NEW YORK — 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 neither well-known nor highly regarded among Holocaust scholars.
Judges assessing candidates for the literary prize had nominated Lukas as the winner. However, ADL officials tried to veto the nomination after examining the book and deciding it was not an appropriate choice.
But Lukas threatened to sue.
ADL has refused to name those on the panel of judges that recommended the book be honored.
The award is given biennially to honor a book about children. It is named for Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jew who was an internationally renowned educator and social worker.
The ADL, as an international defender against anti-Semitism, is clearly unhappy about giving Lukas an award for his book "Did the Children Cry? Hitler's War Against Jewish and Polish Children."
Attached to a terse statement announcing the prize is a two-page analysis of why ADL officials feel Lukas' book is "problematic in several ways."
The book "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 Lukas 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?"
Lukas, the author of six other books, works as an adjunct professor of modern European history at the University of South Florida in Fort Myers.
At least one of Lukas' previous works — a book about Poland's role during the Holocaust — 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, a Holocaust expert and the author of "Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust." Fogelman also said the book "borders on anti-Semitism."
Lukas "overexaggerates the help that Jews got from Poles during the Nazi occupation," she said.
ADL administration at first backed its panel of judges' decision to award Lukas the prize for his book, which was published by Hippocrene Books in 1994.
The publisher was notified of this decision Dec. 1. 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 this imbroglio stated that he has reservations about the author.
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 made exaggerated comparisons that are false or misleading," said Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union.
"He is reacting to what he feels is a total misrepresentation of the Polish story in most writing on the Holocaust," said Pawlikowski, who is co-chairman of the National Polish American-Jewish American Council and 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 tragedy the Jews endured.
Lukas said that even though anti-Semitism pervaded East-ern Europe in those years, the Polish response to the Jews' suffering "was superior to that of most people in Europe at the time."
Lukas said the prevailing view of the Poles' role in the Holocaust had developed "because those who have sculpted this view are Jewish."
In contrast, he said, Polish scholarship on Poles' role 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 view the Poles' role fairly, 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 [and] 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 focuses on the data at hand. "I don't think Lukas did that."
Because of the controversy, there will be no ceremony to award the Korczak prize.A $1,000 award check, Foxman said, "is in the mail" to Lukas.
Korczak, after whom the award is named, ran Warsaw's New Jewish Orphanage and served as a medical officer during World War I. The orphanage was transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. When the Nazis ordered the children deported in 1942, Korczak told the doomed youngsters they were going to have a picnic. When they reached the cattle cars, the Nazis offered him his freedom. He refused, and went to his death alongside the children.