Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Friday harshly criticized Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's statements against a new law in Poland, which is expected to restrict the possibility of restitution claims for property stolen from Jews by the Nazis. Lapid called the law "immoral," and claimed that it would strain relations between the two countries.
Morawiecki said at a press conference: "I can only say that as long as I am the prime minister, Poland will certainly not pay for German crimes. Not a single zloty, euro or dollar."
His remarks came after Poland's Foreign Minister issued a statement noting that "Poland is by no means responsible for the Holocaust, an atrocity committed by the German occupier." He added that in addition to "Polish citizens of Jewish origin," millions of "citizens of the Second Polish Republic" were murdered as well.
In a vote Thursday, the Polish parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of an amendment to the country's property restitution regulations. Under the new law, outstanding claims for the restitution of property seized during the Holocaust that have not reached a final decision in the last 30 years will be halted or dismissed. In addition, new appeals of administrative decisions made over 30 years ago will 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. Officials from the World Jewish Restitution Organization said the bill, if passed, would make it virtually impossible for Holocaust survivors and families to challenge decisions over stolen property, and claimed that it would adversely affect 90 percent of such property claims.
On Friday, Lapid lambasted the law on Twitter, calling it a "direct and painful blow to the rights of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. This is not the first time the Poles have tried to deny what was done in Poland during the Holocaust," he wrote.
“This law is immoral, and it will seriously harm relations between [our] countries. No law will change history. It is a disgrace that will not erase the horrors or the memory of the Holocaust." He added, “Poland, on whose soil millions of Jews were murdered, has made a grievous error. It is not too late to fix it."
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President Reuven Rivlin and U.S. officials have spoken out against the amendment, and they are working to fight the legislation vis-à-vis the Polish authorities.
Property restitution in Poland is one of the complex issues in Poland-Israel relations – and Polish-Jewish relations. On one side are the Jewish families who left behind property in the Holocaust that was seized from them and nationalized, and had no choice but to deal with a difficult and opaque bureaucracy in order to reclaim it. Sometimes they succeeded, but occasionally did not. Jewish groups like the restitution organization accuse Poland of purposely refraining from legislating a designated law to return Jewish property, as many other European countries did.
On the other side is the Polish government, which claims that there is no reason to pay for crimes that the Nazi and then communist occupiers committed on their lands. Also in the equation are lower-class Polish citizens who live in public housing, who would have to leave their homes or pay more in rent if their buildings are returned to others as part of this restitution. The matter has stirred rage and controversy in Poland, and has spurred antisemitic reactions among the far-right.
At the same time, the long time that has passed since the end of the war has allowed for corruption and criminal elements to infiltrate the issue of property restitution. Some have succeeded in getting their hands on various permits and claiming Jewish property that does not belong to them.
Ties between the two countries suffered in 2018, with the passage of the so-called Holocaust Speech Law, which made it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of Nazi crimes. Lapid, then a rank-and-file lawmaker, clashed directly with the Polish Embassy in Israel on Twitter, and said that "there were Polish death camps" – a statement criminalized in Poland by the law.
After the Holocaust Speech Law was eased after Israel and Poland signed a controversial agreement, Lapid said the Poles should "request forgiveness from the dead."
At the same time, about 70 tombstones were vandalized on Friday night in a 19th century Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Bielsko-Biala. Local police have opened an investigation; it is still unknown whether the vandalism is connected to the tense relations between Poland and Israel.