A Polish bill governing compensation for people whose property was nationalized by the country’s Communist government after World War II has outraged Jewish organizations around the world.
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The bill, drafted by the Polish Justice Ministry, is supposed to provide a comprehensive solution to one of the most fraught and complex issues arising from that war: the Jewish property which the Nazis stole and the Communist regime later nationalized.
Nevertheless, it includes provisions that would prevent most of those affected, including Holocaust survivors and their families, from receiving any compensation for the property they left behind in Poland. Among other things, the bill states that only someone who currently has Polish citizenship can claim compensation for nationalized property. The claimant must also prove that he was a Polish citizen and resident at the time his property was confiscated.
The bill, which was unveiled this month, does allow the owner’s heirs to claim compensation in certain cases, but only if they are the children or grandchildren of survivors – and even then, they must still be Polish citizens. This rule “would disproportionately harm heirs of victims of the Holocaust,” the World Jewish Restitution Organization said in a statement. “Because of the devastation of the Holocaust, non-linear heirs, such as siblings or nieces and nephews, were often the only remaining heirs to Jewish properties.”
Moreover, the law would allow claimants to file claims only during the year following its passage. If a claim is accepted, the compensation would only be a fraction of the property’s real worth – 20 percent of its value at the time it was confiscated. Claimants would not have the option of recovering the property itself.
The Justice Ministry is still discussing the bill; the language of the draft is not final and it hasn’t been sent to parliament for approval yet. However, whatever version of the bill is ultimately submitted is expected to pass since the government has a parliamentary majority.
Poland is the only major European country that doesn't have legislation on this issue. Though numerous bills to address the problem have been submitted in recent years, they have been rejected against and again, both for political and ideological reasons and out of fear of damage to the Polish economy.
Three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The combined value of the personal and communal property left behind by both the murdered Jews and the survivors is estimated at billions of dollars, and much of it was nationalized by the Communist government after the war.
Since 1989, after the fall of the Communist regime, Poland has returned thousands of homes to their Jewish heirs, but each claimant had to file an individual lawsuit for his property. There is no collective, national mechanism for restitution, such as exists in other countries.
In recent years there have been many reports in Poland about corruption linked to the restitution of property, including takeovers of Jewish property by criminals.
Last year, Poland passed another, more limited law that was supposed to solve the issue of returning stolen property in Warsaw. But that law, too, was criticized for the hurdles it required claimants to jump to retrieve their property.