Israeli Ambassador to Polish Parliament: Reconsider the Law Restricting Restitution

Amid escalating rhetoric between officials, Israel’s acting ambassador to Poland calls on legislators in Warsaw to ‘listen to the voices of Holocaust survivors’

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Participants attend the annual 'March of the Living' at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, 2019.
Participants attend the annual 'March of the Living' at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, 2019.Credit: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israel’s charge d’affaires in Poland called on members of the Polish parliament Wednesday to reconsider approving a new law that would limit the possibility for recovering property that the Nazis seized from Jews during their occupation of Poland in World War II.

Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon, Israel’s acting ambassador to Poland, was addressing a committee of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in a rare measure spurred by an escalation of rhetoric between senior Israeli and Polish officials in the wake of the bill’s passage in the Sejm last month. The bill must be approved by the Senate and the president to take effect.

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Yaalon called on the members of the Polish parliament “to listen to the voice of the survivors, of the Jewish world and the Jewish state.” 

A survivor of the Holocaust addressed the Polish Senate Wednesday, denouncing the bill. “It is inconceivable to me that in Poland in 2021, free from any occupation, we, Jewish Holocaust survivors, could be stripped of the right to inherit our private property, that of our murdered parents and grandparents,” Halina Birenbaum, 92, said in Poland. “Their burnt ashes have been covered for decades by Polish soil.”

Birenbaum told the senators that she was born in Warsaw, living with her parents and two older brothers in an apartment on 11 Nowiniarska St.

“In September 1939, during the infernal bombing of Warsaw by German Messerschmitts, our entire street burned down. … I was 10 when I was imprisoned, with my entire family, behind the ghetto walls,” she said. They were forced to move from a spacious apartment into a single room in the ghetto. “The houses on the Aryan side of the city were taken by Poles,” Birenbaum said.

She described returning after the war, at the age of 15, to Warsaw in May 1945, standing on the ruins of her family’s home, “after years of German torture on Polish soil. And again – pogroms against the Jewish survivors, hostility, hatred, death. Presumably as punishment for coming back to life,” she said.

Birenbaum fled to Israel in 1946. “Today I am 92 years old, I am still speaking and creating in Polish. I experienced firsthand the results of the law,” she said, and called for it to be changed. “But maybe this new law is just a nightmare? And a normal, fair world will return, as well as good relations between our Polish and Jewish states. I believe it.”

In her remarks Wednesday, Ben-Ari Yaalon said she was grateful for the opportunity “to share with you our deep and serious concerns” regarding the legislation passed in the Polish parliament last month, which will make it more difficult for Jews to sue to recover property that remained in the country after World War II.

“I stand here today on behalf of Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people. Our country has arisen from the ashes of the Holocaust. I stand here for the survivors and thanks to the survivors, as a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, as a descendant of a Polish Jew who was murdered in the Holocaust,” the charge d’affaires said.

“They were, and some of them still are, this country’s citizens. Poland was their home. This is where they flourished for centuries, the largest Jewish community in the world. They lost everything during the Holocaust, and so the issue of their property is an issue of dignity, of justice and of memory,” she said. The acting ambassador spoke about the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland and returned to their homes to find that they had been taken from them, and that “new families lived there.” This was a reference to properties that were seized by the Germans and nationalized by the Communist regime that controlled Poland after the war.

Ben-Ari Yaalon said the changes introduced into the existing legislation will block the past owners of such properties, including non-Jewish Poles, from being able to pursue their cases and “will force them to pay once more for others’ wrongdoing.” In conclusion, the acting ambassador called on the Polish parliament to reconsider the new legislation and find “a just solution, a solution that takes into account history, takes into account values, takes into account morality.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement issued ahead of the debate in the Polish parliament that “What happened on Polish soil during the Holocaust cannot be denied. Poland’s attempt to pass another law that tries to erase history and to clear them of responsibility for the property of Holocaust survivors is unacceptable and immoral. … No law can erase the memory of the victims. Poland knows what it needs to do.”

The draft law set a 30-year statute of limitation on challenges to decisions issued by various offices in gross violation of the law.

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