The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ironically, the ancient Hebrew maxim, ‘he who encompasses too much encompasses nothing at all,’ applies to contemporary Poland.
Poland’s post-communist regime is a case in point.
Its parliament is willing to grant restitution not only to Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, but also to people of all nationalities whose property was confiscated by the Nazi and communist regimes. The Polish legislators blame their purported inability to fulfill their good intentions on the domestic financial consequences. They contend that the cost would add $6.3 billion to the national debt. Prime Minister Donald Tusk believes the projected restitution will be feasible only when (and if) the country’s economic situation improves.
This contradicts an unusually upbeat ad published in the International Herald Tribune
at the behest of Poland’s Ministry of Treasury, the text of which
states (in part): “Poland is currently one of the fastest developing
economies in Europe. It has ranked for several years among the EU leders
in terms of GDP growth. Leading international financial institutions
estimate that Poland’s economy will grow by between four and 4.2 per
cent in 2011.”
Nevertheless, its government pleads poverty when it comes to granting
restitution for private property confiscated by the Nazis during World
War and by the communist regime installed by the former Soviet Union in
Those who are losing out include not only Jews, but also Germans whose
real estate was seized when communist Poland annexed Silesia, as well as
Poles whose property was left behind in the Western Ukraine, Belarus
and Lithuania when these segments of Poland’s pre-1939 territory were
annexed by the former USSR.
Failure to return property to its legitimate owners is a violation of
the European Convention of Human Rights enacted in 1953 and ratified by
Poland, which states that “no one shall be deprived of his possessions
except in the public interest and... by the general principles of
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It also runs counter to the Terezin (Czech Republic) declaration adopted
in 2000, to which Poland is a signatory. This includes guidelines for
the restitution of private and communal assets, including “private
property claims of Holocaust victims concerning immovable property of
former owners, heirs or successors...”
Poland accepted these principles when it joined the European Union.
Even if Poland’s current economic difficulties are taken into account,
its unwillingness to grant partial or even tentative restitution is
morally wrong. The application of this policy to Jewish property owners
is not justifiable for historical reasons.
In September 1939, when Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht conquered Poland, there
were more than three million Polish Jews – more than 10% of the
country’s population. Due to the brutal treatment to which they were
subjected in the Nazi-run ghettos, and their subsequent transfer to the
infamous death camps, less than 300,000 survived. The number of
properties or assets for which Polish Jews are seeking restitution is
estimated at 170,000.
Most of this tragic remnant emigrated to Israel, while others waited for
opportunites to enter the US, Canada or one of the Western European
The non-Jewish Poles as well as the Silesian Germans, White Russians,
Ukrainians and Lithuanians were not subjected to these inhuman
conditions, and relatively few found it necessary to leave their native
Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, was quoted by the
US- based National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) as
saying 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 seized from them.”
In response, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sidorski said “a good
moment for the US to have helped the Jews was 1943-1944,” but “now the
intervention is late.” Officially. Israel has steered clear of this
controversy, leaving the World Jewish Restitution Organization to deal
with the Polish authorities insofar as confiscated Jewish property is
A former co-chairman of the WJRO, Naftali Lavie, himself a Polish-born
Holocaust survivor, recalled his prolonged and intrepid efforts to
convince Polish officialdom that compensation for confiscated private
assets (there has been restitution for communal assets) should be
granted. “Unfortunately, there always was a last-minute hitch that
barred implementation of the agreements reached in principle,” he said.
Unfortunately, that is the case today.The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent. He reports from Israel to CBS Radio and commentator.
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