Poland must “provide restitution” to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, a group of fifty British lawmakers demanded on Monday. Poland remains the only major European nation that has not passed some form of restitution law, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The British demand, which was contained in a bi-partisan letter sent to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Monday, comes ahead of a planned debate in the House of Lords over issues of restitution on Thursday. The parliamentary session is intended to map out Britain’s priorities as it prepares to take over the rotating chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an association of 31 democratic countries dedicated to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust.
“Poland has a responsibility to elderly Holocaust survivors, their heirs and other victims to return their property which was seized by the Nazis or subsequently nationalized by the Communist regimes,” the letter read. “Unfortunately, Poland stands out in its failure to fulfill -or even recognize- its responsibility to victims.”
The MPs urged Tusk to begin “promoting comprehensive legislation on private property restitution” while some survivors of the Nazi genocide still remain alive.
Poland has tabled legislation on this issue several times but shelved each bill in turn.
Citing what they called “years of unfulfilled promises” by Polish authorities, the WJRO and Board of Deputies decried the fact that “a generation after the fall of Communist regimes, many Holocaust victims and their families are still fighting for the return of their property from Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.”
“With Holocaust survivors ageing and passing away, there is little time left to pursue the return of property for people who suffered so much,” Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman stated. The Board was one of a number of organizations that lobbied Parliament to tackle restitution.
According to a draft of a parliamentary briefing prepared by the WJRO and Board of Deputies for Thursday’s debate, there are hundreds of properties “in plain sight” in Poland, including synagogues, houses and factories, that must be return to their rightful owners. “Many” of these owners, the Jewish organizations asserted, live in Britain.
Responding to the MPs’ letter, Bobby Brown, the head of Project HEART, a government initiative cataloguing Jewish assets stolen during the Holocaust, told the Jerusalem Post that he believed that “for the first time there is a feeling that the Poles are willing to discuss the issue.”
“The polish government, I believe, today is more ready to discuss it but with the advancing age of our survivors those discussions have become much more urgent,” he said. “Project HEART has had initial discussions on various issues dealing with restitution and we are hoping that we will see progress in these issues shortly.”
Prior discussions on these issues have been hampered by the fact that “often the same properties were confiscated by the Nazis and then by the communists,” Brown added.
WJRO treasurer Gideon Taylor agreed, telling the Post that there has been some concern, given the sheer amount of property left by Poland’s prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million, over causing a significant dislocation by shifting the current control over so many properties.
Moreover, Taylor explained, there is a “significant amount of assets at stake” and that there have been concerns over the impact widespread restitution efforts would have on the national economy.
Despite this, however, it is incumbent on Poland to right historical wrongs and to understand that property rights are a value that must be respected if Poland is to be part of the west.
“Maybe we haven't succeeded yet in building the sense that is one of the norms,” he said. “We hope steps like this one will help make this international norm be seen in Poland not as a special steep to be taken but something that is expected among the democratic club of nations.”
“It’s been hard to build political support for restitution” until now, he added, reflecting that maybe European pressure would be useful in moving things along.
“It’s important that the voice for restitution be a European voice and not just from the US and Israel,” he explained. The letter “shows that there is real concern among political leaders in Britain and Europe for the struggle for restitution.”
Following the publication of the latter, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich stated that while Poland has “done many things to undo the damage left by the German Nazi and Soviet communist occupations,” the government still must meet the “moral challenge” of returning Jewish property.
“We need to support and encourage the Polish government to meet this challenge,” he said.