Opinion |

Poland and the WWII Reparations

A Polish bill governing property restitution for all Poles is about to 'Polandize' Jewish property in Poland, which looks like the 'Aryanization' of Nazi Germany

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FILE PHOTO: Gravestones at the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, Friday Dec. 22, 2017.
FILE PHOTO: Gravestones at the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, Friday Dec. 22, 2017. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/Bloomberg

The Polish government is about to “Polandize” Jewish property in Poland, which looks, at first glance, much like the “Aryanization” of Jewish property in Nazi Germany.

A Polish bill governing property restitution for all Poles states that any Jewish property for which no direct descendants are found will be nationalized. That will prevent these properties from returning to most of the Jewish heirs. The bill’s explanatory notes state openly that even though the bill is expected to cost the Polish government $3 billion to $4 billion, “the government’s property will increase,” because the value of the property without direct heirs is far greater.

The Jewish property which the Polish government plans to nationalize is the Jewish property located in Poland, which constitutes about a quarter of all the Jewish property left behind in Europe after World War II. In 1938, an American valuation estimated this property’s worth at $3 billion, and to date, at most two percent of it has been returned. Today, the property is valued at a sum equal to 1.5 times the Israeli government’s annual budget.

A Polish newspaper wrote this month that anyone with complaints “should talk to Berlin” – or in other words, demand compensation of Germany, which caused World War II. The implication, apparently, is that Polish Jews and their heirs, in Israel and worldwide, will have to compensate the Polish government with their property for the damage the war did to Poland.

Poland’s deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, is the sponsor and driving force behind the property restitution bill. Jaki is an ambitious 31-year-old politician, a member of the United Poland party, which is part of the current governing coalition. He also serves as chairman of a government commission that is examining irregularities in the restitution of property to all Warsaw residents. Some say the property restitution bill is serving as his springboard to a bid for the city’s mayoralty.

The Polish Justice Ministry recently invited 42 Polish nongovernmental organizations to submit their responses to the bill. The responses were published on the website of the Government Legislation Center. Only some of the organizations responded, including the Warsaw chapter of the bar association.

Other agencies that hadn’t even been invited to respond also did so, including Poland’s foreign and interior ministries and the U.S. ambassador to Poland. The latter is the only one who pointed out that Jews would be harmed by the bill in its current format. But other respondents did criticize the bill, saying that if it isn’t amended, it’s liable to run into trouble in international organizations, including the European Court of Human Rights.

Israel has responded to the bill on the diplomatic level, in the form of a letter from the Foreign Ministry to the Polish ambassador to Israel and another letter to the Polish Foreign Ministry from Israel’s ambassador to Poland. Rumor has it that the prime minister also sent a letter to his Polish counterpart. The World Jewish Restitution Organization also sent a letter to the Polish government.

In contrast, there seems to have been no effort, either in Israel or the Diaspora, to respond to the bill on the legal level. Israel and the Jewish people are thereby missing a rare opportunity to propose amendments to the bill.

This failure in addressing a national issue of such great moral obligation and such widespread economic impact cries out to heaven. Within the Israeli government, only two employees are working on the issue. One is in the Foreign Ministry and the other is an external consultant to the Social Equality Ministry, which, under a cabinet decision, is the ministry responsible for the restitution of Jewish property. Moreover, the budget for dealing with the issue is almost nonexistent.

This failure stems from the Social Equality Ministry’s complete lack of interest in the issue, coupled with minimal interest by the Foreign Ministry. On both ministries’ websites, the issue is well hidden. There’s no strategic plan for obtaining the restitution of Jewish property lost in the Holocaust, nor is there any action deriving from such a strategic vision, or any benchmarks.

This year, the Social Equality Ministry lent its hand to the closure of the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague, the only organization established by decision of an international conference, without first ensuring that a replacement was set up. Three years ago, the ministry abolished the post of senior director of the department for the restitution of Jewish rights and property so it could use this staff position for other purposes.

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel isn’t active in the restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property, even though she claims she is. She didn’t attend either of the two international conferences on returning Jewish property to which she was invited, one of which took place at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the other at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Moreover, a committee of ministry directors general on returning Jewish property, which was established by a cabinet decision and is headed by the director general of the Social Equality Ministry, hasn’t held a single discussion of the Polish bill. Holocaust survivors who contacted the ministry about the restitution of Jewish property were turned away empty-handed.

This past May, an “international gathering” – attended by exactly two people from overseas – took place at the President’s Residence. It was supposed to provide political cover for the Social Equality Ministry’s failure to address this issue. The meeting ended with a resumption of cooperation between the government and the WJRO, which began 24 years ago and has so far produced no clear results. The WJRO, whose budget is almost nonexistent, has just three employees. The meeting at the President’s Residence also decided on activity in several “target countries,” including Poland, but no plan of action has been prepared and no budget was provided.

The ongoing failure in the restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property from overseas, which has been led by the Social Equality Ministry, stands in stark contrast to the Justice Ministry’s success in returning property in Israel to Holocaust victims through Hashava, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets. This company, which will shut down at the end of the this year after 11 years in operation, will, by the time it closes, have returned property and money to some 3,000 heirs of Holocaust survivors in Israel and abroad and helped thousands of needy Holocaust survivors in Israel, all this at a cost of 1.7 billion shekels ($490 million).

Hashava developed a unique and successful model of restoring Holocaust-era property to Jews. The Polish government ought to make use of it, and also of the Israeli employees who ran it.

Dr. Aharon Mor was the senior director of the department for the restitution of Jewish rights and property and a member of the advisory committee of the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague.