Poland Canceled Israeli Visit Over Holocaust Restitution Dispute. Turns Out, They Still Went

The delegation's trip was reportedly canceled over disagreements on discussing restorations of Jewish property but new information reveals the team flew and met with Jewish community leaders - but kept it from the media

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File photo: Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the U.S. Embassy, in Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2019.
File photo: Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the U.S. Embassy, in Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2019. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski / AP

The official Israeli delegation to Warsaw whose visit to Poland had been reportedly canceled earlier in May, did in fact arrive in the eastern European country but hid it from the media, Haaretz has learned.

The delegation was meant to discuss the restoration of Jewish property stolen from Polish Jews during the Holocaust, a contentious issue between the two countries. However, after Poland cancelled the visit, claiming it will not discuss that matter since it was a victim in World War II and thus should not be saddled with financial obligations, the delegation members made do with a meeting with the Jewish community heads in Poland, sources told Haaretz. 

>> Read more: Poland cancels Israeli visit over Holocaust restitution dispute ■ Restitution both in Poland and Israel | Opinion ■  Poland vs Israel: Who's really winning the war over Holocaust history? | Opinion

The delegation was comprised of representatives from the Foreign Ministry and the Social Equality Ministry, including Social Equality Ministry Director General Avi Cohen and Dan Ezrahi, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for the return of Jewish property.

Following Haaretz's report earlier this month that an Israeli delegation was to go to Poland to discuss the return of Jewish property, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel confirmed that people from her ministry and the Foreign Ministry were indeed going to Poland.

Gamliel even congratulated Poland for not succumbing to domestic pressures and agreeing to discuss the sensitive and complex issue. 

“Neither political nor anti-Semitic elements will stop us from fulfilling this important moral duty,” Gamliel said in a statement.

“I welcome the Polish government for its steadfastness in the face of anti-Semitic protests, especially during election season. Time is running out, and we must act vigorously before it’s too late,” Gamliel said.

The next day, Polish Foreign Ministry made a late-night announcement that "Poland decided to cancel the visit of Israeli officials after the Israeli side made last minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution," the Polish Foreign Ministry said. As a result, the issue was seemingly dropped.

Over the weekend Polish journalist Marcin Makowski, who writes for the Wirtualna Polska website and the weekly Do Rzeczy, reported that the Israeli delegation tried to meet with representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Poland in the framework of the Senate's 447 bill, a law intended to support the restitution of Jewish property abandoned after the Holocaust, which sparked ire in Poland.

According to the report, however, the American representatives refused to meet with the Israeli delegation. Both Israel's Foreign Ministry and Social Equality Ministry declined to comment on the matter.  

The issue of restoring Jewish property stolen in the Holocaust from Polish Jews has caused uproar in Poland's political arena and the polish government officially refuses to discuss the matter.

large demonstration was held prior to the reported cancelation, with thousands of far-right and nationalist supporters against the restitution of Jewish property from the Holocaust period. The protesters marched from the prime minister’s office to the U.S. embassy in central Warsaw carrying signs with slogans including “Poland has no obligations” and “Holocaust hyenas.”

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that compensation of Polish Jews for damages they suffered in Word War II would be a victory for Adolf Hitler.

In response, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder assailed Morawiecki, accusing Poland of failing to “confront the tragedy of millions of its Jewish citizens” and of “profiteering” from Jewish assets for the past seven decades.

"Successive Polish governments have steadfastly refused to recognize the material losses of Polish Jewry and have essentially treated their homes and other property as the spoils of war,” Lauder said.  

Gideon Taylor, the World Jewish Restitution Organization’s chief of operations and treasurer, also condemned Morawiecki’s remarks in a press statement.

“This statement, if reported correctly, is deeply insensitive to Holocaust survivors and their families,” he said. “It is also simply incorrect — the issue is not about the German Nazi confiscations during the occupation of Poland.  It is about property subsequently nationalized by the Polish Communist government that continues to benefit the Polish economy.

“We call for Poland to meet its commitment to non-Jewish and Jewish property owners who have waited many years for Poland to provide them with a measure of justice,” Taylor said.