Restitution advocates criticize Polish policies as overly onerous

Both the World Jewish Restitution Organization and an Israeli umbrella organization for survivors groups panned Polish efforts to deal with restitution.

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)
Poland’s fiscal policies on issues stemming from the Holocaust have come under fire from Jewish groups concerned with caring for survivors and obtaining restitution for lost property.
Within the past week, both the World Jewish Restitution Organization and an Israeli umbrella organization for survivors groups panned various Polish efforts to deal with the financial aspects of the country’s legacy as the primary locale in which the Nazis carried out their genocide.
On Tuesday Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, told attendees at a survivors’ conference at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan that the criteria for proving eligibility for pension payments from the Polish government for survivors living in Israel were onerous and unnecessarily complicated.
Poland recently widened the pool of those eligible for the monthly payments, finally including expatriate survivors who were citizens during the war and either fought against the Germans or were incarcerated in ghettos or camps on Polish soil.
While survivors welcomed the move, its implementation leaves something to be desired, Avital told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“The documents that you were in a camp or ghetto are not necessarily easy to get,” she said, saying elderly survivors with limited mobility would have to go to archives such as Yad Vashem’s in Jerusalem to obtain the necessary papers.
Once such proof is obtained, it has to be translated into Polish and notarized, both of which entail considerable effort and expense for those with limited means and mobility.
Also, many survivors who were children in Poland have difficulty with the multi-page Polish language forms and anyone who changed his name after immigrating to Israel has to present proof of his original name as well, she said.
Once the necessary proofs are submitted to Warsaw, another round of paperwork is sent back here, entailing further efforts to penetrate Polish bureaucratic jargon.
“I think it is excessive,” Avital complained, recalling suggesting Poland find an “easier way.”
Israel already certified people as Holocaust survivors as part of its own welfare system and the State of Israel “was ready to make life easier and give access to their files and give affidavits” to the Poles, she said. But “they rejected this,” she continued.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 eligible survivors live in Israel, according to Ma’ariv.
According to the Polish government, the new regulations put Israelis eligible for pensions on equal footing with their counterparts living in Poland.
Until April, beneficiaries living in Israel had to have a bank account in Poland or authorize someone there to receive payments on their behalf.
Last week, the World Jewish Restitution Organization heavily criticized Warsaw and called on newly sworn-in President Andrzej Duda not to sign legislation that “would set a six-month deadline for rightful owners or their heirs to participate in administrative proceedings for claims filed decades ago... and would not provide for sufficient notice.
“In addition, the law would end the practice of appointing a trustee to represent an heir who has not been identified, and would strip away an owner’s right to seek the return of large categories of properties, including those in public use. The legislation would lead to the dismissal of claims unless all the owners of the property participate in the administrative proceeding within the sixmonth window,” the restitution body stated.
While Poland has returned communal property, it has not handled the issue of personal property confiscated by the Nazis and later nationalized by the Soviets well at all, Avital said.
While other countries in the former Warsaw Pact have instituted restitution laws regarding personal property, Poland has failed to do so.
“Other countries in the East bloc have been much more amenable... and have dealt with the issue in a swifter and more positive way,” she said. “I would say that when we are speaking about reclaiming property the worst place from our point of view is Poland.”
Poland’s pre-World War II Jewish population of 3.6 million means that there is a significant amount of property that would need to be returned if such legislation was passed, and many in the country have said that the resulting economic dislocations would be harmful to the economy.
“For us the issue is not whether the legislation is constitutional or not but rather the fact that it is unjust,” World Jewish Restitution Organization chief of operations Gideon Taylor told the New York Jewish Week.
“The reality is that most people can’t recover their property, because in order to succeed in court it is necessary to prove that the confiscation of their property by Poland’s former Communist government was incorrectly carried out because of a technical error,” he explained.
Last month, 42 US congressmen sent Secretary of State John Kerry a bipartisan letter urging him to address this issue.
“Beyond the physical and emotional trauma they suffered 70 years ago, and the impact that trauma continues to have on their lives, many Holocaust survivors in the United States and around the world live in poverty while knowing the property that was stolen from them and their family remains in the hands of governments and private owners who have no rightful claim,” the legislators wrote.
Several weeks later, New York State Comptroller Thomas P.
DiNapoli, together with New York City Comptroller Scott M.
Stringer and California State Treasurer John Chiang wrote Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz asking for restitution to begin in earnest.
Last year, 50 British MPs sent a letter to then-prime minister Donald Tusk demanding the passage of a restitution law.
“The restitution issue was neglected by all consecutive governments basically from the fall of Communism. I highly doubt that it will change right now,” Piotr Kadlcik, the immediate past president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, said.