Can Poles get deal done on reparations?

Despite pledge, compensation is a hard pill for Poles to swallow, and it's getting harder all the time.

Israel Singer was in performance mode. At an American Embassy party, the president of the Claims Conference demanded "some measure of justice" for Jews whose property was confiscated by the Nazis and the former Polish communist government. "Stop hiding behind the mask of poverty or the claim of being a second-class citizen in the European Union," Singer bellowed, his booming, accusatory words aimed at the handful of Polish government representatives in the room of some 130 guests at the Feb. 27 kosher buffet. Then he delivered the show stopper, shouting in his Brooklyn accent, "You are a member of the EU, you are a member of NATO. Behave like it." But did Singer's bluster fall on deaf ears? The day after Singer's tirade, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski told the Claims Conference that he was committed to passing compensation legislation within a year, but interviews with a dozen top legislators and longtime observers involved in property negotiations left one clear impression: Compensation is a hard pill for Poles to swallow, and it's getting harder all the time. Even a draft bill that has been dormant for months and that offers claimants a mere 15 percent of the current value of their property has gone nowhere. "We have been told by the government not to look at that one," Aleksander Grad, a center-right opposition politician and chairman of the Treasury Committee in the Polish Parliament, said of the stalled bill. "They tell us that they are sending a revised version," Grad said in the cavernous halls of the Parliament building. "We'll see." Legislators explained that Poles fear the law will cost them vital funds needed for social programs in the country with the highest unemployment rate -- 15.2 percent -- in the 27-country European Union. Estimates of the amount of the potential payout vary greatly, from $13.5 billion to $23.7 billion. Returning property to the dispossessed is impossible, politicians on all sides say, since for most Poles it conjures up the specter of wealthy Western claimants throwing out destitute tenants. Also, over the past 17 years property that could have been returned has been sold and resold. Many more Poles benefited from living in vacated properties than would gain back property today. As for compensation, it appears there are few incentives remaining that can motivate the government to move forward, despite Singer's strong words. "The circumstances are so complex that no one has managed to do anything," Jerzy Wenderlich, a left-wing opposition politician and one of the longest serving deputies in the Parliament, said during a break in the legislation session. "We lack the economic tools." Those circumstances have much to do with the fact that one-third of prewar Poland is now part of Belarus, Lithuania or Ukraine, while the inflow and outflow of ethnic groups and refugees after the war was staggering. Finally, a large swath of today's Poland was German territory before the war, and Warsaw, the city where the largest number of claims would be concentrated, was obliterated by the Nazis. Poland is the only country in the former Eastern Bloc besides Belarus that has not instituted a law offering restitution or compensation for looted property. Considering that Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world before World War II -- 3 million, or 10 percent of the country's total population -- it's easy to understand why this is a central issue for Diaspora Jewry. Only 350,000 Polish Jews survived the war, and it's mostly their heirs who would be making claims, although there are plenty of high-profile cases involving Holocaust survivors. Some 80 percent of claimants for Polish property are expected to be non-Jews, but Jewish groups have frequently been the ones exerting the most pressure on the government for a deal. The prime minister's announcement that some measure of compensation should be paid is no small matter, as nothing could be achieved without his support. It's also an important moral stance from a government that includes the League of Polish Families, a party with anti-Semitic roots. But all prime ministers over the past 17 years have expressed similar support, and numerous attempts have been made to push through a bill, without success. As Kaczynski put it during a meeting with Claims Conference representatives, according to witnesses, "I have people within my own party saying that the descendants of poor Poles are being forced to pay for the descendants of rich Poles." The Claims Conference, which for the first time held its executive board meeting in Warsaw, has embarked on a new strategy -- teaming up with non-Jewish groups within Poland who want their properties returned, or at least want some compensation for them. Miroslaw Szypowski, a Claims Conference ally who heads an umbrella group representing 300,000 non-Jewish Polish claimants, explained why things look dim. "Our movement wasn't strong enough," he said. "All the different groups involved only started working together in 2000. Now there is increasing populism in Poland, and people feel, 'Why should we have to pay for anything? We're poor.' " That may mean the government's best intentions cannot be fulfilled. "The more time that goes on, the harder this is to do," explained Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "The government is paying out of the current budget. Whatever legislation comes, it will make everyone unhappy," he said. For the government, "it's a wise choice politically to push it away." Some have suggested that the U.S. government could pressure Poland into passing compensation legislation, but it seems unlikely: Poland has troops in Afghanistan and is a member of NATO; it stepped forward with troops for Iraq. It's not realistic to think that the American government would punish Poland on the subject of restitution, experts agree. "The coalition of the willing didn't have a lot of willing," Baker said. Finally, Szypowski says restitution is still largely viewed as a Jewish question "because the government has always cleverly made it sound like that." Not an insignificant part of the population might somehow see the Parliament as giving in to the demands of foreign Jews, he reasoned. That view was reflected in the headline of an article about the Claims Conference in the Feb. 27 issue of the leading daily Rzecpostpolita: "Jews came for compensation." So what would convince Polish parliamentarians that it's worthwhile to pass a compensation bill? Money, and not morality, some legislators say. If real estate development is held up because of contentious claims, or if there's enough fear that eventually the European Court of Human Rights will sanction Poland on this issue -- several cases are pending -- the Parliament might be moved to pass legislation. "There could be serious consequences if courts make us pay huge compensation money," said Grad, head of the Parliament's Treasury Committee. Still, despite all the obstacles in the way of justice, Piotr Kadlcik, executive director of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, is convinced that it's too soon to pronounce any legislation dead. "They must do something, I simply believe they will do something," said Kadlcik, who rarely sounds a note of optimism without cause. "I just am not sure what."