Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

Poland Hammers Final Nail in the Restitution Coffin

In an act of shocking vandalism, members of the nationalist “All-Polish” youth movement dumped tons of debris outside the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw last Wednesday, accompanied by a sign that read, “This is your property,” the Jerusalem Post reported, quoting the Polska Times news site.

The hate-driven action comes amid the worst breakdown in Polish-Jewish relations in decades. It followed on the heels of the passage of a bill in the lower house of the Polish parliament (Sejm) that sets a 30-year limit on appealing Nazi and Communist-era seizures of Jewish private property.

Poland’s communist regime was toppled in 1989; the new statute of limitations would mean the 30-year deadline has already passed. If approved by the Senate and signed by President Andrzej Duda, the law would block virtually all ending Holocaust-related claims in Poland, effectively hammering in the last nail in the restitution coffin.

Israel, home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors, has sharply protested this measure. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called it a “terrible 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.”

The passage of the Polish bill drew condemnation from the White House as well.  “The decision of Poland’s parliament yesterday was a step in the wrong direction. We urge Poland not to move this legislation forward,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization said the law, if enacted, would pose “insurmountable legal conditions” that would “harm Polish Holocaust survivors who have already suffered so much.”

While most post-Communist countries have sought on various levels to address the issue of stolen Holocaust-era Jewish property, Poland has never done so.

“Poland is to this day one of the last countries with no restitution framework whatsoever,” said Gideon Taylor of the WJRO.

Poland’s restitution record has been so abysmal, no one is truly surprised at the “new” legislation that is essentially an extension or recycling of earlier bills.  Experts familiar with the restitution landscape in Europe in the last 15 years note that Poland has always stood out as deeply resistant to facing up to its wartime past.

Since the 1989 fall of communism 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.

Obstacles put in the way of restitution by earlier Polish legislation include conditions virtually impossible for most survivors to meet, including evidence that the original heirs are no longer alive, as well as evidence of a “procedural error” on the part of the former Communist government responsible for nationalizing the property.

Even if these criteria are met, a court ruling in favor of the plaintiff disappears down a black hole, as endless appeals by the parties currently holding the property prevent its enforcement.

Experts say that once the new law is in place, almost all restitution cases are likely to be dismissed.

`Not One Zloty, Euro or Dollar`

Poland’s government today is led by the Law and Justice party, a right-wing nationalist party that has been criticized for its anti-Semitic elements. Polish Prime Minister Marowiecki has deliberately played to the popular stereotype that Holocaust survivors’ claims are driven by financial greed.

“All I can say as prime minister is, Poland will certainly not pay for German crimes. Not one zloty, euro or dollar,” Marowiecki vowed.

Following this announcement, his deputy foreign minister appeared on live TV to assure Poles that U.S. military protection in the face of the Russian threat was not endangered by the new law, despite the “large and Influential” Jewish community in America.

While Poland and its citizens were undoubtedly “victims” of Nazi aggression, historians say, the country seeks to delete dark chapters in its postwar history in which Polish leaders perpetuated the injustices of the war period.

After the Nazis annihilated and plundered the Jews of Poland, the post-war Soviet-backed regime engaged in a second round of theft by nationalizing communal and private property of the murdered Jews, including a large number of prosperous factories.

According to an Israeli government-appointed commission in 2007, Jewish property confiscated by the Communists in Poland had a combined value of about $30 billion, encompassing more than 1 million individual properties.

“What we’re talking about is not what Germany did during the Holocaust, but about the property that was confiscated after the war by the Communist government,” WJRO’s Taylor said in an interview. The Polish state “took property, benefited from it for 70 years and now — with this bill — is saying that ‘we have no responsibility.’”

Ninety percent of Polish Jewry were murdered by the Nazis, often with assistance from Polish collaborators, historians attest. The thrust of the new bill is the denial of this historical truth and the abolishing of any moral accountability on the part of the Polish people for the fate the Jews.

`Holocaust Law` Unleashed Wave of Jew-Hatred 

The Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, provided the groundwork for last week’s law with an earlier one in 2018 that went so far as to criminalize any suggestion that the country was responsible for the mass murder of Jews during World War II.

The legislation encouraged civil prosecution against historians who claim that large numbers of Poles collaborated with the occupying Nazis in hunting down and slaughtering Jews.

President Duda was elected in 2015 partly on the basis of his campaign promise to take action against those who “falsely accuse the Poles of participating in the Holocaust.”

Poles who took part in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust were the exception, they numbered just a few,” he asserted.

His government has gradually tightened its control over the courts, the media, and domestic rights groups. Criticized for steadily eroding democracy in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party began using “slander against the Polish state” as a rallying issue for stoking patriotic fervor and boosting the party’s ratings.

The law and subsequent backlash unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.

In the weeks leading up to the passage of the “Holocaust Law,” media outlets captured crowds of Poles demonstrating outside the Parliament, demanding that the Polish President sign the bill. “Duda, take off your yarmulka!” the crowd chanted derisively.

The legislation was eventually modified after Israel, the United States and some of Poland’s European Union allies harshly criticized it.  They warned that the controversial measure would muzzle historians, stifle Holocaust research and intimidate survivors seeking to record their experiences.

Abolishing Accountability for Murder

As the 2018 “Holocaust law” took effect in Poland, there were calls in Israel for then President Rivlin to boycott the March of the Living in protest. Under pressure from the White House to resolve the diplomatic crisis, Rivlin went ahead with the trip but used the joint press conference as a vehicle to drive home a pointed message about Polish accountability.

While some Poles fought the Nazi regime, he told the Polish president at the joint press conference in Krakow, “we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination of its Jews. The country of Poland allowed the implementation of the horrific genocidal ideology of Hitler. No law can abolish accountability for murder.”

Rivlin noted that Israel honors those Poles who sacrificed their lives to save Jews, but pointed out the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Holocaust-era Poland and fueled Polish complicity with the Nazi’s program of annihilation.

“People murdered and then plundered [the victims’ property]. This land was a forge of the Jewish nation’s soul, and also its largest Jewish graveyard.  You can’t erase such a rich, painful history,” Rivlin told the Polish president. “Historians have a duty to describe the past and investigate history.”

JUST Act Triggers Polish Protest 

A year after this event, in March 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act (JUST).  The law requires the State Department to report to Congress on the progress of Holocaust property restitution in dozens of countries.

The event triggered an uproar in Poland. Polish far-right groups seized on it to organize a march of thousands of Poles to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. The marchers protested U.S. pressure on Poland to compensate Jews whose families were plundered under the Nazi occupation and later under the Soviet-backed Polish government.  They were led by right-wing politicians for whom a key priority is cutting off Jewish restitution claims.

One couple wore matching T-shirts reading “Death to the enemies of the fatherland,” while another man wore a shirt saying: “I will not apologize for Jedwabne” a massacre of all the towns’ Jews by their Polish neighbors in 1941 after the Nazis occupied the town.

The protest took place “amid a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic hate speech in public life in Poland,” wrote the AP, “and it appeared to be one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times.”

Key to understanding Polish intransigence on the issue of Holocaust restitution is the Polish view of its people having been heroic and noble victims of the Nazis, never the perpetrators.

In support of this narrative, Poles point to the fact that the Polish government never collaborated with the Nazis as did the governments of Hungary and France. The Polish government fled to England where it survived the war in safety and 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, hunting down of Jews, and their deportation to the killing centers.

Individual Poles for a little as a kilo of sugar often helped in exposing Jews in hiding, historians attest. They enriched themselves through blackmailing desperate Jews and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.

`Neighbors`: `Ordinary` Poles Close Up

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 Nazis in the second world war.

This is heresy in Poland today and Gross has been threatened with death for making such statements. Fortunately he lives in the United States, out of reach of Polish zealots.

“Neighbors” describes how “ordinary” Poles at the Nazis’ instigation, herded the 1600 Jews of        into the town square on July 10, 1941, butchered 40 men, tormented 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, from infants to the elderly, 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. President Duda went so far as to call for him to be stripped of his medal due to his “mudslinging” against Poland.

Currently retired from his post as a professor at Princeton University, Gross observed that most Poles today are still in denial about the fact that 3.5 million Jews had been murdered in the death camps. Today’s Poles, he noted, including those who came of age after the Holocaust, were raised on tales of Polish heroism and nobility in the face of Nazi savagery.

Neighbors tore apart these myths. The image of wartime Poles as collaborators in Hitler’s plan to annihilate European Jewry sparked an uproar in Poland. Reactions ranged from outraged denial to grudging acknowledgement of guilt.

In the case of an isolated few, the revelations drew apologies and requests for forgiveness from the Jewish people.

As furious debate over the Gross’s conclusions continued throughout Poland, the country’s Institute of National Memory opened an investigation. After a 2-year probe, the Institute issued its conclusions: Gross’ description of the Yadvovna pogrom was historically accurate.

Judenjagd: Jew-Hunting

Like Gross, Polish-Canadian Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski has focused his work on investigating the deeper truth about the fate of Polish Jewry. He was awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for his book Hunt For The Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-occupied Poland.

The historian based his findings on years of combing through Polish archives from the Holocaust and post-Holocaust period, and on interviews with survivors.

He spoke in a lecture about having been consumed with curiosity about the phenomenon of tens of thousands of Polish Jews escaping deportation and Nazi killing raids, yet the majority of them not managing to stay alive to the end of the war.

“We know that close to 10 percent of Jews fled the Polish ghettos before they were liquidated in 1942 and 1943 – which means about 250,000 Jews tried to survive in hiding,” noted Grabowski. “But only 35,000 managed to stay alive to the end of the war. What happened to the rest?”

The great majority of Jews in hiding perished at the hands of Poles who betrayed them, he posits, based on his years of research in Polish and German archives. These Jews were denounced or simply seized, bound and turned over to the nearest police station, or to the Germans where they met their death, he said.

The Nazis orchestrated a system of Jew-hunting to ferret out Jews in hiding, the historian went on to explain. The ranks of the “hunters” were filled with Poles: villagers who conducted night searches; Polish policemen, firefighters and local informers who, in exchange for turning over Jews, received payment in the form of vodka, sugar, potatoes and oil.

These hunters created a dragnet that made it almost impossible for Jews in hiding to escape detection.

After the Jews were killed or deported, their betrayers often seized the homes and possessions of their “resettled” neighbors.

This is the history that Poland is now determined to deny, with the force of law behind their efforts.

*****

They Sheltered Jews at the Risk of Their Lives

Like the book “Neighbors,” “The Crime and the Silence” (2004) by Polish journalist Anna Bikont shines a light on Holocaust-era atrocities crimes perpetrated by local Poles against their Jewish neighbors.

Bikont’s book, which won the European Book Prize in 2011, contains interviews with eyewitnesses, murderers and survivors of the Yadvovna massacre described in Neighbors, corroborating Gross’s account down to minute details. The journalist-author also documents similar mass killings of Jews in the nearby towns of Radzilow and Wasosz.

Bikont uses Yadvovna townspeople’s own words to piece together the facts. She shows that virtually all of Yadvovna knows who the leading murderers were, who stayed home that day 80 years ago, and who joined the bloodthirsty mob.

“I can’t sleep at night. I see it as if it were yesterday. … That terrifying scream that probably didn’t last for more than two minutes, it’s still inside me.” The woman speaking these words was 10 years old on July 10, 1941, when she saw her fellow Poles driving their Jewish neighbors into the barn, as she recounted to Bikont.

She recalls schoolboys jeering at their Jewish classmates as they forced them toward the barn. Mothers tried to shield their children against the blows. Within minutes nearly all the town’s Jews—hundreds of them, from infants to old people—would be burned alive. The 10-year-old girl at the window watched the townspeople of Yadvovna pour gasoline at the barn’s four corners and set it aflame. She heard the screams.

Minutes after the killings the town went on a massive looting spree, robbing Jewish homes of silverware, furs, and furniture. After the burning, charred corpses were heaped in mass graves. At this ghastly site, survivor Shmuel Wasserstein later testified at a Polish trial, “local people were trying to search the corpses, looking for valuables.”

A handful of Jews who escaped the massacre reached the nearby ghetto of Lomza. Wearing a yellow Jude badge, Antonina would bring flour and bread to the starving Lomza ghetto, survivors recall.

On November 2, 1942, when the Germans began liquidating the Jews of the district, six survivors of the massacre including Shmuel Wasserstein, Moshe Olsewitz with his wife Leah and his brother Dov, and Yaakov and Leah Kurbran, escaped from Lomza. All six refugees were taken in by Alexander and Antonina Wyrzykowska.

The hidden Jews lived on their farm, under the pigsty and the chicken house. Antonina sprinkled gas around the pigsty, so that when the Germans came with their dogs to sniff out Jews, the gas made the dogs lose their sense of smell, writes Bikont.

Two weeks after the liberation, a gang of Polish nationalists raided the Wyrzykowskis’ home and beat the couple for having rescued Jews. This family was chased from their home and found refuge in Milanowek, near Warsaw.

After the war, the Olsewitzes moved to Argentina and the Kubrans to the United States. After Antonina lost her husband, the Kubrans brought her over to the United States, where she settled near Chicago.

On January 16, 1976, Yad Vashem recognized this courageous, humanitarian couple as Righteous Among the Nations.

Antonina died in 2011.

******

The Dreaded `Blue Police`

In a 2016 lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, historian Jan Grabowski went into detail about the catastrophe Polish Jews suffered at the hands of the Polish Blue Police, so-called because of their blue uniforms.

This paramilitary group was the only non-German force that the Nazis officially equipped with weapons and ammunition, and allowed to operate in several Nazi-occupied lands.

The historian gathered much of his information from reports written by the Polish Blue Police themselves, documentation that is today archived in Warsaw.

Burying himself in the Holocaust archives in a small town in southern Poland, Grabowski came across all-but-forgotten documents that enabled him to reconstruct what happened to the Jews who had frantically sought to hide from the Nazi roundups.

The reports describe in the perpetrators’ own words the hunting down and extermination of Jews in the ghettos of Bilgoraj, Wegrow, Wodzislaw, Lopianka and others, where the Blue Police operated on their own, without German forces present.

One rare document recovered by Grabowski is a diary left behind by Stanislaw Zeminski, a non-Jewish teacher from the town of Lukow in eastern Poland who perished in 1943 in the Majdanek death camp. Retrieved from a garbage heap and eventually deposited with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the diary documents war atrocities the writer witnessed.

Zeminski wrote that “the orgy of murders” in Lukow was not only the work of the Germans and their Ukrainian and Latvian helpers. “It was clear that Polish policemen would take part in the slaughter (they are like animals), but it turned out that normal Poles took part as well,” he wrote.

“Local inhabitants were actively involved in pulling out Jews from the bunkers in the ghetto,” Zeminski wrote in his diary, quoted in Grabowski’s book. “They dragged them from hiding places in houses, caught them in the fields, in the meadows. The shots are still ringing, but the hyenas already set their sights on Jewish riches… The dead bodies are still warm, but people are already writing letters, asking for Jewish houses, Jewish stores, workshops or parcels of land.”

From court documentation recorded in hundreds of trials conducted by the postwar communist regime in Poland, Grabowski uncovered scores of narratives that painted a shocking expose of the manner in which Poles betrayed and murdered Jews in staggering numbers.

The murderers, he suggested, in addition to being driven by naked greed and bloodlust, “were realizing their own dream of a Jew-free Poland.”

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