Warsaw Can Do Better

Over the past two decades, Poland has distinguished itself as one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Europe. When problems in Brussels arise, Jerusalem knows it can count on Warsaw.

As Poland stands poised to assume the EU presidency on July 1, no one in the family of nations is happier than Israel. Over the past two decades, Poland has distinguished itself as one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Europe. When problems in Brussels arise, Jerusalem knows it can count on Warsaw.

Poles have also come to recognize that Israelis are among their sincerest well-wishers. In recent years, many Israelis and Diaspora Jews have rediscovered and renewed ancestral ties to the land that they, their parents or grandparents once called home. Israeli-Polish relations, cultural and commercial, scientific and social - whether formal or informal, official or unofficial - are flourishing.

No postcommunist country in Europe has come close to matching Poland's courage or candor in confronting the darkest chapters in its own wartime history, including transgressions of commission and omission. This has engendered Israel's respect and strengthened the connections between the two nations. For this reason, the Polish government's recent announcement that it will end attempts to enact legislation on the restitution issue is very disturbing and perplexing.

Ever since the fall of communism, successive Polish governments have pledged to resolve the complex issues arising out of the plunder of private property and postwar expropriations and nationalizations.

Since turning back the clock is impossible, any "solution" is inherently imperfect. To be sure, this is not a strictly Jewish issue, as non-Jews were also dispossessed. However, the case of Polish Jewry was one of total despoliation. An entire people was stripped of everything it had accumulated through centuries of toil. To make modern consideration of the matter even more complicated, most Jews who lost property were murdered, and their heirs no longer live in Poland. Survivors who sought to reclaim their properties immediately after the war were often met with hostility and even murderous violence. This only hastened their departure and added to their bitterness.

Poland blames Germany for the immeasurable destruction, human and material, of World War II - and rightly so. But the fact is that all immovable property belonging to Jews killed in the Holocaust remained in Poland. The survivors did not take their apartments, houses, stores, lots, factories or forests with them, and the Polish government, local authorities and individuals to whom they devolved were enriched by those assets.

In a recent interview with Haaretz, during an official visit to Israel, Poland's Oxford-educated foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, hastened to explain: "The Holocaust that took place on our soil was conducted against our will by someone else." In view of what is now known, this is somewhat misleading.

The latest scholarship to emerge in Poland makes clear that the participation of locals in the dispatch of Jews was hardly an exceptional phenomenon. On occasion, intoxicated by the lure of instant enrichment, Poles did not recoil from taking part in the killings, whether orchestrated by the Germans or at their own initiative. And for many years, not a few Poles slept in Jewish beds, ate off Jewish china, played Chopin on Jewish pianos and rocked their babies in Jewish cribs. Presumably, some still do.

The Bible tells us that God sent Elijah to confront Ahab after the innocent Navot was stoned to death so that his land could be seized: "Hast thou murdered and also inherited?" Elijah asked. Had that question been put to the people of Poland after World War II, the answer for quite a few would have to have been "yes." And some among Polish officialdom would have us believe that there is nothing wrong with perpetuating that state of affairs.

Quite paradoxically, even as Polish scholars unflinchingly document the magnitude of local complicity in the destruction of Polish Jewry, Poland's government is adopting the approach taken by its communist predecessors - denying all responsibility. Instead, to deflect criticism, Sikorski lashed out at Washington for its very real failure to take any meaningful action during the war to save Polish Jews. That too is a page taken from a tired, communist-era playbook and has no relevance to the present discourse.

The Polish government has justified its stance by claiming that its treasury could not sustain the burden of any payout. That, of course, is a disingenuous argument: Modern-day Poland has one of the strongest and most dynamic economies in all of Europe. If anything, Poland should take a cue from Macedonia. That small Balkan country, whose economic and geopolitical situation is far more precarious than that of Poland, set a noble example in 2002 in enacting and implementing comprehensive restitution legislation that addressed the issue of property lost in the Holocaust.

Historic wrongs are rarely righted and the challenge of real justice is impossible where the Shoah is concerned. But in refusing to face the issue and rejecting the idea of even a symbolic resolution, it is as if Poland's government has turned its back on all that is great and glorious in Polish tradition. No one better symbolizes that tradition than Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, whose personal heroism in Poland during the Shoah should inspire to action. As the grand old man of Polish diplomacy observed in his memoirs about that period: "warto byc przyzwoitym" - it pays to be decent .

Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is the director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, which operate under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.