High time for Poland to confront its past

No viable solution has yet been found to resolve the critical issue of restitution for the Polish victims of the Holocaust nor the 1968 anti-Semitic social and political unrest.

Survivors of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz arrive to the former camp in Oswiecim. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Survivors of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz arrive to the former camp in Oswiecim.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My childhood was full of magical, well-known tales about characters like Tevye the Milkman, as well as tales of love and joy and everyday life in the shtetls of Poland, told with warmth and wit by my grandparents. Some of these characters became my childhood heroes.
As a little boy yet unaware of Auschwitz, I wondered about my grandmother’s sadness: Even when telling funny stories, she seemed to laugh with one eye and cry with the other. I don’t remember when I found out that all the characters, so alive in these vivid stories, were murdered in Auschwitz.
In recent years I have had several opportunities to visit former Polish shtetls, including the town of Zamosc, where my grandmother’s family lived before the Holocaust. These villages are places where Jewish memory has been turned into history. On a one-lane street leading to a small house on Ulica Gesia in Zamosc, I found the house where the Zalcman family once lived. It was from this house that my relatives were deported to the death camp of Belzec, just a few dozen kilometers away, in July 1942.
On another street in Katowice, I found the house where my grandparents found refuge after surviving the war in Stalin’s gulags. From here, they were expelled in 1968 following the Polish communist government’s anti-Semitic campaign. These events resulted in the forced exodus of the country’s last remaining 20,000 Jews, a mere 25 years after Nazi Germany had carried out the Holocaust on Polish soil.
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There are no Jews in Zamosc and no sizable community in Katowice today. No sign of a once-thriving Jewish life is present. The only memories left of Tevye the Milkman and my own family’s legacy – as well as thousands of other Jews – are their seized and nationalized properties.
It is estimated that there are more than 170,000 private properties held in Poland that were wrongfully seized from Jewish victims of the Holocaust and communist terror. The properties have an estimated value of billions of dollars, according to a comprehensive report drawn up by experts from the business sector, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations at the request of the Israeli government.
Despite the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, no viable solution has been found to resolve the critical issue of restitution for the Polish victims of the Holocaust nor the 1968 pogrom.
Poland was among the main victims of Nazi Germany: Six million of its citizens – half of them Jews – were murdered by the Germans. Since regaining its independence in 1989, joining NATO and entering the European Union, Poland has established itself as a model for free and democratic states in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. The free Polish Republic has established exceptionally close and constructive diplomatic relations with Israel and the United States.
Poland’s reputation as a force for moral good would be made greater by reaching a just settlement, acceptable to all parties, on the issue of restitution of private property seized from Polish Jews.
The president of the Polish Republic, Bronislaw Komorowski, stated during the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw that one of the central themes in Poland’s drive to freedom was to put right the account of history that had been corrupted during the communist era. As stressed by the country’s former Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, every post-1989 government of independent Poland has discussed the issue of property restitution, but lacked the determination or political will to finalize and pass these legislative efforts.
Whereas most Central and Eastern European countries have adopted legislation to provide for the restitution of or compensation for confiscated property, Poland still stands out for its failure and lack of political will to fulfill and recognize its responsibility to the victims. Poland must revise this approach by passing comprehensive legislation providing for the complete restitution of assets stolen by the Nazis and the Communist governments. The advanced age of remaining Holocaust survivors makes the matter all the more urgent and the need to act all the more pressing.
The international standards are clear. The overriding principle that emerged in the immediate postwar period in Western Europe and was enacted in Allied decrees and legislation that has continued to this day (see the German Property Law 1990) is that property that was taken from Jewish owners and their heirs must be returned, with interest, to their former Jewish owners. A wrong was committed; the wrong must be remedied.
The European Convention of Human Rights (1953), which the Republic of Poland has ratified, states in Article 1 that “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” The convention makes it absolutely clear that “no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”
These principles were reinforced in the Terezin Declaration of June 2009, ratified by 46 countries including Poland, which established clear guidelines for the restitution of private and communal assets forcibly seized during the Holocaust. The declaration stresses the utmost importance of resolving “private property claims of Holocaust victims concerning immovable property of former owners, heirs or successors, by either in rem restitution or compensation, as may be appropriate, in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner consistent with relevant national law and regulations, as well as international agreements.”
The remaining ghosts of the past must be fought and old offenses must be compensated. It is high time that Poland honors the memory of those who were murdered during the Nazi tyranny, and brings justice to the survivors and their heirs by rectifying the wrongful expropriations of property by the Nazi and Communist regimes.
By intensifying efforts to return the confiscated properties to their rightful owners and by honoring the memory of the past, we safeguard the fundamental principles of tolerance, freedom and democracy – and help ensure that no child in the future will have to learn his childhood heroes were annihilated.

The author is a political scientist, writer and expert on European politics. He has served as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, Stanford University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Poland's ambassador to Israel has written a letter in response to this piece.