Israel Blasts Polish Vote on Holocaust Restitution

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Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset, in July.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset, in July. Credit: Emil Salman

Israel is re-examining a 2018 joint statement with Poland, which rejected blaming Poland for the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Wednesday after Polish lawmakers passed legislation limiting restitution claims for property stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

President Andrzej Duda will now have to approve the law before it goes into effect. Israeli politicians called on him to veto it.

"The State of Israel will not compromise on a single comma when it comes to the memory of the Holocaust." Lapid tweeted on Wednesday. "I condemn the Polish parliamentary law that was approved today, that damages the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims."

He added that he has opposed the Israeli-Polish joint statement since its inception, and that "it is currently being re-examined."

The 2018 statement was presented by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki following Poland's decision to amend a controversial law that criminalized accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes. The joint statement read: "We reject the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations."

Critics of the statement, including prominent Israeli historians, said it distorts history. Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, dubbed it a “betrayal” that “hurt the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”

Lapid added in his Wednesday statement, "I will continue to stand against every attempt to rewrite history and promote compromises and concessions at the expense of the Holocaust of the Jewish nation and the rights of the victims of the Shoah. Poland knows the right thing to do: to overturn the law."

The gate at the site of the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, in Poland, January.Credit: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The law on restitution claims, which was approved by the Polish Senate last month and passed on Wednesday, has led to tensions between Warsaw and Jerusalem. Lapid has vocally opposed the legislation for months.

It stipulates that outstanding claims for the restitution of seized property that have not reached a final decision in the last 30 years would be halted or dismissed. In addition, new appeals of administrative decisions made over 30 years ago would also be forbidden. 

It affects Jewish and non-Jewish owners who had properties seized in the communist era. In the case of the former Jewish owners, they were often the homes or business of families who were wiped out in the Holocaust and whose properties were later seized by Poland's communist-era authorities.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said America is "deeply concerned" about the Polish parliament's move "severely restricting the process for Holocaust survivors and their families, as well as other Jewish and non-Jewish property owners, to obtain restitution for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era."  

Blinken urged Duda not sign the bill into law or that, in line with the authority granted to him as president, he refers the bill to Poland’s constitutional tribunal.  

Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupants in Warsaw, Poland July 31, 2021.Credit: Maciek Jazwiecki - Reuters

"A comprehensive law for resolving confiscated property claims is needed to provide some measure of justice for victims.  Such a law would benefit many Polish citizens, as well as people who were forced to leave Poland during and after World War II and who subsequently became naturalized citizens of other countries," Blinken continued. "Until such a law is enacted, the pathway to compensation should not be closed for new claims or those pending decisions in administrative courts."

He also criticized draft legislation passed by the lower house of Polish parliament targeting the most watched independent news station, which is also one of the largest U.S. investments in Poland. 

"Poland is an important NATO Ally that understands the Transatlantic Alliance is based on mutual commitments to shared democratic values and prosperity.  These pieces of legislation run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand," Blinken noted before urging the Polish government "to demonstrate its commitment to these shared principles not only in words, but also in deeds."

The World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is involved in asserting claims for the restitution of Jewish property in Europe, said if the bill is signed into law, "the Polish government will have effectively legally foreclosed the possibility for rightful owners to secure redress for what was taken from them."

"Poland is, of course, not responsible for what Nazi Germany did during the Holocaust. However, more than thirty years after the fall of communism, Poland still benefits from this wrongfully acquired property," the group added.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday that they are watching Poland's Holocaust restitution bill closely, as well as a landmark vote on media freedoms, saying that Warsaw has the opportunity to show it stands by the values that bind the United States and Poland.

"We are watching these legislative efforts in Poland on media and Holocaust restitution very closely," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, adding that some of the most senior State Department officials had discussed the legislation with Polish officials in recent hours.

"The government of Poland now has an opportunity to show in deed, and not only in word, that it stands by the values that unite our transatlantic alliance and the values that bind the United States and Poland."

Sam Sokol, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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