Polish Court Upholds Controversial Restitution Law on Warsaw Property

Critics say the law passed last year prevents restitution of property that used to belong to Jewish families.

A group of Polish Jews being led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops in 1943.
A group of Polish Jews being led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops in 1943. AP

A constitutional court in Poland rejected a motion to scrap a law, which critics said is preventing restitution of some property that used to belong to Jewish families in Warsaw.

The Polish Constitutional Tribunal on Wednesday gave its ruling on a review requested by the World Jewish Restitution Organization, or WJRO, which challenged the constitutionality of a law passed last year by the Polish Parliament that limits the rights of claimants to restitution for private property in the Polish capital.

WJRO objects to the legislation because it precludes claims in Warsaw for former owners and their families who missed the 1988 communist-era deadline for filing claims, including those who fled abroad to escape communist rule or anti-Semitism.

The law transfers property to the State Treasury or the City of Warsaw unless all former owners of the property or their families come forward before 2017 and prove their right to the property.  “It thereby effectively extinguishes the rights of those who did not or could not come forward – because, for example, they do not know of their right to the property,” WJRO said in a statement Wednesday, in which the group expressed “disappointment” with the decision.

The legislation also prevents former owners from seeking the return of large categories of properties, including those used by the government.  “The law could leave rightful former owners empty handed after waiting over 60 years for Poland to resolve their valid claims,” WJRO said.

“We are very disappointed that the court upheld an unjust law that ends the rights of many claimants to their property in Warsaw,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations. “This decision highlights the need for Poland, at long last, to do what all other countries in the former Soviet bloc have done: establish a national program to provide all Jewish and non-Jewish former owners, and their families, the opportunity to claim restitution or compensation for their property confiscated during the Holocaust or by the communist authorities. As the last survivors get older, now is the time for Poland to act.”

“Survivors are running out of time for Poland to meet its obligations to return property,” said Jehuda Evron, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee, a New York-based group of Polish survivors. “We are losing survivors by the day, and we must do everything we can to ensure they spend the last few years of their life in dignity.”

Despite the absence of legislation that addresses the problem of private-owned Jewish property in Poland, Polish courts have awarded compensation and restitution to several Jewish claimants in recent years. Several Polish lawyers and experts in the field told JTA that it was impossible to know how many of the claimants for restitution for such properties are Jewish.

Poland in 1997 passed a law for restitution on communal-owned properties but, over fifteen years after the claim filing deadline, a majority of more than 5,000 claims for such property has still not been resolved and most of the resolved claims have not led to restitution or compensation, WJRO said.