congratulated on fighting to protect this important principle in Poland.”
Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees: “This victory illustrates the attempts in some quarters in Poland to manipulate the narrative of how the Holocaust is framed in public life.
Last week Jewish peer Baroness Ruth Deech launched a blistering attack on Poland for “squatting on the property of three million” Holocaust victims, during a House of Lords debate on restitution.
She said the country was “the most egregious offender” when it came to returning Nazi-looted art, as peers debated a Bill to extend the ability of UK museums to return artworks to the descendants of their former owners.
Deech said restitution was “symbolically important,” because it “sends a message to this war-torn world that, if the enemy despoiler does his worst, nevertheless, in the end, that wrong will be righted”.
Deech was responding to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announcement that his government will “never agree to any compensation payments for anyone” since his country was “the war’s major victim”.
She said: “Congratulations on winning a case so important for the principles of freedom of speech and the right of ownership. Poland’s attempt to stifle factual analysis of its part in the Second World War has been thwarted.”
Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project, said: “Antisemites often seek to silence the truth by abusing the legal process. We set up The Lawfare Project for that exact reason – it should be the antisemites who have to defend themselves in court, not those who call out antisemitism, whether current or historic. I congratulate the Jewish News for standing firm and winning an important victory for all who believe that the law should protect our right to tell the truth and not be a weapon for those who would cover it up.”
Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl said: “We welcome the verdict of the Polish court in this case. We have been concerned by Government and other actors in Poland in recent years trying to whitewash their past rather than come to terms with it and provide restitution. Polish history around the Holocaust is complicated, with both Polish heroes and Polish villains. However, a brighter future is possible if we engage honestly and openly with history and build from its lessons a better tomorrow. We congratulate Jewish News on the successful defence of truth and justice in this landmark case.”
The European Jewish Congress added: “We congratulate the Jewish News on their victory for truth and hope that this ruling will lead to introspection by those who are not willing to confront history. The issue of restitution is about rights, fairness and justice, and until it is properly dealt with, it will leave a gaping wound and continue to be an obstacle towards ensuring that the Holocaust is not used as a political bashing tool.”
- Polish League Against Defamation (PLAD)
- Mira Wzelaka
- Richard Ferrer
- Andrzej Tomaszek
- Drzewiecki Tomaszek
- Jewish Leadership Council
- Baroness Ruth Deech
- Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
- The Lawfare Project
- Marie van der Zyl
- Board of Deputies
- European Jewish Congress
- Association of Jewish Refugees