Jewish organizations here are promising to mount a major fight — exerting political and diplomatic pressure — to prevent the Polish government from abandoning its compensation of Jews and others whose private property was stolen by the Nazis and then confiscated by the Communists.
“We’re going to meet with the WJRO [World Jewish Restitution Organization] to decide what appropriate diplomatic channels to pursue,” said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the New York-based American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization is an umbrella group that works with European governments to obtain restitution of private and communal Holocaust-era Jewish property.
Steinberg said he expects that there would be talks with Polish authorities about last week’s decision to suspend work on restitution legislation that had been expected to be submitted this year to the Polish legislature for approval.
In announcing that work would be stopped on the legislation, Poland’s state treasury said the decision stemmed from the “current economic situation.”
The announcement came as a surprise in light of the 2008 promise by Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk that “all Polish citizens from before World War II, whether they be ethnically Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian or German” would receive restitution for their properties nationalized by the Communist regime.
Steinberg said no decisions have been made yet, but that the Jewish community could bring “political and economic pressure” to bear on Poland — tactics that have proven successful in the past in persuading European governments to live up to their Holocaust-era responsibilities.
He even held out the possibility of a boycott of Poland, should that become necessary.
In its statement, Poland’s state treasury said that if the legislation were to become effective next year, “the public debt would grow by 18 billion zloty ($6.2 billion) and the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) would grow by some 1.0 to 1.1 percentage points.”
Were that to happen, the Polish government said compensation payouts “could make Poland exceed the public debt ceiling” of 60 percent of GDP, which is required by the European Union for countries wishing to join the single currency, the euro.
But Steinberg dismissed that claim, saying that Poland “has one of the better economies of central and Eastern Europe.”
“Poverty is no excuse for stealing property,” he said. “Poland should fund the compensation with other cuts, not on the backs of Holocaust survivors.”
And Steinberg pointed out that when Poland joined the European Union, it pledged in its admission application to undertake its “solemn obligation with respect to the confiscation of illegally seized property.”
Another Jewish official pointed out that had Poland wanted to live up to its commitment, it would have announced that compensation would be paid out over a number of years instead of simply dropping the matter.
Ronald Lauder, the head of the WJRO and the World Jewish Congress, called the restitution issue one of “justice and not money.”
“By its announcement, Poland is telling many elderly pre-war landowners, including Holocaust survivors, that they have no foreseeable hope of even a small measure of justice for the assets that were seized from them,” he continued. “This issue has been under discussion in Poland for almost two decades, through many economic periods, including the present one when Poland is experiencing some of the strongest economic growth in the European Union. It is unacceptable that Poland cannot find some way to meet its responsibility to former landowners.”
He pointed out that most central and Eastern European countries “have adopted some type of law to provide for the restitution of or compensation for confiscated property. Poland stands out for its failure to do so.”
The bill’s opponents have argued that the Poland of today should not be held liable for the crimes of the Nazis and the Communists. However, it is currently in the process of making restitution for confiscated Jewish communal property.
Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, was quoted as saying that Poland’s “refusal to return it [property] to the owners is immoral. … The Bible says, ‘Do not steal.’ ”
Michael Schneider, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, issued a statement in which he called Poland’s decision “disappointing and unfair. … We must help old people, particularly Holocaust survivors, who in their twilight years need the means to cope with the problems of old age. Many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland to the United States, Israel, Britain and other countries are suffering because they do not have enough money to pay for home care. Most of these people do not have families either, as they lost them in the Holocaust.”
Although a great deal of property was successfully reclaimed following the collapse of communism in 1989, an estimated two million landowners are affected by this decision. In many cases, their property was sold to a third party or their property was in a state beyond realistic redemption. Other property was nationalized and continues to be owned by the state.
The bill that was said to be drawn up for legislative approval would have provided compensation based upon 20 percent of the property’s current value.
Poland’s property-owners’ association estimates that unreturned property is worth some more than $26 billion. About 89,000 claims are said to still be outstanding; Jewish claims are said to represent some 17 percent of all claims. There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust; three million were murdered by the Nazis.
Steinberg said that other than reparation payments, the issue of Poland’s failure to make restitution to survivors is the second most discussed issue among survivors.
He recalled that Lech Walesa, Poland’s former president, once told a group of Jewish leaders that “one-third of the property in Poland was owned by the Jews [before the Holocaust]. That’s an exaggeration, but that’s the mindset we are dealing with.”
Both Steinberg and Bobby Brown of the Jewish Agency for Israel said Lauder speaks for them when he confronts the Polish government about their responsibilities.
“I am sure that Poland as well as all other countries that have not yet realized their responsibilities will know that the eyes of the world are upon them, and that they must deal with this issue, while Jewish survivors are still with us,” said Brown, director of Project HEART, a new project of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government to identify Jews with potential claims for their private property for which they have received no compensation. “Holocaust survivors and their heirs must receive justice, compensation, as well as their families’ looted heritage.”