Israel Seeking U.S. Help in Fight Against Polish Holocaust Restitution Bill

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Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid meeting, earlier this month.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid meeting, earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel has asked U.S. President Joe Biden's administration to support its effort against legislation in Poland that would restrict restitution claims by Holocaust survivors and their families for property stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who publicly attacked the Polish legislation last month, leading to an open confrontation with Warsaw, is leading talks with Washington on the matter. He has raised the issue in his conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and asked for his help. Other Foreign Ministry officials have also discussed the issue with their counterparts in both Warsaw and Washington.

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A letter sent on Tuesday to Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, by a bipartisan group of 12 U.S. senators bolstered the Israeli position. The lawmakers, led by Marco Rubio, Tammy Baldwin, James Lankford and Jacky Rosen, wrote that they "strongly believe that this legislation would significantly increase the existing hurdles that prevent victims and their families from claiming restitution and compensation for property wrongfully taken by Nazi Germany and by the communist-era government of Poland."

The senators warned that passing the legislation would be a "step backwards in Warsaw's efforts to right the injustices of Poland's oppressors" and that it would "tell the survivors of Poland's Jewish community ... that there is a time limit on their ability to seek redress for the crimes of the Nazis and the communists."

The senators said that Poland should not be held responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis and the post-war communist regime, which nationalized much of the stolen property, but that this is "an opportunity to demonstrate Poland’s commitment to achieving justice for the victims of these heinous crimes." The senators who signed the letter were Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker, Catherine Cortez Masto, Bob Casey, Ron Wyden, Sherrod Brown and Chris Coons.

On Wednesday, a senior State Department spokesperson told Haaretz that the Biden administration is “closely following a bill … affecting restitution and compensation claims for property that was expropriated by the Communists. Our concerns about restitution and compensation are related to fairness and equity for all victims, regardless of citizenship, religion, or ethnic background."

"We urge the parliament to amend the draft legislation so that pending cases can continue," the spokesperson said, adding that the U.S. has conveyed this message "both publicly and privately at the highest levels to our counterparts in Warsaw." The spokesperson also said that "The United States will continue to champion justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.”

Sources close to Lapid told Haaretz that while it is too early to speak of any “achievements” regarding the fight against the legislation, the senators’ letter brought some satisfaction.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda, speaks at the Three Seas Summit in Sofia, earlier this month.Credit: AP Photo/Valentina Petrova

Israel is also taking other steps on the matter. Earlier this month, it sent a senior diplomat to attend a hearing on the legislation in the Polish Senate, together with author Halina Birenbaum, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. Birenbaum, a survivor of the Majdanek and Auschwitz camps, spoke about her family’s story and her struggle to restore property that was taken from them.

Despite this pressure, however, one Israeli source involved in the effort described it as a complicated matter. “Before the legislation was approved, no one looked at it as an anti-Jewish bill,” the source explained. According to this source, Poland “needs” this legislation for internal reasons that are not necessarily related to the question of Jewish propoerty, and it is highly doubtful that the Polish parliament would amend it.

“Most of the victims of this legislation are Polish citizens who had property that was confiscated by the Communist regime. It’s an administrative bill that is supposed to rescue Poland from a very serious problem it has regarding those properties,” the source explained, while clarifying that “all this doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with the Jewish property. There is a difficult problem and we need to solve it.”

Under the pending legislation, 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. The law is expected to limit restitution claims on Jewish-owned land that was taken by the Nazis and nationalized after World War II by Poland’s Communist regime.

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