Lauder urges Poland to compensate Holocaust victims

WJC president says issue is one of the thorniest problems still weighing on Polish-Jewish relations.

lauder 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
lauder 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Ronald Lauder, president of the New York-based World Jewish Congress, on Tuesday urged Poland to redress what he described as one of the thorniest problems still weighing on Polish-Jewish relations - Warsaw's failure to compensate Jews for property seized during the Nazi and communist eras. Lauder called on the Polish government to enact urgently a compensation law that has been in the pipeline for years for people - Jews and others - who were deprived of property. He made his appeal in an article published in the daily Rzeczpospolita, a day before he is to meet with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to discuss the matter. "One of the thorniest problems with Poland concerns restitution of properties that were seized during the German occupation and later during the communist era," Lauder argued in the article, the original English version of which was supplied by the World Jewish Congress. "To deny the return of stolen property, or adequate compensation ... violates basic democratic principles," he added. "Such denial to a Holocaust victim is a double humiliation. People who barely survived the war and later learnt that everything they owned had been seized by others, including the Polish state, cannot be expected to wait any longer." Poland passed a law in 1997 that provides for restitution of Jewish communal property, such as synagogues and cemeteries. But in contrast to many other European countries, Poland has so far not compensated those stripped of private property. The government argues that, after 19 years spent recovering from the economic legacy of communism, it lacks the money to compensate fully those who where dispossessed, most of whom were non-Jewish Poles. After taking office last November, Tusk said his government would present a bill to parliament this fall that, if passed, would compensate Jews and non-Jews alike for about 15 or 20 of the value of what they lost. An alliance of Polish groups seeking restitution has estimated the value of seized property claimed by owners, or their heirs, at around US$23 billion, with about 17 percent of that rightly belonging to Jews. Some of the property was seized by the Nazis during their World War II occupation of Poland and later taken into public ownership, and some was seized under communist rule. Even though the majority of the dispossessed are non-Jews, the unresolved issue looms large in Jewish restitution efforts given that Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community - about 3.5 million people - before the Holocaust. "We expect great progress on this issue," Lauder said. "Such a settlement is not primarily about money; it is above all about justice, however belatedly it may be done."