Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the Anti-Defamation League is awarding its Janusz Korczak Literary Award to a book that “borders on anti-Semitism,” according to one Holocaust expert.
The prize is being given to Richard Lukas, who is well-known in the Polish Catholic community but is not well-known or highly regarded among Holocaust scholars.
After ADL officials read the book and decided that it was not an appropriate choice for its prize, the organization tried to withdraw it.
But Lukas threatened to sue.
The award, given biennially to honor a book about children, is named for Janusz Korczak, a Jew who was an internationally renowned Polish educator and social worker.
He ran Warsaw’s New Jewish Orphanage and served as a Polish medical officer during World War 1. The orphanage was transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940.
When the Nazis ordered the children deported in 1942, he told them that they were going on a picnic in the country. When they reached the cattle cars, he refused a last minute offer of freedom by the Nazis, and went with the children to his death.
As an international defender against anti-Semitism, the ADL is clearly unhappy about reinstating the award to Lukas for his book “Did the Children Cry?: Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children.”
Attached to a terse statement announcing the prize, which is recommended by a panel of judges, is a two-page analysis of why Lukas’ book is “problematic in several ways.”
Lukas’ book about children “strongly understated the level of anti-Semitism in Poland. It also strongly overstated the number of people who rescued Jews,” said Kenneth Jacobson, the ADL’s assistant national director.
But the group is giving him the award anyway because “when you make a mistake you admit it and move forward,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.
“If he is willing to accept our award flawed, with caveats and explanations, let him accept it,” Foxman said, adding: “Why should we go into litigation on this? For what purpose?”
Officials at the ADL refused to divulge any details about the composition of the committee that awarded the prize.
The author of six other books, Lukas works as an adjunct professor of modern European history at the University of South Florida in Fort Myers.
At least one other book by Lukas, about Poland’s role during the Holocaust, had prompted concern over poor scholarship.
Others condemn Lukas and his work in even stronger terms.
Lukas “is an apologist for the Poles’” role during the Holocaust, said Eva Fogelman, who also said the book “borders on anti-Semitism.”
Fogelman is a Holocaust expert and the author of “Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust.”
Lukas “overexaggerates the help that Jews got from Poles during the Nazi occupation,” she said.
The ADL’s administration at first backed the decision of its panel of judges to award the prize to Lukas for his 1994 book. The ADL notified the publishing company, Hippocrene, on Dec. 1, 1995. The award ceremony was slated for Jan. 23.
Then ADL officials got wind of the book’s questionable content, reviewed the volume themselves and, 10 days before the ceremony, withdrew the award.
In an interview from his Florida home, Lukas said he had his lawyer send the ADL a strongly worded letter threatening a lawsuit, at which point the ADL decided to reinstate the prize.
In its statement announcing the prize, the ADL described Lukas’ book as presenting “a sanitized picture of Polish involvement with Jews during the war.”
Even one of Lukas’ most ardent supporters in the imbroglio said the author is guilty of poor scholarship and apologetics.
Lukas has, at times, “gone beyond scholarly data and fallen into the mode of an apologist,” said John Pawlikowski, a Catholic priest and veteran of Catholic- Jewish dialogue.
“There are some passages in this book in which one can say he’s either made exaggerated comparisons that are false or misleading,” Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, said in a telephone interview.
“He is reacting to what he feels is a total misrepresentation of the Polish story in most writing on the Holocaust,” said Pawlikowski, the co-chairman of the National Polish American-Jewish American Council who got involved with the ADL on Lukas’ behalf.
When told that his book had been described as bordering on anti-Semitic, Lukas laughed out loud, saying, “There’s nothing anti-Semitic about this book at all, and that’s a very extremist position to take.
Holocaust historians tend “to be too critical of Polish gentiles in the area of their alleged ability to have done more than they did,” Lukas said in a telephone interview from his home in Punta Gorda, Fla.
“The Poles were undergoing their own kind of tragedy during World War II, even though it was on a slightly more subdued level” than the one the Jews were suffering.
Lukas said that even though there was anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe at the time, the Polish response to the suffering of the Jews “was superior to that of most people in Europe at the time.”
Lukas said the prevailing view of the role of Poles in Jewish suffering during the war had developed “because those who have sculpted this view are Jewish.”
In contrast, he said, Polish scholarship on the role of Poles during the Nazi period backs up his views.
“Scholarship from the Polish side is not available in the English language. This is why I stand out like a sore thumb and have become a lightning rod for these attacks,” said Lukas.
When asked whether it is possible for a Jewish Holocaust historian to fairly view the role of Poles, Lukas said, “For many of them it is very difficult.”
“If I were Jewish maybe I’d have the same problem,” he said. “In order to muster the kind of objectivity, even-handedness that you need to provide fair- minded history, you need to be emotionally removed from it.”
Right now, he said, “being Jewish is an impediment to the writing of good history.”
Responding to such a view, Fogelman said, “Obviously, everybody who does research brings their own particular point of view, but hopefully, good scholarship goes beyond one’s idiosyncratic feelings and preconceived notions, and looks at the data.
“I don’t think that Lukas did that.”
Because of the controversy, there will be no ceremony to award the Korczak prize.
The $1,000 award check to Lukas, Foxman said, “is in the mail.”