by Jan Jaben-Eilon
Like another wave crashing onto the shores of Poland, the reaction to a controversial Forbes magazine article about alleged mishandling of the restitution of Jewish communal property, keeps breaking in the news.
The two authors of the expose, “A Million Dollar Kaddish,” published last fall in Forbes Poland received the coveted “Watergate” award for best investigative journalism from the Polish Journalists Association late last month. The award demonstrates support for Forbes reporter Wojciech Surmacz and Krakow-based Israeli journalist Nissan Tsur who had been accused of anti-Semitism for their assertion that a few people heading the organizations responsible for the recovery of property worth hundreds of millions of Polish zlotys were not being held accountable for that money.
The article, along with an essay, “A Jewish accusation,” by Forbes deputy editor-in-chief Eric Stankunowicza, accused a few individuals including Piotr Kadlcik, head of the Union of Religious Communities, and Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich for failing to account for millions of dollars reaped from the sale of pre-World War II properties belonging to Poland’s Jewish community. In response, the accused individuals, including the president of the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, Monika Krawczyk, complained to Berlin-based Ringier Axel Springer which publishes Forbes Poland. Denying the accusations, they demanded an apology under the threat of a lawsuit.
Pointedly, the Polish Journalists Association also awarded Ralph Buchi, president of Axel Springer’s international division, the “Hyena” prize for worst journalist of the year for forcing the Forbes Poland editor-in-chief Kazimierz Krupa to publish the apology.
In the apology, the publisher said: “In particular we apologize for the publication of information suggesting the following activities: that the individuals named in the articles reaped personal benefit from the activities of Jewish organizations in Poland; that the restituted Jewish cemeteries in Torun, Gliwice and Lublin were sold contrary to the principles of Jewish heritage; and that there was no settling of accounts of the funds allocated for preservation of Jewish heritage.”
According to Surmacz, he had taken greater precautions than usual while preparing his article. “It was checked twice by the law firm which cooperates with Axel,” he said in an interview, adding that a separate, independent law firm advised Forbes Poland that it would win a lawsuit if it refused to publish the apology.
“We were trying to defend ourselves for three months,” Surmacz said to a Polish journalist. “We negotiated with the headquarters of Axel in Germany, with Piotr Kadlcik and Michael Schudrich. But we didn’t have any chance of winning since they were the ones who went to Germany; they spoke with the management of the publishing house. After these conversations my boss, the editor-in-chief of Forbes, Kazimierz Krupa, received a phone call from Germany and an order” to publish the apology.
According to Surmacz, Ringier Axel Springer also has refused to publish additional articles that he has researched about the restitution of Jewish property in Poland.
Tzur, who writes for Israeli newspapers “Maariv” and the “The Jerusalem Post,” told a Polish newspaper that he felt betrayed by Forbes. “We wrote an honest text based on long research. Everything is documented and recorded. But the management of the consortium simply got scared and left us in a lurch. The fact that part of the Forbes management was strongly against publishing these apologies is poor consolation.”
In an email to eJewish Philanthropy, he also wrote: “I knew we were doing the right thing, and the award is the best proof that we did the right thing. Moreover, the fact that Ralph Buchi from Forbes German headquarters, who ordered this apology and tried so hard to prevent us from writing anything more about this story, won the ‘worst journalist of the year’ award for his attempt to prevent (us) from revealing the truth, is just another proof for us that we were right and justice was done.”
Right after the initial outcry to the original story, Forbes asked Tzur to write a column explaining why he helped write the expose. In the column, he noted that “it is important for me to emphasize that I do not have anything personal against any of the Jewish leaders in Poland. All I want is that things be done with full transparency and that Jewish property be treated with respect.” Ultimately, Forbes did not publish his column.
Grandson of Holocaust survivors, Tzur took particular affront at being labeled an anti-Semite. “I am going to sue Kadlick and Schudrich and to present the court with written and recorded evidence,” he says.
Prior to the announcement January 30 of the awards by the journalism association, “Press,” the Polish equivalent of the Columbia Review of Journalism, published its own investigation about the attempt to silence the two reporters. “Press” pointed out that the investigative article received praise from Forbes America for its professionalism and high journalistic standards.