Categories
Archives

Holocaust Restitution, Shechitah-Key Issues In Polish–Israel Relations

A visit to Israel this week by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski turned the spotlight on a number of burning issues of concern to the international Jewish community.

Komorowski was challenged on Poland’s anti-shechitah laws as well as his country’s continued failure, more than 70 years after the liberation of the extermination camps, to return Jewish property stolen by the Nazis.

 

The anti-circumcision crusades sweeping parts of Europe was also raised in talks between the Polish president and Kenesset members.

 

Kenesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein urged Komorowski to repeal Poland’s ban against shechitah. “Poland must respect religious freedom and reject laws forbidding Jewish rituals like circumcision and kosher slaughter. Such decisions have broad ramifications in Europe,” Edelstein said, adding that the fight against anti-circumcision legislation “unites the Knesset like almost no other issue.”

 

In response, Komorowski said that “neither the government nor the president’s office was behind the anti-shechita legislation,” and that sometimes “parliaments are hard to control.”

 

“Our constitutional court is currently examining the matter, and I hope that their decision will ensure freedom of religion and ceremony for all religions. This is a very important issue for us,” Komorowski said, quoted in Jerusalem Post.

 

Public sentiment in Poland seems to run counter to these assurances. Poland’s constitutional court, buckling to animal rights activists, recently upheld a 2002 law denying the Jewish community the right to practice shechitah. Following international protests, the government sought to lift the ban. But in July Poland’s lower house of Parliament rejected the proposal.

 

Polish hostility to Jews and Jewish practices bizarrely persist even when proven to be counterproductive to the Poles themselves. The anti-shechitah laws cost Poles over $500 million annually in lost revenue from kosher and halal meat exports. But a majority of Poles don’t seem to care.

 

WORST RESTITUTION RECORD

 

Komowrowski was also challenged on the subject of Poland’s deplorable record on Holocaust restitution In an open letter to the Polish president published in the Jerusalem Post during his visit, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) reminded Komorowski that nearly a quarter-century after the fall of communism, the Polish government has done almost nothing to make restitution to Nazi victims for private property seized during the Holocaust.
About 90 percent of the approximately 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland prior to WWII were annihilated by Hitler. It is estimated that over 170,000 private properties owned by Jews in Poland were seized by the Nazis.

 

Tens of thousands of survivors or their heirs, in Israel and around the world, who owned real property in Poland continue to be deprived of what is rightfully theirs, the letter said.

 

Poland stands alone as the only major country in Central and Eastern Europe, and the only member state of the European Union that has failed to enact a restitution law. Since the fall of communism in 1989 and the inception of a democratic Polish government, a number of bills of have been introduced in 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 could not afford compensation. But now 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.

 

What many find galling is that after repeated, broken commitments to pass a restitution bill over the years, the Polish government recently claimed that such a law is “unnecessary.” Restitution claimants can seek justice in the Polish court system, officials were quoted as saying. Why the need to encumber the government with special laws?

 

POLAND REFUSED TO SIGN TEREZIN DECLARATION

 

The cynicism behind this stance stunned observers. 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 doomed to almost universal 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 letter attests.

 

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 meet a drastically short statute of limitations that 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 and never seeing a penny of restitution.

 

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.

 

After initially agreeing to the document, Poland made an abrupt about-face and withdrew its support, a JTA article said. 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.

 

FEAR OF STOKING ANTI-SEMITISM

 

Baroness Ruth Deech, a property expert and member of Britain’s House of Lords, said Poland’s position is infuriating. “Looking at it from the outside, we read that 60 percent of Poles oppose private restitution and that the Jewish community in Poland today is fearful that pressing for justice will give rise to anti-Semitism,” she told an audience at the Prague conference, quoted in JTA.

 

Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, countered that Poles’ aversion toward restitution is “economic, not anti-Semitic.” 

 

In view of furious sentiment in Poland over a movie that opens up the explosive chapter of the 1941 Polish massacre of the Jews of Yadovne (Jedwabne), one is tempted to credit Baroness Deech’s assessment that “pressing for justice will give rise to anti-Semitism in Poland.”

 

The movie takes its inspiration from the book “Neighbors” by Princeton University Professor Jan Gross, a Polish-born American Jew. Gross documents the horrific slaughter of 1600 men, women and children by Polish thugs when the town was occupied by the Germans.

 

THE MASSACRE OF YADOVNE

 

For decades, the Poles had claimed the Nazis occupiers were responsible for the massacre. But in 2000, Neighbors, a book by NYU historian Professor Jan Gross, set the record straight. His findings were confirmed two years later by Poland’s Institute of National Memory, following outrage across Poland about Gross’s allegations.

 

An American Jew who was born in Poland, Gross drew heavily on the testimony of survivors as well as Polish witnesses and court records of the period, in revealing that the massacre was carried out by local Poles.

 

Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor who conducted the Institute’s investigation, said that while Germans were present at the massacre, witness testimony and forensic evidence including bullets and bones from mass graves showed that “Polish residents of Yadovne and surroundings, men numbering at least 40,” committed the crime.

 

“The Germans helped bring Jews to the town market square, but that was the extent of their active role,” he said.

 

The revelations came as a bombshell in Poland where the crimes of the Polish people against the Jews during the Holocaust have long been covered up. The Poles have always portrayed themselves as victims of the Nazis, never as perpetrators themselves. Today’s Poles, including those who came of age after the Holocaust, were raised on fairy tales of Polish heroism and nobility in the face of Nazi savagery.

 

Gross’s accusations tore aside the veil of historical revisionism. The revised image of wartime Poles as collaborators in Hitler’s plan to annihilate European Jewry wreaked havoc throughout Poland. Reactions spanned the gamut from outraged denial to acknowledgement of guilt, and in the case of an isolated few, apologies and requests for forgiveness from the Jewish people.

 

According to Gross’s account, in the late morning of July 10, Jews were ordered by the new mayor, Marian Karolak, to come to the town square. Men armed with whips and clubs began to round them up.

 

As the Jews were assembling by the hundreds in the square, they were attacked by gangs wielding clubs and throwing stones. Seeing the death trap, some tried to escape, but the fields around the town were patrolled by men on horseback. 100 to 200 Jews managed to flee, but many more were shot down or beaten and dragged back to the square.

 

A SURVIVOR’S GHASTLY MEMORIES

 

The strongest, younger Jewish men were separately taken to the cemetery, where they were forced to dig a pit. “After it was dug out, Jews were killed wildly – one with an iron pole, another with a knife, still another with a club,” according to one of the lone survivors, Shmuel Wasserstein, who described the events in a memoir.

 

In the town square, some of the Jews were ordered to pull down a statue of Lenin, erected during the Soviet occupation, and then they were marched to the barn, carrying it on boards. The local rabbi, Rav Avigdor Biyolostocky hy’d, was forced to march in front of the Jewish throng with his hat on a stick, and the Jews were ordered to sing, “The war is because of us, the war is for us.”

 

A crowd of neighbors, who had followed and prodded the Jews along, assisted the ringleaders in forcing the victims into the barn, some of them literally throwing children in. The barn was doused with fuel and set aflame. The screams and pleas of the Jews were to no avail. All the victims were burned alive.

 

One of the seven survivors of the massacre, Yitzchok Yaacov Neumark, recorded his ghastly memories in the Sefer Hazechirah on Yadovne:

 

“Yadovne had famous rabonim, chazonim, shochtim, melamdim, world-renowned schools and chesed organizations. It is frightful that not a word was mentioned in the newspapers of that time on the atrocities of that dreadful day when the Yadovne Jewish community was destroyed. A conspiracy of silence continues to protect the murderers and cover up their bestial deeds.”

 

But the Poles, who thought they had totally disposed of the Jews of Yadovne, discovered they could not bury them deep enough to keep them quiet. Professor Gross’s research triggered the trap-door to Polish memory and truth on a national scale, culminating in the country’s deep humiliation.

 

HISTORIANS BAFFLED BY POST-WAR SAVAGERY

 

Gross continued probing Polish consciences with a subsequent book, “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz,” which attempts to explain the frenzy of anti-Semitism that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Poland in 1944.

 

Historians seem unable to explain Poland’s post-war atrocities against the tiny group of ravaged Jewish survivors who returned from the extermination camps. How could Poles turn so viciously on these traumatized people, killing as many as 1,500 of them between 1944—1946?

 

Some scenes of that horror, related by Mr. Gross, chill the reader to the bone. A young man, bleeding, surrounded by a crowd that slowly stones him to death; women being dragged from trains to have their heads crushed with iron rails. And the July 1946 pogrom in Kielce, where wild-eyed thugs even pursued their victims to the hospital to finish them off there.

 

What drove Polish savagery toward the terrorized Jews? Gross argues that Poland’s postwar anti-Semitism was motivated by the Nazis’ massive theft of Jewish property during the war and the enrichment it brought the Poles who appropriated it.

 

90 percent of Polish Jewry were murdered. What became of the millions of homes, apartments, offices, factories, household treasures, furniture, jewelry? Millions of Poles who appropriated Jewish property in cities, towns and villages stood to lose their newly acquired property – in some cases the very roof over their heads – if restitutions were made to survivors.

 

Postwar Jew-hatred, Gross contends, was grounded in an effort by Poles to hold onto the plunder. The mere sight of emaciated survivors returning from the camps or from hiding, people who knew the dirty secret of Polish collaboration with the Germans and who were the true owners of the plundered property, was too much to bear. So they murdered Jews or terrorized them to drive them away.

 

The outburst of rage and Jew-hatred after the movie based on Gross’s book “Neighbors” was released, speaks volumes. Here’s the clincher: A famous Polish movie star who plays the main character (a non-Jewish Pole) who digs up the secrets of Yadovne, has become a much-reviled figure in Poland.

 

The actor did nothing but play the role of a courageous Pole who defies the opposition of fellow townspeople to discover the truth about the 1941 pogrom. Yet, for merely playing a part, he was maligned as a “dirty Jew” in a leading magazine, targeted with death threats, and subjected to more vilification than the author and producer of the movie.

 

The man sank from the heights of celebrity to the depths of disdain over a role he played in a movie – not the role of a vicious, inhumane criminal, but a well-intentioned, compassionate human being.

 

Back to the question of what drives Polish hostility to restitution. Is it merely “economics,” as some would like to believe? Or something far more deeply-rooted and sinister?

 

“Jews want to feel welcome in Poland,” says Poland’s Rabbi Shudrich. How long will this kind of wishful thinking that animates the new Polish Jewish community – largely removed from traditional Judaism – persist in the face of evidence that underneath, nothing has really changed in this country?