Germany, too, is moving closer to adopting laws that would ease restitution of Holocaust -era property. In response to world indignation over a trove of Nazi-looted art discovered in Munich, authorities proposed a law last month that would lift the country’s 30-year statute of limitations for claims involving Nazi-looted property.
The Munich scandal lifted the veil on what experts say is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the still-hidden plunder seized by the Nazis and their collaborators, as well as staggering amounts of land and real estate stolen and never returned.
Historians have documented over 1000 locations, including cavernous salt mines in Austria, where the Nazis stashed tons upon tons of stolen goods. Some of this plunder was recovered by the Allies and transferred to the German government, to be held in trust until it could be returned to the rightful owners. Much of it was pilfered and untold quantities are still dispersed at locations throughout Germany.
To this day, governments and individuals continue to profit from land and property stolen from victims during the Nazi and Communist regimes and never returned.
BRITAIN TAKES CHAIRMANSHIP OF HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE ALLIANCE
The British initiative came as Britain assumes the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). British MP’s who addressed parliament on the subject singled out Poland as the country most deficient in the responsibility to “heed international guidelines” by implementing a decent restitution law.
“The issue of restitution of property wrongfully seized by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 is key to the concerns of the UK,” said MP Lord Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who represented the British government in the parliamentary debate.
He noted the failure of some Eastern and Central European governments to “implement international declarations and resolutions on restitution” and called for significant change.
Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, and a generation after the fall of Communist regimes, many Holocaust victims and their families are still fighting for the return of their property from Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
MP Ruth Deech, the driving force in parliament behind the debate, told Britain’s House of Lords, “This debate is about support for ageing Holocaust survivors and their families and for other non-Jewish victims in Britain and abroad whose property was unjustly taken during the Holocaust and its aftermath.
“It is about restoring communal property and thus ensuring the continued revival of Jewish life and the long term survival and stability of Jewish communities throughout Europe.
“The Foreign Office should treat this issue as a priority,” she said, “and urge the Governments in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia and elsewhere to pass legislation to fulfil their responsibility to victims.”
Deech said “the stolen homes stand for the remembrance and recognition of the history of the Jewish population of Europe and their contribution to the culture and businesses of the countries they once lived in.”
The debate addressed Britain’s leadership role in pursuing justice for British citizens and other victims seeking the property taken from them and their families in Poland and other countries the Nazis occupied.
In advance of the debate, Deech and some 50 British lawmakers took up the issue separately in a hard-hitting letter to Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The letter called Poland to task for its moral failure in Holocaust restitution and urged Tusk to chart a more honorable and just course for his country.
“Unfortunately, Poland stands out in its failure to fulfill – or even — recognize – its responsibility to victims,” the letter said. “Poland was the country which saw the worst cases of Nazi genocide and theft… 90% of Polish Jewry – over 3,000,000 innocents – were murdered.”
Despite this, Poland is the only member state of the EU without a restitution law, the letter said. Tens of thousands of survivors or their heirs, in Israel and around the world, who owned property in Poland continue to be deprived of what is rightfully theirs.
WJRO: URGENCY OF THE ‘TICKING CLOCK’
WJRO co-chairman Abe Biderman, in an interview with Yated, said that Poland was singled out by the British legislators because that is the country where the greatest number of Jews were annihilated and where the most massive theft of property took place.
“Over 40% of Warsaw’s pre-war real estate was Jewish-owned,” he stressed. “It’s estimated that over 170,000 private properties owned by Jews in Poland were seized by the Nazis. What became of the millions of homes, businesses, apartments, offices, factories — not to mention household treasures, furniture, jewelry? Poland is today a bustling economic center situated on tracts of valuable real estate whose rightful owners are Jews. The passage of time cannot alter that fact.”
Biderman said the United States and Britain had taken active roles in a number of historic restitution settlements in the past and the current initiative would hopefully build on those accomplishments.
“There is a small window of time left for survivors to be granted a small measure of justice,” he said. “The clock is ticking. In terms of their advanced age, time may be against us. But we are not giving up.”
Since the fall of communism in 1989 and the inception of a democratic Polish government, a number of bills of have been introduced in the country’s parliament to enable survivors to reclaim their property.
All of them were defeated.
In 2012 draft legislation was once again dropped, on the ground that Poland’s economy could not afford compensation. That excuse was shown to be hollow. “Poland is one of the few European countries to have avoided the recession, and had a 4.3% growth in GDP in 2011. Poland is Europe’s big success story, with consistent economic growth and a stock exchange stronger than Vienna’s,” Ruth Deech wrote earlier in an essay, Poland and Jewish Property.
After repeated broken commitments to pass a restitution bill over the years, the Polish government in 2012 switched tactics, claiming that such a law is “unnecessary.” Why the need to encumber the government with special laws, when restitution claimants could seek justice in the Polish court system, Polish officials argued.
The hypocrisy of that position speaks for itself. It is no secret that private litigation in Polish courts to obtain restitution or compensation for stolen Jewish property for Nazi victims and their heirs have been consistently doomed to failure.
“Such an expensive, burdensome and time-consuming path for years has served as a de facto barrier to elderly survivors and their heirs,” the WJRO wrote Polish President Komorowski several months ago.
Obstacles put in the way of restitution include conditions virtually impossible for most survivors to meet: the claimants must currently be citizens of Poland; must present proof of ownership of property as well as evidence that the original heirs are no longer alive.
To qualify for legal attention, the claim must fall within a statute of limitations that automatically disqualifies most claimants.
Even once these conditions have been met, interminable delays in the legal process have caused survivors to give up the battle. Many of the elderly claimants have died after investing a fortune in litigation in vain.
The WJRO letter called on President Komorowski to “take on the challenge of righting a historic wrong… and erase the blot on Poland’s democratic record.” It urged the president to put an end to Poland’s foot-dragging and to lead his government in joining 47 other countries that approved the 2009 Terezin Declaration.
This declaration was drawn up at the 2009 Prague Conference of Holocaust Era Assets. It called for participating states to meet the medical needs of 500,000 remaining Holocaust survivors, Jewish and non-Jewish. It called for the restitution of wrongful property seizures, forced sales and sales under duress in the Nazi period.
It also called for open access to government archives to establish proof of title instead of demanding documentation from survivors, and for making the restitution process more transparent and affordable.
The endorsement by 47 countries of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and a follow-up resolution, Guidelines for Restitution, in 2010, created an international consensus on the urgent need to return property to victims and their families.
After initially agreeing to Terezin Declaration, Poland abruptly reneged on its endorsement. At a recent follow up conference in Prague, Poland was the only signatory to the 2009 Terezin Declaration that did not send a delegate.
“It says a lot that they refuse to even engage,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which is responsible for Holocaust restitution from Germany and Austria.
In last week’s letter to Polish Prime Minister Tusk, Deech and her colleagues in the House of Lords demanded that Poland live up to its moral responsibilities.
“We urge you to play a leadership role in promoting comprehensive legislation on private property restitution,” the letter said. “Now is the time, when some of the elderly victims are still alive, some in desperate need of financial and medical assistance, for Poland to fulfill its obligations to these Jewish and non-Jewish victims.”