Poland — the Past and the Future

In another round of grappling with justice and history, the Polish parliament — instead of passing long-awaited legislation to return expropriated Holocaust-era property in Warsaw — approved a measure a few weeks ago to tighten the limited possibilities that exist.

The outgoing president of Poland, in one of his last official acts, this week declined to sign the legislation and instead referred it to that nation’s Constitutional Tribunal for review.

Poland is the only country in the European Union with no comprehensive legislation to address the restitution of Holocaust- and Communist-era expropriated private property.

Before the Holocaust, 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, about 30 percent of the city’s population. Restitution of property in Poland, it should be noted, affects both Jews and also non-Jews.

The proposed law now headed for review applies to claims filed under the 1945 Warsaw Decree, which transferred to the municipality ownership of properties within the prewar boundaries of Warsaw.

The decree permitted the former owners of the nationalized property to apply for temporary ownership rights of the property by the deadline of Dec. 31, 1988. The Communist government either rejected or did not review most claims, and thousands of cases remain open today.

The legislation now under review would set a six-month deadline for owners or their heirs to participate in administrative proceedings filed decades ago. Yet it would not provide for sufficient notice – Holocaust survivors and their heirs may not be aware of proceedings that have languished for decades — and would end the practice of appointing a trustee to represent an heir who has not been identified. The law would also take away the right of an owner to seek the return of large categories of properties, including those in public use.

Most important, it does not allow new claims from people who missed the 1988 deadline during Communist rule. It also does nothing to address Polish claims outside Warsaw.

As Poland fails to meet its responsibilities, an international consensus has emerged: The issue of Nazi-expropriated and Communist-nationalized Polish private property requires a swift resolution.

The Terezin Declaration, adopted in 2009 by more than 40 countries, called on nations “where it has not yet been effectively achieved, to address the private property claims of Holocaust (Shoah) victims concerning immovable (real) property of former owners, heirs or successors, by either in rem restitution or compensation, as may be appropriate, in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner consistent with relevant national law and regulations, as well as international agreements.”

The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has worked intensively to engage political leaders in this crucial effort.

Forty-six members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter last month to Secretary of State John Kerry emphasizing that this issue is a priority for a broad-based bipartisan group of legislators. The group of lawmakers, led by Reps. Joe Crowley, Chris Smith, Ted Deutch and Leonard Lance, represents Americans across the nation.

Their letter noted, “The time is now for these governments to pass legislation that ensures a meaningful and expeditious opportunity for property claims to be filed and considered fairly and the property returned or compensated in a timely manner.”

A few weeks later, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation, introduced by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, which would require annual reporting by the State Department assessing progress of counties in implementing the Terezin Declaration.

And in a message last week regarding the potential financial implications of a failure to address private property restitution, the leading financial officers of New York City, New York State and California wrote to the Prime Minister of Poland.

“Though 70 years have now passed, some modicum of justice can still be served,” the financial officers stated. “Now is the time for Poland to fulfill its obligations to these Jewish and non-Jewish victims. The few remaining Holocaust survivors deserve to see property restitution in their lifetime. And the heirs of those who have died deserve to benefit from such measures.” The role of American financial officers was decisive in the campaign to recover assets held by Swiss banks in the 1990s.

Other nations, too, have joined in this effort.

Canadian Foreign Minister Robert Nicholson recently told Jewish leaders in Canada that “Canada shares your interest in justice for … survivors and their heirs.” He also shared that he had asked Canadian diplomats worldwide to support these efforts.

The British government, too, indicated its commitment to advocating with Poland for a full and proper resolution of property restitution claims.

In a sign of limited progress, at the urging of WJRO, in recent months Poland has made a modest pension for war veterans and victims of persecution more accessible to thousands of Polish survivors living abroad.

Ultimately, though, Poland must address the past in order to move toward the future. The thousands of people whose property was taken by the Nazis and then the Communists — and whose property remains in the hands of democratic Poland — are an essential part of that history. As such, Poland needs to seek outcomes that result in a measure of justice and fairness to those who lost so much.

About the Author
Gideon Taylor is the President of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and of the World Jewish Restitution Organization
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