Poland Synagogue Zamosc - AP - 31.3.2011
Restored synagogue in Zamosc, Poland. Photo by AP
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WARSAW - The Polish government's decision to make the courts responsible for determining the restitution of communal Jewish property has sparked harsh criticism from Poland's Jewish community. The change, Jewish community leaders say, will slow down and complicate the process of adjudicating the estimated 3,000 outstanding claims.

Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, told the cabinet member responsible for restitution that the change was not acceptable to the country's Jewish institutions.

Since 1997, the restitution process has been governed by public committees in which the government worked together with the Jewish community to efficiently return nearly 2,000 assets, some quite valuable, that had been seized by either the Nazis or the Communists.

The Polish government is seeking to win the support of the country's Jewish community rather than push through legislation the community opposes, but Kadlcik said Jewish institutions would not willingly sign away their right to apply to the existing committees, as the government was hoping they would do.

Under the new procedure the Polish government is seeking to implement, all restitution claims will need to go through the courts, which, critics say, will require claimants to prove land ownership in property registries that were burned during World War II or to procure testimony from witnesses who are no longer living.

The Jewish community would also be required to put up a guarantee of 3 percent of the value of the property being claimed - a sum that will be returned only if the claim is accepted. All told, say the critics, the process will become slow, complicated and expensive.

Four non-Catholic churches also oppose the change in the restitution process.

Regardless of whether the churches and Jewish institutions agree to the change, observers expect the Polish House of Representatives to approve legislation handing restitution authority to the courts as early as March.

Several political analysts said the push for legislation could be connected to tension between Poland and some Jewish groups in the United States and elsewhere over individual compensation. The groups have noted that though the restitution committees have restored property to the community, Poland has never compensated individuals for the estimated billions of dollars' worth of Jewish-owned property that was seized during World War II or reverted to the government thereafter.

Polish diplomats abroad have unofficially indicated that individual Jews could file suit in court to win back their property, just as non-Jewish Polish citizens would do.

Another possible reason for relegating restitution claims to the courts was the earlier failure of the committee system to operate within the law, observers said.

A property committee run jointly by the government and the Catholic Church was established after the 1989 fall of Communism in Poland, with the goal of returning to the church property that had been stolen by the Nazis or the Communist regime - while avoiding the tedious process of going through the courts. Several church representatives were arrested in 2010 for alleged criminal offenses, after a government investigation found that partly through suspected fraud and bribery, the Catholic Church ended up with significantly more property than it had started out with.