Poland’s Restitution Law

Israel and the US vehemently protest.

My parents, Menachem and Ziporah survived the Nazi perpetrated Holocaust in which Six million European Jews were murdered; half of them were Polish Jews. My father’s extended family was not as lucky. His two sisters Sarah, and Leah and their families were gassed at the Belzec death camp. His brothers Noah, and Hersh were murdered at the Gestapo torture chambers, and his beloved dad, a teacher in the community of Ulanow, Poland, respected, and loved by Jews and Catholics alike, was murdered in a Nazi roundup. 

At the end of the war (WWII), my father heard from survivors of his hometown what happened to his family. Rumors also circulated that Jews who wished to return to their pre-war homes were murdered by their former neighbors. In fact, that is exactly what happened in the Polish city of Kielce. Survivors of the concentration camps returning to their homes after undergoing unspeakable horrors were murdered in cold blood. My parents would not go back to the blood-soaked land that was once their home. 

In 1998, I convinced my dad to go with me on a heritage tour, which he reluctantly agreed to. We drove from Krakow to Ulanow, a little over a two-hour ride. Fortunately, we found a Polish lady who volunteered to help us find his family house. When we got there, she knocked on the door, and a little frightened man emerged. The lady told him, “It used to be his house,” but dad assured him that we didn’t come to reclaim it, but simply to show his son his old home. When I asked my dad about possible compensation, he replied, “I wouldn’t waste my time, it will never happen in my lifetime…”

To confirm my dad’s assertion, last month the Polish government brought up a bill in the parliament that would prevent Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants from receiving restitution for their lost properties. The bill passed in the lower house and is to be approved by the upper house (Senate) of the Polish parliament, before it goes to the President for final approval. The bill would change the rules of property restitution in Poland, and according to its critics, would make it harder, if not impossible, for Jews and non-Jews to recover their properties, which the Nazis seized during WWII, and the communist regimes re-seized in the immediate post-war period. Loyal communists were resettled in the former Jewish homes.

The authors behind the bill claim that the bill needed to comply with a 2015 Constitutional Tribunal ruling, which allegedly found that there must be a cut-off point for contesting administrative decisions. Thus, the bill sets the Statute of limitations of 10 to 30 years, depending on the case. In reality, the bill, if it’s to become law, would erase pending claims extending to most of those filed in the last thirty years. In the meantime, thousands of Poles demonstrated against restitution to Polish Jews, claiming that “they (the Poles) were victims.” Should the bill become law, 90% of the claims would be erased with no possibility of appeal.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) issued a statement on June 22, 2021, calling for the withdrawal of the proposed bill. Gideon Taylor, Operations Chair of WJRO stated, “We urgently call upon PM Morawiecki, and the Polish government to address the issue of private property restitution in a just and timely manner. Both Jewish and non-Jewish claimants have waited decades for a measure of justice resulting from the confiscation or nationalization of their property during the Holocaust or by the Communist government. The current proposal, if adopted, would further harm Polish Holocaust survivors who have already suffered so much. New insurmountable legal conditions should not be imposed in 2021 that would make it impossible to recover property or receive just compensation.”

Israel’s outgoing President Reuben Rivlin, wrote a personal letter to his Polish counterpart, Andrzey Duda, pointing out that, “The law would very much obscure our joint efforts in strengthening the relations between our countries and in securing the partnership between our nations.” Rivlin added, “Since I very much appreciate the relationship between us, I have decided to appeal to you that your esteemed government consider the consequences of such legislation.”

Reaction to the Polish parliament passing the bill on its first reading was vehement. Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the bill “a disgrace,” and the Israeli embassy in Warsaw responded to the passing of the bill by saying that it would make it impossible for property seized from Jewish owners to be returned, and make it harder for heirs to seek compensation. US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, charged that, “The decision of the Polish parliament was a step in the wrong direction. We urge Poland not to move this legislation forward. We believe in the importance of settling Holocaust-era restitution issues, and fairness, and equality for all victims.”

The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on June 25, 2021, “I can only say that as long as I am the prime minister, “Poland will not pay for German crimes: neither zloty, nor Euro, nor dollar.” Lapid tweeted in response, “The prime minister of Poland should check the facts again. Millions of Jews were killed on Polish soil, and no legislation will erase their memory. We’re not interested in Polish money, and hinting at such is antisemitic. We are fighting for the memory of the Holocaust victims, for the pride of our people, and we won’t allow any parliament to pass laws whose goal is to deny the Holocaust.” Lapid is the son of a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor, while Morawiecki’s statement is plain political cynicism, seeking to garner domestic sympathy and support, while intoning an antisemitic line.

The US has submitted an official protest to Poland both in Warsaw, and Washington, and will dispatch an official diplomatic delegation to discuss the Polish restitution law. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the issue of restitution for Holocaust survivors will be a top priority for the US.

Historical revisionism by the Polish government, and its refusal to consider restitution to former Jewish Holocaust survivors over confiscated properties, has plagued recent Israeli-Polish relations. In 2018, it was the same right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party that enacted a law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity with the Nazi war crimes, or calling the Death Camps, “Polish Death camps.” In reality however, there were many cases of Poles turning hidden Jews over to the Nazis or perpetrating pogroms such as the one in Jedwabne, as small town located in the Bialystok district. On July 10, 1941, Poles participated in the murder of hundreds of their Jewish neighbors, setting men, women, and children ablaze in a barn. Following international uproar over the law, the Polish government softened the law and removed the criminal penalties.

Poland is the only country in the European Union (EU) that has not passed comprehensive national legislation to return or provide compensation for private property confiscated by the Nazis and nationalized by the Communist regimes in Poland.

My father was right, compensation for his property didn’t happen in his lifetime, and it doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.

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