Polish 'foot-dragging' may lead to survivors losing restitution eligibility

Polish officials tell 'Post' they're aware of difficulties and acting to correct them.

Holocaust survivors and their heirs living in Israel risk losing eligibility for restitution from the Polish government due to bureaucratic delays in confirming their citizenship, delays which attorneys for the survivors and their heirs are calling "intentional foot-dragging." According to a bill currently before the Polish parliament and expected to be passed into law before the end of 2007, all those who were Polish citizens on or before September 1, 1939, and their heirs would be eligible for partial restitution of their property seized by the Nazi occupiers of Poland or by the communist regime that arose after World War II. If the bill passes, it will be the first step by the Polish national government (as opposed to isolated local restitution initiatives in the past) toward restitution of both Jewish and non-Jewish property. The law would set a one-year deadline for submission of restitution claims. But for more than 10,000 Jews living in Israel, the policies of Nazi and communist authorities have created documentation problems that, coupled with alleged deliberate delays by present-day Polish authorities, may make it impossible for them to prove eligibility in time. Attorney Ilan Charsky of Ramat Gan has been working for four years to win recognition from Polish authorities that his clients, thousands of heirs of Polish Jews living in Israel, are the children of Polish citizens from September 1, 1939, and should still be considered citizens today. "Polish administrative authorities are intentionally foot-dragging in dealing with [citizenship confirmation] files from Israel," he told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. He accused Polish local governments - responsible for the citizenship confirmation claims - of "intending to keep Jews from benefiting from the [proposed restitution] law." The documentation problems created by the Nazi occupation and the communist regime are real. Even those who survived the concentration and death camps often lost all documentation proving their Polish citizenship. For those who remained in Poland after the war, thereby regaining documentary evidence of citizenship, their citizenship was often forfeited when they fled anti-Semitic violence in the 1950s and '60s. Upon leaving communist Poland for Israel, Polish Jews were forced to sign forms "requesting" a renunciation of their citizenship as a condition for being allowed out of the country. But the bureaucratic difficulties encountered by survivors and their heirs in confirming long-forgotten or poorly-documented citizenship are not limited to these issues, Charsky maintains. Poland's Administrative Supreme Court and an Administrative District Court have ruled multiple times that the signatures of fleeing Jews on forced "request forms" do not automatically effect a renunciation of citizenship, but require state committee approval. Since no such state committee ever convened, and the request forms were thus never confirmed, the Polish Jews who fled for Israel are still Polish citizens. It is important to note that decisions by the Administrative Supreme Court are advisory and do not constitute a legally binding precedent for Polish authorities. But for Charsky, the authorities' refusal to abide by the court ruling calls into question their intentions. In the case of Jews who survived the Nazi camps without Polish documentation, Charsky points to survivors or their heirs who presented Polish authorities with Nazi documents citing birthplaces in towns located in WWII-era Polish territory. Polish authorities, he told the Post, have informed these appellants repeatedly that such documentation was invalid, since it is not Polish. Requests for citizenship confirmations are submitted to the voivodships, the local governorships that constitute the main subdivision of the Polish state. Most of the confirmation requests are submitted to the Mozovia Voivodship, the province in which Warsaw is located, and it is there that they are almost always rejected. In fact, in the summer of 2006, the Mozovia authorities began asking that all Israeli Interior Ministry documents (such as birth certificates issued to immigrants in the 1950s citing their declared birthplaces in Poland) possess certification stamps from the Israeli Foreign Ministry confirming that they are correctly formatted official documents from Israel. The Foreign Ministry stamp does not validate the content of the document, only its format. This policy change led to a further delay as thousands of documents already sent to the Mozovia Voivodship office had to be returned to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem for stamping, a task it is not staffed to perform quickly. "Even the appeals committee [in Poland to which rejected confirmation claims are taken] doesn't think this is justified," says Charsky in frustration. He doesn't understand why 50-year-old documents from the Israeli Interior Ministry should be viewed with suspicion, since "no Jew gave Israeli authorities a birthplace 50 years ago designed to give them a citizenship claim today." Furthermore, the courts have repeatedly ruled that the paperwork submitted to the voivodship office was valid. Of approximately 700 requests that have completed the entire process of submission to the voivodship, appeal to the Office for Repatriation and Aliens in Poland's Ministry of Internal Affairs and then on to the courts, less than 5 percent were denied citizenship confirmation. But the process, which sees the claims rejected in the voivodship offices and at the Office for Repatriation and Aliens before the claimants gain the option of turning to the courts, is a lengthy one. "Polish law dictates that [citizenship confirmation] decisions must be taken within a month, and up to two months if it's a complicated case," Charsky notes in frustration, but the bureaucratic delays have meant that requests can now take as long as two years. Now, with a bill about to be passed that would set a one-year deadline for restitution claims, these delays could cost Israelis their eligibility, and Charsky and at least 10 other lawyers representing survivors and their heirs believe this is deliberate. Polish officials, speaking to the Post on Thursday, said the government was aware of the bureaucratic difficulties and was acting to correct them. Polish Ambassador to Israel Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska confirmed that "after the fall of the communists, we realized that the law [forcibly stripping citizenship from emigrants to Israel] was only for those who came to Israel, while those who went to the US, Sweden or Denmark never lost their Polish citizenship. "Two years ago, the administrative court of Poland stated that this law was not valid even according to the communist constitution, which said it was not permissible to strip a whole category of people of their citizenship." However, she added, the court ruled that "every request for restoring citizenship should be considered personally." After speaking with Poland's interior minister on Wednesday, Magdziak-Miszewska promised that "our Ministry of Internal Affairs is going to recommend to local governors [who, as heads of the voivodships, are responsible for confirming citizenship] to follow the courts' rulings." She added that "those people eligible for citizenship should go to the court, and if the court will decide in their favor, they are Polish citizens. This is the practice." Magdziak-Miszewska affirmed that "as our president stated, there is a special relationship with Israel," and said Poland should change the procedures for confirming citizenship, "making it much easier." But, she added emphatically, the issue is not one of Jewish property restitution, since the citizenship question affects only Israelis - "due to policies of the communists," she emphasized - and not with Jews from other states. An official in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw agreed that the bureaucratic foot-dragging was not understandable. "The issue was settled by Poland's Administrative Supreme Court," he said, "but the law doesn't allow for particular district or area courts to take this ruling as binding. They can just refer to it as an opinion." This means the court's decisions in one case are not relevant to the next, forcing each applicant to undergo the entire appeals process individually. "On the other hand, the Office for Repatriation and Aliens is seen as the institution capable of dealing with citizenship issues," the official said, "so I guess the problem is somewhere in there." The Office for Repatriation and Aliens could not be reached by press time.