Outrage over new Polish bar on restitution

Legislation has also resulted in a diplomatic spat between Poland and the new Israeli government


BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 09: Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, speaks at the ordination of three rabbis and three cantors at the Beth Zion Synagogue on October 9, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. The three Ukrainian-born rabbis are the first Orthodox rabbis to be ordained in Berlin since World War II. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Jewish groups have criticised a bill currently making its way through the Polish parliament that would see a person’s right to reclaim property expropriated during and after the Holocaust dramatically curtailed.

“The time has come for the international Jewish community to re-evaluate our relationship with a government that is behaving with unimaginable callousness and is emulating the worst traditions in Polish history rather than the best and most uplifting ones”, World Jewish Congress (WJC) president Ronald Lauder said.

The legislation has also resulted in a diplomatic spat between Poland and the new Israeli government, with foreign minister Yair Lapid condemning the proposals.

On Sunday, both Poland and Israel summoned one another’s respective ambassadors.

The bill, which passed a second reading in the lower house of the Polish parliament last week, would make it “virtually impossible for Holocaust survivors and their families to obtain restitution of, or compensation for, property unlawfully taken away during the Holocaust and Communist periods”, the World Jewish Restitution Organisation (WJRO) believes.

Indeed, Article 158(3) of the Administrative Procedure Code would make it impossible for claimants to challenge administrative decisions taken more than 30 years ago, which is to say any and all decisions taken during the communist period.

Currently, no such statute of limitations exists. This measure is important because after 1945 much expropriated Jewish property was nationalised by the communist regime. Article 156(2) would eliminate an existing carve-out that allows public administrative bodies to strike down administrative decisions they believe were issued either without legal basis or in obvious breach of communist-era law.

The proposed law would also see all current pending proceedings concerning communist-era property disputes ended and dismissed.

Claimants whose existing proceedings have dragged on for years would therefore see their cases thrown out.

The proposals fly in the face of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-era confiscated property, to which Poland is party.

The non-binding declaration states signatories should “make every effort to provide for the restitution of former Jewish communal and religious property”.

Those claims should be addressed in “a fair, comprehensive and non-discriminatory manner consistent with relevant national law and regulations, as well as international agreements” and processes should be “expeditious, simple, accessible [and] transparent”, the declaration states.

Jewish organisations are pressuring the Polish government led by the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) and prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to rethink the bill.

Jewish claimants “have waited decades for a measure of justice resulting from the confiscation or nationalization of their property during the Holocaust or by the Communist government.

The current proposal, if adopted, would further harm Polish Holocaust survivors who have already suffered so much”, WJRO chair Gideon Taylor said.

WJC president Lauder called it “a slap in the face to what remains of Polish Jewry and survivors of Nazi brutality everywhere. It also sets a terrible precedent throughout Europe as survivors and descendants continue to seek justice”.

Mr Lauder, whose foundation is active in Poland particularly in the field of education, added “this flagrant and entirely gratuitous act by the Polish Parliament leaves me questioning my own commitment and the future of US-Polish relations” and relations between Poland and international Jewish organisations.

Israeli foreign minister Lapid, meanwhile, said the bill constitutes a “horrific injustice and disgrace that harms the rights of Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and members of the Jewish communities that existed in Poland for hundreds of years”.

“This is an incomprehensible action”, Mr Lapid continued, warning the “immoral” law “will seriously harm relations between the countries”.

The Polish foreign ministry rejects accusations that the law would “in any way restrict the possibility of bringing civil suits to seek damages” for requisitioned property and said Mr Lapid’s comments were “indicative of ignorance of the facts and the Polish law”.

Following its passage in the lower house, the Sejm, the bill will now be considered by the Senate where the PiS-led government lacks a working majority. President Andrzej Duda retains the right to veto legislation.

In spite of the backlash, prime minister Morawiecki remained firm at a press conference last week: “I can only say that as long as I am the prime minister, Poland will not pay for German crimes: neither zloty, nor euro, nor dollar”.




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