Should Poland limit restitution of Jewish properties?

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Should Poland limit restitution of Jewish properties?

Poland limits restitution of confiscated Jewish property in WWII. But is this a legitimate law?

Confiscated properties in the Holocaust
During World War II, the properties of Jews in countries under the Nazi regime were often unjustly confiscated. This phenomenon is called Aryanisation, starting with the transfer of Jewish property into ‘Aryan’ hands and ending with the Holocaust.[1] [2] In fact, Professor Michael Bazyler argues that, “[t]he Holocaust was both the greatest murder and the greatest theft in history.” According to him, between $230 and $320 billion US dollars were taken from European Jews during the Nazi regime.[3]

The Reparations Agreement
As part of the 1952 Reparations Agreement between Israel and Germany, Germany agreed to repay the Jews for the expense of “resettling so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees”[4] and for the loss of stolen properties during the Nazi regime.[5] The Prime Minister of Israel at the time – David Ben Gurion – stated that the Reparation Agreements were needed to recover as many Jewish stolen properties as possible and to help Holocaust survivors in their rehabilitation after the Holocaust.[6]

The case of Poland
Poland is the only Soviet-influenced country that has not yet returned or given any compensation for confiscated properties during the Nazi regime. Since the war, almost all Jews have left Poland. Before the war, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. Almost 90% of them were killed in the Holocaust. Today, only 10,000 Jews are left in the country.[7]

Since 1989 – when Poland became a democracy – a few law proposals have been made in favour of the restitution of private properties (or their compensation) stolen by Nazis and/or later nationalised by the Communist regime in Poland. Yet, these bill proposals were never accepted. Moreover, in 2012, the most recent attempt at such a bill was declared unnecessary by the Polish government.[8]

New developments
Poland has now passed a new bill that will make it almost impossible for Jews to claim compensation for their stolen properties. In fact, the Polish parliament set a 30-year limit for requests over stolen properties during the Nazi regime. This would mean that thousands of claims will be dismissed because of this new time limit.[9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

While the Polish government argues that this new law serves to avoid fraud, it is also using it to underline that Poland should not be considered responsible for the Holocaust. They argue that the genocide was not committed by them but rather by “the German occupiers on its territory during the second world war.”[14] Another law was approved three years ago that eventually made accusing Poland to be responsible for Nazi crimes a civil offence.[15] [16] [17]

Criticism of the law
Strong criticism was heard from the UK, Israel, and the US regarding the new law. Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, argued: “This is not a historical debate about responsibility for the Holocaust but a moral debt of Poland to those who were its citizens and whose property was looted during the Holocaust and under the communist regime.”[18] Moreover he has called this law “anti-Semitic and immoral.” Israel PM, Naftali Bennet, has responded to the approval of the bill, defining it as “a shameful decision and a disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust.” Moreover, Israel has informed Poland that a new ambassador from Israel will not be sent to Warsaw.[19]

On its side, the US protested – a few days before the final approval of the bill – that this new bill will be extremely harmful to Jews as it will make it practically impossible to reclaim stolen properties. The UK Foreign Office and the British embassy in Warsaw stated on Twitter: “Restitution of confiscated Jewish property remains unfinished business. Poland’s many friends urge it to agree to a fair and reasonable scheme.”[20] Finally, Gideon Taylor, chair of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, said the new bill was a “terrible mistake.”[21]

Will the law be revoked?
Poland’s controversial bill has aroused a lot of criticism around the world. After the terrible genocide of the Holocaust, it would seem reasonable that Jews get at least a certain kind of acknowledgement and compensation for stolen properties. However, Poland feels that it is paying for the crimes of another nation. Moreover, Poland might also feel that giving this compensation will mean admitting to responsibility in the Holocaust. This seems not to be acceptable for the Polish government, as Poland was an occupied country at the time of the war and therefore not responsible for the crimes of its occupiers. Still, the pressure from Europe and beyond to revoke the new bill is high and only time will tell if it will be effective.

Ghila Amati

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[1] Aryanization

[2] Previous The confiscation of Jewish property

[3] Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts

[4] Former Claims Conference exec to serve as new chairman – The Forward

[5] Bundesgesetzblatt Teil II

[6] David Ben-Gurion: Politics and Leadership in Israel

[7] Poland – WJRO

[8] Poland – WJRO

[9] Anger as Poland plans law that will stop Jews reclaiming wartime homes

[10] Poland defends law that could block Jewish restitution claims

[11] Explained: Why Poland is backing laws that make it tough for Jews to reclaim stolen property

[12] Poland: Lawmakers approve Holocaust restitution bill

[13] Polish president signs Holocaust restitution bill

[14] Anger as Poland plans law that will stop Jews reclaiming wartime homes

[15] Poland Holocaust law: Government U-turn on jail threat

[16] Anger as Poland plans law that will stop Jews reclaiming wartime homes

[17] Poland says it’s hoping Israel will come around on Holocaust legislation

[18] Israel summons Polish envoy over Holocaust property bill

[19] Israel furious as Poland’s president signs bill to limit property claims

[20] Lord (Eric) Pickles on Twitter: “Poland has a proud record as the world’s custodian of Holocaust sites. Restitution of confiscated Jewish property remains unfinished business. Poland’s many friends urge it to agree a fair and reasonable scheme… https://t.co/03vKaNYp8Y”

[21] Anger as Poland plans law that will stop Jews reclaiming wartime homes