Poland Denies, but Israeli Delegation Says It's on Its Way to Discuss Holocaust Restitution

Contradictory versions: Israeli minister says stolen Jewish property will be discussed but Polish PM rules this out: We are the ones who deserve reparations

Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the U.S. Embassy as they protest compensating Jews whose families lost property during the Holocaust, in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Czarek Sokolowski,AP

A delegation of Israeli officials will head to Poland Monday to discuss restoring Jewish property stolen from Polish Jews during the Holocaust – one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the relations between the two countries.

The matters to be discussed during the visit were not announced officially, but Haaretz has learned that they will include restitution of Jewish property, estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. 

The Israeli delegation is headed by the director general of the Social Equality Ministry, Avi Cohen. Dan Haezrachi, the head of the unit for property restitution in the Foreign Ministry, is also a member of the delegation. 

Far right demonstrators protest against the U.S. Senate's 447 bill, a law intended to support the restitution of Jewish property abandoned after the Holocaust, in Warsaw on May 11, 2019.
AFP

The Social Equality Ministry said in an official statement that the Israeli delegation will hold meetings with senior Polish government officials regarding the restitution of stolen Jewish property, which the ministry sees as “an important and unprecedented political achievement.”

The ministry added that the talks with Poland are part of a comprehensive plan to promote legislation to restitute Jewish property in other countries, with Romania being one of them.

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

>> Dear Poland: Your Holocaust law fools no one. No one forgets | Opinion

“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.

Officially, the Polish government recently announced again that it will not advance the return of Jewish property. At an election rally in the northern town of Mlawa on Saturday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “We will not allow any damages to be paid to anyone because it is us who should get damages,” the state-run news agency PAP reported.

The nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party has said that as a victim in World War II Poland should not be saddled with any financial obligations.

Lily Haber, chairman of the Forum of Polish Immigrants, argues that “for reasons of convenience” the Poles are presenting the issue as a German problem, while in fact at issue is the Polish nationalization of property during the communist era.

“Even after the ‘liberation’ from the burden of the communist regime, the municipalities and the state treasury continued to nationalize property all over Poland,” she adds.  

“The fact is that in a large number of the countries that were under communist regimes, arrangements were made to return or compensate for Jewish property, and only the Poles are avoiding a resolution of the issue, in the hope that during the next generation the issue will simple be irrelevant.”

The issue is considered to be very sensitive politically in Poland and a source for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments among far-right activists, who claim Jews are trying to bankrupt Poland in a conspiracy backed by the United States.

A large demonstration was held on Saturday 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.”

They were protesting against the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, or Act 447, which requires the U.S. Department of State to provide a report to Congress on the progress of 47 countries – including Poland – that signed a declaration in 2009 on the restitution of assets seized during or following World War II. The so-called Terezin declaration also includes provisions to give formerly Jewish-owned property with no heirs to Holocaust survivors in need of financial help or to support education on the subject.

Polish far-right supporters have said that the act could result in Jewish organizations demanding as much as $300 billion in compensation.

In the background are the elections for the Polish parliament this year, along with elections for the European Parliament – so many of these statements could be considered to be part of the election campaigns.

Poland will hold European parliament elections on May 26, and elections for its own parliament will take place in the fall. 

On a visit to Warsaw on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, said Act 447 only obliged the U.S. government to prepare a report on compliance with the Terezin declaration and it was up to Poland to decide how it would comply.

Gideon Taylor, the head of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said on Saturday that Poland is the only member of the European Union that has not passed laws to restore or provide compensation for property that was stolen or nationalized. Property belonging to Jewish Holocaust victims and their families was confiscated by the Communist authorities in Poland after World War II, along with non-Jewish property – and such property “continues to benefit the Polish economy.” Taylor said the Poles must correct this historic injustice.

Relations between Israel and Poland have been on a collision course in recent years because of the controversial Polish legislation known as the “Holocaust Law,” which criminalizes anybody accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes. The law was passed in the Polish parliament in late 2017, but six months later Morawiecki backtracked on it and asked the parliament to reopen discussions on the law following pressure from Israel and the United States.

In its current form, the law makes it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish people or Polish state of being responsible or a partner to the Nazi crimes and outlaws the use of the term “Polish death camps” in reference to death camps that Nazi Germany established in Poland during World War II. It also makes it an offense to blatantly minimize “the responsibility of the real perpetrators of the crimes.”

The Polish parliament’s approval of the law created a crisis in Poland’s relations with Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. Opponents of the legislation, including Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, have claimed that the law promotes Holocaust denial and limits debate on the role that some Poles played in the Holocaust.

In February, acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz caused another outcry when he said in an interview: “I am the son of Holocaust survivors, we will never forgive and never forget, and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis.” Katz continued with a quote from former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying: “Shamir said that every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk. Nobody will tell us how to express our stance and how to honor the dead.”

Morawiecki said at the time that Katz’s remarks were “racist and unacceptable” and that “this is not something that can be left without a response.” As a result, the planned summit in Israel of the Visegrad group – a cultural and political alliance of four Central European states – was canceled after Poland pulled out. Hungarian, Czech and Slovak leaders arrived in Israel for bilateral meetings instead.

Another storm in Polish-Israeli relations erupted last week over statements made by Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (Kahol Lavan) in an interview with the Polish media on the occasion of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, has been outspoken in attributing blame to the Poles for the genocide. He told the popular Polish news site Onet earlier that “the Poles cooperated in creating and running extermination camps.” 

In response, on Friday a spokesperson of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, a state-run institution entrusted with preserving the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, wrote on Twitter: “Such a statement of a known Israeli politician hurts like a clash with Holocaust denial. Both are a conscious lie. Using Holocaust as political game mocks the victims.” Haber, chairman of the Forum of Polish Immigrants, said, “It would be best for the Polish government to recognize the fact that there were Poles who acted brutally and who even murdered Jews, rather than to only blame others, and on the other hand, to relate positively to the demand to return what was stolen.”

Wire services contributed to this report.