Polish President Approves Law Limiting Property Restitution for Holocaust Survivors

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Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Polish President Andrzej Duda. Credit: Valentina Petrova / AP

Polish President Andrzej Duda approved on Saturday a controversial law that will restrict the possibility of restitution claims for property stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II and nationalized by the postwar communist regime.

Israel and the United States have expressed stark opposition to the law, which has led to tensions between Warsaw and Jerusalem. Duda's final approval makes the legislation official, but it will take 30 days for the law to go into effect. 

The Polish president explained that he signed the bill "after thorough analysis" and that he is of the opinion that the law rectifies a current injustice, "will put an end to an era of legal chaos" and "the uncertainty of millions of Poles and the disrespect of the basic rights of the country's citizens."

He mentioned one of the stated goals of the law – to fight the corruption and involvement of unreliable figures – some of them criminal – who have taken advantage of Poland's bureaucracy for their benefit in order to take control over property that is not theirs, and to evict downtrodden tenants throughout the country. 

Following the move, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recalled Israel's charge d'affaires in Poland, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon. She will return to Israel indefinitely for consultations, while Israel's Foreign Ministry recommended that Poland's ambassador to Israel prolong his vacation in his home country.

Lapid added that Israel and the United States are holding talks on possible responses to Poland's move.   

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the approval of the law "a shameful decision that shows a disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust," and said that Israel cannot take the move lightly.

Lapid blasts the legislation

He tweeted, "Israel gravely views the approval of the law that prevents Jews from being compensated for property robbed from them during the Holocaust, and is distressed by the fact that Poland is choosing to continue to harm those who have lost all that they have.

In response to the Israeli backlash, Polish presidential aide Jakub Kumoch said: "Poland will not agree to instrumentalize the Holocaust, we are one of the few countries where Jews are safe."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week that America is "deeply concerned" about the Polish parliament's move "severely restricting the process for Holocaust survivors and their families, as well as other Jewish and non-Jewish property owners, to obtain restitution for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era."  

Blinken urged Duda not sign the bill into law or that, in line with the authority granted to him as president, he refers the bill to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. 

The law passed a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, drawing harsh criticism from Lapid. He said that the law "damages the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims," and that Israel is re-examining a 2018 joint statement issued by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, which rejected blaming Poland for the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators.

That statement read: "We reject the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations." It also claimed that calling concentration or death camps "Polish"is categorically false and reduces the role of the Germans in establishing and operating these camps.  

It was intended to improve ties between Israel and Poland following the latter's decision to amend a controversial law that criminalized accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes.

Critics of the statement, including prominent Israeli historians, said it distorts history, as it absolves Poland of its responsibility for some of its citizens' participation in Nazi crimes and their collaboration with the Germans in persecuting, handing over and murdering Jews. Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, dubbed it a “betrayal” that “hurt the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”

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