An open letter to President Komorowski of Poland

By COLETTE AVITAL, LILLI HABER
November 2, 2013 21:55

Nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Polish gov't has not taken significant action to return formerly Jewish-owned private property that was lost during the Shoah.

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Polish President  Bronislaw Komorowski  addresses the UN, September 26, 2012.

President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski 370. (photo credit:REUTERS/Mike Segar )

Dear Mr. President,

Israel and Poland today enjoy a deep friendship.

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Your visit to Israel is further evidence of the strength of that relationship.

Friendship demands support for each other, and it also demands that we be open and honest about our views and opinions – even if they are sometimes uncomfortable for the other to hear.

Nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Polish government has not taken significant action to return formerly Jewish-owned private property that was lost during the Shoah.

Countless survivors and their families have made journeys back to Poland. While there, they often see the houses where they grew up and the businesses that they ran. All that they seek is the return of that which belonged to them.

About 90 percent of the approximately 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland prior to WWII were killed in the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of owners in Israel and around the world – and heirs of victims who were owners – of real property in Poland continue to be left without what is theirs.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has worked for years to present proposals for meaningful legislation to solve the problem.

Poland stands alone as the only major country in Central and Eastern Europe, and member state of the European Union, without such a law. Since Poland became a democracy in 1989, a number of bills have been proposed to deal with the restitution of, or compensation for, private property seized by the Nazis and/or later nationalized by the Communist regime. None have become law.

Moreover, after repeated, unfulfilled commitments to pass a restitution bill over the years, the officials of your government recently claimed that such a law is unnecessary. Instead, they assert that restitution claimants should go to the Polish court system to seek justice, despite the fact that in most cases such a complex, expensive, burdensome and time-consuming path would serve – and, for years, has served – as a de facto barrier to elderly survivors and their heirs.

The fact that Poland did enact legislation to return communal property shows that progress can be made.

An international consensus now exists.

The 2009 Prague Conference culminated in approval by over 40 countries of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. The Declaration stated in part: “Noting the importance of restituting communal and individual immovable property that belonged to the victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) and other victims of Nazi persecution, the Participating States urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures... which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.”

Mr President, please urge your government to promptly introduce and enact legislation that includes the following:

 • The restitution of and/or compensation for property seized by the Nazis and their collaborators, beginning in September 1939;
• The return of the confiscated property or, if not possible, fair and timely compensation; and
• A simple claims process, without legal obstacles, which provides for easy access to relevant archives.

We must always move forward to the future together as two peoples who share many common visions and goals. But the way to the future lies through facing up to and addressing the past.

Three million Polish Jews did not survive and can never recover that which was taken. But their families, and the survivors and their children, can.

We ask you, Mr. President, to take on the challenge of righting a historic wrong.

Colette Avital is secretary of the World Jewish Restitution Organization and chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. Lilli Haber is president of the Association of Polish Jews in Israel.

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