Monday

22nd Apr 2019

Opinion

Last chance for Poland to return property to rightful owners

  • Auschwitz was a Nazi extermination camp built on Polish soil. Poland is now under fire for not doing enough to restore Polish jewry's property to relatives of Holocaust survivors (Photo: icrf)

The Holocaust was the greatest industrial and systematic mass murder in modern history.

It was not only an attempted genocide; it also resulted in one of the greatest thefts, perpetrated proudly and openly by the Nazis and their collaborators.

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However, while it is impossible to bring back any of those murdered, some semblance of justice can be retained if governments put equitable restitution measures in place.

Several European governments have come to understand that they have a legal and moral responsibility of returning or providing compensation for the property and assets taken from murdered or fleeing Jews.

But almost uniquely, the Polish government has consistently failed to establish comprehensive private restitution regime for properties stolen during the Holocaust.

Before the Shoah, an estimated 3.3 million Jews – by far the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time - lived in Poland. From Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland to the end of the war in 1945, more than 90 percent of Poland's Jews were murdered.

Survivors who tried to return home following the war were often met with hostility, if not outright attacks, only to find their property had been seized and their family inheritance was gone.

Despite pledges to the contrary, Poland remains the only nation in Europe to make it almost nearly impossible and to place unimaginable roadblocks on the heirs of those murdered during the Holocaust to recover their assets.

Communism, but not fascism

Thus, a new proposed Polish law aimed at compensating people whose property was seized under communism, excluding most Polish Holocaust survivors and their heirs, is a mere continuation of a policy which seeks to avoid any manner of restitution, moral responsibility or justice.

And while the restitution bill itself makes no explicit reference to Holocaust survivors in its wording, its provisions seem to have their exclusion in mind.

Poland's justice ministry recently published a bill, which requires that claimants be Polish citizens and limits compensation to spouses, children and grandchildren.

These provisions would exclude the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families because most left Poland during or after World War II and settled elsewhere and because of the Holocaust's extensive annihilation, the heirs of seized properties are often nieces or nephews rather than direct descendants.

With the new law, the Polish government seems to have cemented its view of restitution issues as an obstacle course rather than a clear path for Holocaust victims and their heirs to access their rights.

Moreover, recourse to the court system provides little avail. In the words of Holocaust survivor Hania Rosenberg: "We did go to the courts, but it was like a carousel: You go around and around and around and around. You have to produce the documents that they need, and then it is not enough. There are always more documents you need to provide."

As a signatory of the Terezin Declaration, Poland committed itself to "address[ing] the private property claims of Holocaust victims concerning immovable property of former owners, heirs, successors, by either restitution or compensation ... in a fair, comprehensive and non-discriminatory manner."

In light of this, the behaviour of the Polish government is deeply problematic. The new restitution bill appears to demonstrate an apparent disregard for the suffering of the victims of the Shoah, and contempt for justice, security, property rights, and the rule of law.

The Polish government needs to clearly demonstrate that its commitment to the intent of the Terezin Declaration goes hand in hand with real action.

Warsaw must meet its obligations, legal, historic, and moral. It should no longer be able to sidestep its commitments. It must amend some of the provisions in this law to allow the families of Holocaust victims to claim what is rightfully theirs.

Although the Polish government states that it constructs legislation for all citizens regardless of background, this is not a little disingenuous.

In a resolution adopted last week, the European Parliament expressed concerns "over the rapid legislative developments taking place in many areas without proper consultations or the possibility of an independent and legitimate constitutional review, thus risking the systematic undermining of fundamental human rights, democratic checks and balances and the rule of law".

Part of a Polish pattern

Alas, Poland's restitution bill seems to be a continuation of this pattern.

As the authors of a study by the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) said earlier this year, accusing Poland of being the most egregious example of a failure to live up to the declarations: "Ordinary laws apply to ordinary events. But the Holocaust was an extraordinary event, and it makes little sense to apply ordinary laws to a situation in which so much heirless property suddenly came into existence as a result of the mass murder of millions of people."

The Polish government should immediately rectify this situation and demonstrate that they have finally come to terms with what happened on its soil several decades ago.

The survivors and many of their heirs are beginning to dwindle, and this might be the last chance for Poland to change its attitude towards the restitution of stolen private property during the Holocaust.

Raya Kalenova is executive vice-president of the European Jewish Congress

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