Salute to Righteous Poles: A boon in restitution battle?

Event organized by Claims Conference, whose representatives met with Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski less than 24 hours later.

Arranging a reunion between a hidden Jewish woman and her Catholic rescuer may have paid unseen dividends for Jewish organizations fighting a property restitution battle in Poland. A day after Jozefa Tracz Czekaj and Miriam Schmetterling saw each other for the first time in more than 60 years, pictures of the women embracing graced the front pages of Poland's largest newspapers and were shown on every television channel. The meeting between Czekaj, the rescuer, and Schmetterling, who had not been in Poland since the end of World War II, was the main event of a Feb. 27 luncheon at the Lauder Morasha Jewish School for 60 Poles recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, gentiles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. The event was organized by the Claims Conference, whose representatives met with Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski less than 24 hours later. "Clearly having this event a day before such an important meeting, and having the prime minister see these newspaper articles, made the climate of such difficult talks more positive," said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference executive vice president. Newspaper stories credited the Claims Conference with uniting the women. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous contributed to the planning of the event. The Claims Conference - which was holding its first executive board meeting in Warsaw - and the World Jewish Restitution Organization had come to press their case for compensation for private property looted by the Nazis, taken over by the communist regime and never returned. Restitution has been an unpopular cause in Poland, but extensive television and newspaper coverage showing the rescued hugging the rescuer, feel-good stories about Polish efforts to help Jews during the Holocaust and Claims Conference gratitude to the righteous Poles set the tone for the meeting with Kaczynski. "The prime minister said he was committed to passing a law on compensation this year and seemed genuinely affected by the positive feelings about Poland we expressed," Taylor said. Poland is the only country in the former Eastern bloc besides Belarus that has not passed a restitution or compensation law on private property confiscated by the Nazis and then the communists. In the case of Poland, it's estimated that only 20 percent of the property nationalized by the communist regime was owned by Jews before World War II. But since Jewish groups have been the most vocal in pushing for restitution, media coverage of their demands has suggested that Jews consider Poland anti-Semitic and hold it responsible for their suffering during the Holocaust. Such charges make conservative, nationalistic politicians like Kaczynski particularly uncomfortable. The Claims Conference salute showcased how Polish citizens took tremendous risks to save their Jewish neighbors. Schmetterling, 83, who now lives in Germany, was ushered into a room amid flashing cameras, tape recorders and an audience of some 160 guests to meet Czekaj, 79, who helped her parents hide Schmetterling and her husband for 10 months in the eastern town of Kopyczynce. Originally from Lvov, Schmetterling fled as 50,000 Jews from the city were sent to the Belzec concentration camp. She, her husband and his parents hid in the attic of the Tracz home only a few feet from Gestapo headquarters. Czekaj would play the piano when visitors came to prevent them from hearing the strangers upstairs. Schmetterling and Czekaj had not seen each other since 1944, when Soviet troops liberated Kopyczynce from the Nazis. "I am here today only because she and her family risked everything to save us," Schmetterling told the crowd, looking at Czekaj. "Now, to see her here in Poland, is more than I could have imagined." Schmetterling thanked not only Czekaj but everyone in the room who had saved Jews. Taylor lauded the rescuers, too. "In Jewish teaching we say to save a life is to save the world. You in this room have saved the world many times over," he told the elderly guests. Taylor noted the symbolism of holding the luncheon in a Jewish school: Through the efforts of rescuers, people like Schmetterling, a mother of two, could bring a new generation of Jews into the world. Before Schmetterling entered the room, Czekaj sat nervously, eager with anticipation. The events of the week had forced to recall the horrors of the Holocaust: classmates she saw being carted off to camps or Jews rounded up and killed by the Nazis in front of her house, which was next to the town hall. But Czekaj's unease turned to elation when Schmetterling embraced her. Asked why her family risked their lives and the lives of their children to help a work acquaintance - Czekaj's brother-in-law worked for Schmetterling's father-in-law, a doctor - Czekaj answered, "I am a Catholic, everything we did was on a religious basis. That is all I need to say." "If a situation like that occurred again, I would not hesitate to do what we did again," she said. At a time when The League of Polish Families, a Catholic-oriented party with a history of anti-Semitism, is in government, and several incidents of anti-Semitism have occurred in Poland, the Claims Conference's focus on the righteous garnered intense media attention for a country still coming to terms with its past. There were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland - more than in any other European country - before the Holocaust. About 90 percent of them were killed. But Polish politicians also note that more Polish citizens are recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations than any other nationality. Some 6,000 Poles have been so recognized; an estimated 800 are still alive and living in Poland. Most of this week's honorees were children of parents who hid Jews. The children helped obtain food for the Jews and sometimes invented elaborate ruses to keep the Germans at bay. Those who helped Jews did not receive recognition from the Polish government until the fall of communism, and many have lived in poverty. Some who lived in small towns ran afoul of neighbors who did not understand why they risked their lives for Jews. The Claims Conference has been assisting the Righteous Among the Nations for 40 years, channeling small monthly payments through the foundation that have added up to more than $6 million. The program was initiated by Saul Kagan, who led the Claims Conference for 47 years. Kagan recalled the signs in Polish erected by the Nazis that warned of death to those who helped the Jews, and financial rewards for those who turned them in. "If I had been a young man then with a family to take care of and Jews had come knocking on my door, I don't know what I would have done," he said. "I just don't know." But Hanna Zmigrodska, 85, who was 20 when her parents sheltered three Jewish couples and two women in the family's Warsaw apartment, had no doubts. "We had no problems with Jews," she said. "Helping is the most natural reaction."