More than a half-century after the most tragic chapter in Jewish history, the issue of property restitution has not lost its potent emotional charge for a community still traumatized by the Holocaust, even as the survivor population dwindles.
In Poland, ongoing efforts to win restitution for Jewish property stolen during the Nazi occupation have collided with questions of who is responsible after all these decades, in a country that was itself a victim of Nazi aggression, albeit with serious episodes of anti-Semitic violence even after the war ended. While that debate is legitimate, we believe that restitution and compensation are moral necessities.
What is not legitimate is a far-right nationalist movement that is effectively using the restitution issue to stoke the anti-Semitism at its ugly core. And Polish government officials, opposing U.S. pressure on Warsaw to do the right thing, have contributed to the extremist surge with intemperate rhetoric opposing the restitution push.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki this week insisted that since Poland, too, was a victim of Nazi aggression, it had no responsibility to pay restitution, and that providing compensation would be “a posthumous victory for Hitler, which is why we will never allow it.”
Poland alone among European Union nations has not enacted laws requiring restitution or compensation for property stolen by the Nazis from Jews and non-Jews and subsequently nationalized by the Communists, with opponents arguing that such action would impose a crippling burden on the Polish economy. The issue has also roiled relations between Poland and Israel.
Earlier this month, Polish nationalists held a rally in Warsaw that The Times of Israel cited as “one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times.” They hurled ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans as they marched to the U.S. Embassy to protest Washington’s demand for restitution and compensation.
The restitution issue is not the root cause of the resurgence of Polish anti-Semitism, but it has proved an effective tool for far-right groups seeking to expand their already-considerable influence in Polish politics. So it is critical that mainstream political figures do more to tamp down their own rhetoric and seek a fair, balanced and quick solution to the restitution issue. With the survivor population nearing the vanishing point and Europe awash in resurgent anti-Semitism, time is running out.