Conclusions based on frail source material may warp reality: Holocaust historian

When historians try to reconstruct an event based on a frail source material, the conclusion might give the wrong picture of the event. Daniel Blatman, the chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum believes this was the kind of mistake made in the case of village mayor Edward Malinowski, who was accused of handing over Jews to Germans and robbing a Jewish woman who was waiting for his help.

On Wednesday, Warsaw District Court ordered the two authors of the book “Night Without End”: Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski to apologise to Filomena Leszczyńska, the niece of Mr Malinowski, for slander. The interpretation made by the authors contradict the source material, including the memories of the survivors.

In the opinion of Daniel Blatman, the matter is very delicate. Most sources of the Polish-Jewish relations in WWII, on which historians base their material, are testimonies of witnesses. Professor Blatman pointed out that these are very difficult pieces of information, as the human memory after many years can become blurry. Bearing that all in mind, a great deal of care needs to be taken to form a conclusion.

“In the course of time, survivors sometimes change the story, sometimes they make mistakes,” he said, adding that other factors that alter testimonies are differently asked questions and the insight of the witnesses, whose view on a specific matter can shift.

At the same time he said that the slandered relatives of Mr Malinowski had full right to uphold the good name of the family when the historians made a mistake.

Daniel Blatman is professor of the Holocaust and Genocide studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Chief Historian at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.