Poland Should Do the Right Thing

The Polish government has finally come clean with the truth.

Poland, having agreed to compensate Polish Jews who lost their properties during the Nazi and Communist interregnums, has now officially rejected such a plan of action.

Several days ago, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki vowed that his country would never pay restitution to Jewish families whose private properties were confiscated by the Nazis or nationalized by the Communists.

At a convention of the ruling Law and Justice Party in Lodz last week, Morawiecki declared, “Whenever anyone says today that Poland must offer someone restitution, we say, we don’t consent, and we won’t.”

Claiming that restitution would be a violation of the principles of international law, he said that a compensation agreement between Poland and Jewish claimants would be a “posthumous victory” for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. “Which is why we will never allow it,” he added.

Echoing his remarks, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, asserted that Poland will not agree to any claims and “does not intend to pay anything.”

Last year, a spokesman for Polish President Andrzej Duda let it be known that Poland should not be expected to pay compensation for losses and damages caused by Nazi Germany, which invaded and occupied Poland in 1939.

The comments by Morawiecki, Duda and Kaczynski are absurd and self-serving, frankly speaking.

As the World Jewish Restitution Organization suggests, a decision by Poland to offer compensation to Jews could only be regarded as an act of belated but sublime justice.

And by what logic can restitution legislation be equated with a breach of international law and a “posthumous victory” for Nazi Germany?

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, was understandably upset by Morawiecki’s gratuitous remarks, calling them “reprehensible” and urging him to retract them.

“Successive Polish governments have steadfastly refused to recognize the material losses of Polish Jewry and have essentially treated their homes and other property as the spoils of war,” he said. “And individual Poles and Polish institutions have profiteered from these assets. This unwillingness to acknowledge that the victims of the Holocaust and their heirs are entitled to a modicum of material justice is unfortunate.”

Lest it be forgotten, Poland is still the only major European country that has failed to pass a law to redress this historic injustice. Poland’s failure is all the more puzzling and galling in light of the fact that previous Polish governments have repeatedly promised to resolve this important issue.

In 2001, the Sejm — the Polish parliament — passed a property restitution bill proposed by the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, but it was vetoed by President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Four years later, a bill submitted by Prime Minister Marek Belka was sidelined. In 2008, Prime Minister Donald Tusk pledged to enact restitution legislation, but nothing came of his initiative.

Senior Polish diplomat Wladyslaw Bartoszewski acknowledged in 2010 that Poland needed to do the right thing regarding the restitution of Jewish assets. And in a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House in the same year, President Bronislaw Kmorowski said that if the Sejm passed a compensation bill, he would sign it. No such thing happened.

Rather than doing the right thing, Polish governments have been advising Jewish claimants to pursue their cases in Polish courts.

Since the fall of communism 30 years ago, a small number of Jews have managed to regain their properties on a case-by-case basis through courts, but this is a complicated, costly and protracted process that most claimants simply cannot afford.

Several months ago, during a visit to Warsaw, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Poland to pass a law for the restitution of private property. He called on Poland to “move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.”

Presumably, Pompeo was referring to legislation signed by U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 to encourage the restoration of Jewish property in Poland. The U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, known as the 447 law, requires the State Department to keep Congress abreast of developments on this matter.

Polish nationalists estimate that restitution legislation would cost as much as $300 billion and ruin Poland’s economy. It goes without saying that no one wants to harm Poland, but in the interests of fairness and justice, Polish leaders must find an equitable way to resolve this extremely difficult and vexing problem as soon as possible.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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