A new Polish restitution bill effectively disqualifies all Holocaust survivors living outside of Poland and the vast majority of their heirs from making claims to recover property stolen by the Nazis. The legislation has outraged survivor groups and restitution experts, yet no one is really shocked.
Poland remains one of the only governments in Europe that has passed no restitution or compensation laws for Holocaust claims that amount to billions of dollars.
“Poland is to this day one of the last countries with no restitution framework whatsoever,” said Gideon Taylor, a top official with the Claims Conference, a Holocaust victims’ group.
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 confiscated property.
All of them were defeated.
Last week, the Polish government proposed a law that hammered in the last nail in the restitution coffin. The proposed law requires not only that claimants must currently be citizens of Poland today. Claimants must also prove they resided in Poland at the time their property was confiscated by the Communist regime in the late 1940s.
These criteria would disqualify the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families who fled Poland during the Holocaust, or in the aftermath of the 1946 Kielce pogrom carried out by a Polish mob with police participation.
The new Polish legislation also excludes all heirs other than spouses and “direct heirs,” meaning children and grandchildren. This provision is a glaring departure from the existing Polish inheritance and succession laws.
In addition, the legislation calls for the transfer to the Polish government of all property that is left unclaimed (due to the new law’s unprecedented restrictions).
POLISH LAW SLAMMED BY SURVIVOR GROUPS
The bill has drawn sharp criticism from survivor groups and restitution activists. “We are profoundly disappointed that the Polish government’s proposal excludes the vast majority of Polish Holocaust survivors and their families,” protested the WJRO (World Jewish Restitution Organization).
The statement noted that the Nazis and their accomplices murdered over 3 million Polish Jews, 90 per cent of the Jewish population. The scope of the annihilation wiped out most “first line” heirs – the children and grandchildren of Nazi victims. In countless cases, the only remaining heirs to Jewish properties are sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews. These would now be excluded from restitution claims.
“Polish Holocaust survivors and their families were an integral part of Polish life for centuries. Their property is often their last tangible connection with the life they lived before the destruction of the Holocaust,” noted the WJRO statement. Echoing similar calls it made in recent years, the WJRO urged the Polish government “to ensure that the legislation, when introduced to the Parliament, will have eligibility criteria and a claims process that are fair and just to those who suffered and lost so much.”
Poland’s restitution record has been so abysmal, no one is truly surprised at the “new” legislation that is essentially a recycling of earlier bills. Restitution attorneys familiar with the restitution landscape in Europe in the last 15 years note that Poland has always been Europe’s worst offender, in terms of its failure to face up to its wartime past.
Roadblocks and obstacles put in the way of restitution by earlier Polish legislation include conditions virtually impossible for most survivors to meet. First, to qualify for legal attention, the claim must fall within a very narrow statute of limitations that automatically disqualifies most claimants. Then, in addition to requiring claimants to be current citizens of Poland, the courts demand present proof of ownership of property as well as evidence that the original heirs are no longer alive.
Even if by some remote possibility these criteria are met, a court ruling in favor of the plaintiff is quite often not enforceable. It can be –and usually is—endlessly appealed by the parties currently holding the property.
In one case, even after a Polish court acknowledged a candy factory belonged to a Holocaust survivor who had successfully made his case, the Polish government argued that “the owners were supposed to receive compensation, which however has not been paid, because the advisory council [under the communists] failed to make proper decisions and laws.”
By putting the onus on the communists, today’s Polish government feels absolved of responsibility for the continued impact of the theft, and feels no compunctions about holding onto survivors’ property.
Decades of delays in the legal process, even after all conditions have been satisfied, have caused survivors to give up the battle. Many of the elderly claimants have died after investing a fortune in litigation in vain.
After repeated broken commitments over the years to pass a restitution bill, the Polish government in 2012 abruptly retracted all its promises and commitments. It now claimed that a restitution law was simply “unnecessary.” Why the need to encumber the government with special laws, when restitution claimants can seek justice in the Polish court system, government officials asked. With a straight face.
The government reinforced its position with the argument that Poland’s economy was shaky and could not afford compensation. Experts punched holes in that claim, however, pointing to the country’s undeniable prosperity boom.
“Poland is one of the few European countries to have avoided the recession, and had a 4.3% growth in GDP in 2011. After Germany, Poland is Europe’s big success story, with consistent economic growth and a stock exchange stronger than Vienna’s,” Ruth Deech in the British House of Lords wrote in an essay, Poland and Jewish Property.
THE TEREZIN DECLARATION
In a 2014 letter to then President Komorowski protesting Poland’s refusal to sponsor a restitution law, WJRO urged the leader to “take on the challenge of righting a historic wrong… and erase the blot on Poland’s democratic record.”
The letter urged him 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.
The 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 in 2010, Guidelines for Restitution, 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.
ONLY VICTIMS, NEVER PERPETRATORS
Key to understanding Polish obduracy on the issue of Holocaust restitution is the Polish view of its WWII countrymen as having been heroic and noble victims of the Nazis, never the perpetrators.
Poles like to point to the fact that the Polish government never collaborated with the Nazis as did the governments of Hungary and France. In fact, the Polish government fled to England where it survived the war in safety. There it sponsored resistance to the Nazi occupation. Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews, did save a few thousand even at the risk of life. Helping a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe was punishable by death.
In addition, attests the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem has identified more rescuers from Poland than any other country—6,532.
Yet as history makes clear, Poles who save Jews constituted a small minority, while the Nazis were able to count heavily on the voluntary assistance of the Polish police force, railroad personnel and thousands of rank and file Poles in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers.
Individual Poles often helped in exposing and hunting down Jews who were hiding – for as little as a kilo of sugar. They enriched themselves through blackmailing desperate Jews and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.
Local Polish residents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland, carried out pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. The massacre in the town of Yadovne (Jedwabne) in 1941 is one of the best-documented cases.
According to Jan Thomasz Gross, a Polish-born historian who caused shockwaves in Poland with his 2001 book “Neighbors: The Extermination of a Jewish Town,” Poles killed more Jews than the Nazis in the second world war.
“Neighbors” described how “ordinary” Poles at the Nazis’ instigation, corralled the 1600 Jews of Yadovna in the town square in July 1941, butchered 40 men, tormented and humiliated the others for hours, and finally forced them all into a barn and barred the doors. They sprayed the building with gasoline and set it on fire. Everyone inside was burned alive.
Gross, who was previously awarded a rare medal of honor in Poland due to his scholarly work, became an object of vilification after his book came out. Last February, Polish President Duda went so far as to call for Gross to be stripped of his medal due to his “mudslinging” against Poland.
Gross, who fled Poland in 1969 during an anti-Semitic purge of dissidents and now lives in the United States, dismissed Duda’s attack as “a politically motivated attempt to intimidate all those who expose the history of anti-Semitism in Poland.”
Currently a professor at Princeton University, Gross described his work as “a confrontation with ghosts in the consciousness of Polish society,” saying most Poles were still in denial about the fact that 3.5 million Jews had been murdered in the death camps.
POLES SEEK TO EXPUNGE HISTORY
For many Poles, regardless of the historical veracity of Gross’s book and the right to freedom of speech in a democracy (which Poles proudly consider their government to be), casting Poles as accomplices of the Nazis is a crime that should be punished.
Emotions have run so high on this issue that a move to outlaw the phrase “Polish death camps” when referring to the extermination camps of Treblinka, Madjanek, Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland, won enough popular support to launch an unprecedented bill through the parliament in 2016.
The bill would make it a crime to use the phrase “Polish death camps” in writing or public speech. Transgressors would suffer a three-year jail term or a hefty fine according to the bill’s provisions.
Polish Justice Minister Ziobro proclaimed in support of the bill’s passage, “It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory!”
Polish scholars themselves have sharply challenged this whitewashed version of events that seeks to expunge any suggestion of Polish complicity in past horrors.
One such scholar, Anna Bikont, several years before Neighbors was published, wrote The Crime and the Silence, using historical records and interviews with eyewitnesses to the Yadovna massacre to describe how Polish Catholics barbarically slaughtered their Jewish neighbors.
Written in Polish, the book created barely a ripple in Polish circles. Only when Gross’s book, Neighbors, describing in graphic detail the same atrocity, revealed to the world the horror and vile depth of Polish anti-Semitism, did a firestorm erupt.
In a NY Times book review of The Crime and the Silence, the author discusses “two terrifying forces [among Polish people] that motivated the Yadovna pogrom: viral anti-Semitism inculcated in the population since the 1930s and nourished to this day by the Polish Catholic Church. And insatiable greed, the need to seize hold of Jewish property as if it rightfully belongs to the taker…”
“Where are the cherished belongings that belonged to 3.5 million Jews? The kedoshim took so little with them to the death camps,” lamented the son of a survivor who has been waging a battle for many years in the Polish courts. “Who took the heirlooms? The Shabbos leichter, the kiddush cups, the menorahs, the Torah crowns, the kisvei yad? A least a third of them have inscriptions engraved on them, they have identification.”
“A breakthrough can only happen if Poland’s leadership has the courage and integrity to lead the country on a new path,” a restitution activist reflected. “Poland until now has shown no political will to do the right thing. There is little traction there when it comes to returning stolen things….buildings, property or seforim, entire libraries… The documents, property titles and deeds of ownership, the paperwork is all there, but it makes no difference. It’s as if they can’t bear to renounce any stolen property. ”
“Still, we can’t give up. Survivors and their children…and all of us affected by Churban Europe…are encouraged by every single victory, large or small, in returning to Jewish families what was thought to be gone forever. Every recovered piece of property is a precious bridge to what was lost…”