Regrettably, Poland continues to drag its feet concerning a problem that should have been resolved years ago.
To this day, Poland is still the only major European country that has not passed comprehensive legislation for the restitution of property seized by the Nazis during the German occupation and nationalized by the Communist regime after 1945, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The Polish government, in 1997, passed a restitution law covering communal-owned property
such as synagogues, cemeteries and community buildings. But no official claims system exists for private property — residential homes and businesses — expropriated from Jews from 1939 onward.
Since the end of the Communist era in 1989, a panoply of Polish presidents and prime ministers from Aleksander Kwasniewski to Donald Tusk have promised to remedy this issue, but their rhetoric has all too often proven to be empty.
On a trip to Israel last year, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski claimed that the current law treats everyone equally. “Any legal or natural person, or their heir, is entitled to recover pre-war property unlawfully seized by the Nazi German or the Soviet authorities, or the postwar Communist regime,” he said.
But Leslaw Piszewski, chairman of the board of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, believes that the policies currently in place make it exceedingly difficult for claimants to obtain justice.
The reason is not difficult to divine. Since 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust, the Polish government could be faced with an enormously huge bill should it agree to compensate Jews for all property losses. By one estimate, the tally could be in excess of $1 billion.
Given the glaring absence of an official claims process to retrieve private property, claimants have no recourse at present but to lodge their appeals in Polish civil courts. This is a costly and lengthy procedure which yields little in the way of tangible results. As time elapses, claimants pass on, resulting in a denial of rightful compensation.
In the latest chapter of this seemingly never-ending story, Israel’s ambassador in Warsaw, Anna Azari, recently lodged an official complaint with the Polish government over new restitution legislation that would exclude many possible Jewish recipients.
Under the proposed law, only citizens of Poland would be eligible for compensation, and only spouses, children and grandchildren would qualify as heirs. Azari, in her letter to the Polish Foreign Ministry, explained that the exclusion of foreign citizens and second-degree relatives in the legislation would effectively constitute discrimination against Holocaust survivors.
Azari’s is right. Since so many Polish Jews perished during the Holocaust, the vast majority of Jewish claimants will not be direct descendants of deceased Jewish property owners. It would appear that the Polish Ministry of Justice did not taken this extremely important factor into account.
As Gideon Taylor of the World Jewish Restitution Organization has suggested, Poland should address this issue promptly by amending the proposed legislation so that is “fair for all claimants, including Holocaust survivors and their families in Israel and around the world.”
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, has advanced a similar argument.
“We are profoundly disappointed that the Polish government’s proposal excludes the vast majority of Polish Holocaust survivors and their families,” he said in a recent statement. “The Polish Holocaust survivors and their families were an integral part of Polish life for centuries. Their property is often their last tangible connection with the life they lived before the destruction of the Holocaust. We strongly urge the Polish government to ensure that the legislation, when introduced to the Parliament, will have eligibility criteria and a claims process that are fair and just to those who suffered and lost so much.”
Poland, having been the ancestral home of the second-largest pre-war Jewish community in the world, has a duty and an obligation to set things right.