Foreign Minister Eli Cohen recently signed an agreement with the Polish government on the resumption of youth trips from Israel to Poland. At the time of writing these lines, the agreement is not yet open for public review until it is approved by the government but the sources who reviewed it and spoke with us strongly criticized it.
The agreement gives further justification to the nationalist historical politics of the Law and Justice government in Warsaw, according to which Poles were persecuted and suffered during the years of Nazi occupation no less than the Jews and even completely ignores the detentions and murders of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust.
In this way, the agreement causes long-term damage to the memory of the Holocaust. On a practical level, it allows the placement of a Polish supervisor for every Israeli youth group at every site they visit, while transferring security of the groups to Polish officials, contrary to the practice that had existed in the past.
The government – let alone the Knesset – must not approve this agreement. Regulating full diplomatic relations with Poland is not worth the historical prices that Israel is required to pay for them. Anyone who examines Poland’s positions in international forums will find that in recent years, in most cases, Poland has not supported Israel and has even joined condemnation votes against us.
As we mark Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, the proposed agreement is nothing less than a spit in the face of Polish Jewry in Israel and around the world, including the survivors and their heirs. It seems that Foreign Minister Cohen wants to present his political achievements at any cost before he gives his place next December to MK Israel Katz in a rotation agreed upon in advance between them.
Israel misses the chance to demand restitution for Holocaust property
The discussions with the Polish government have another important aspect: in them, Israel misses, once again, the demand for a fair settlement of the looted Jewish property that remained in Poland after World War II and was transferred to Polish hands without compensation. The previous omission occurred in 2021 when then-foreign minister Yair Lapid strongly opposed Polish legislation that effectively prevented Holocaust survivors among Polish Jews from filing claims for the restitution of their property (nationalized by the communist government after World War II).
ALTHOUGH HE froze diplomatic relations with Poland, Lapid achieved nothing beyond a temporary postponement of the implementation of the discriminatory legislation. Now Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has also missed the opportunity, perhaps the last, to reach an agreement on this charged issue, which has a lot of weight and will continue to cast a heavy shadow on the relations between the two countries.
In 1938, the property of the Jews in Poland constituted a quarter of all Jewish property in Europe and was estimated at three billion dollars at the time. Today, the value of the property is estimated at $62 billion (NIS 225.5 b.) to $208 b. (NIS 756.6 b.), depending on the way of real value calculation; a maximum of 3% of that value was restituted to heirs. The calculations were made by the American economist Sidney Zabludoff, who at the time was employed by the US Treasury, the White House and the CIA.
Even so, Poland is currently demanding $1.4 trillion (NIS 5.1 t.) from Germany for the damages of the Nazi occupation in World War II, which includes the value of the Jewish property that was destroyed or looted by the Nazis. Whether Poland will receive these compensations or not, the Polish demand has created a quantitative-financial basis for discussing the share of Polish Jewry in it, something that has not been done until today. This is of particular importance at a time when Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced, in 2021, that his government would under no circumstances pay Jews a single zloty, euro or dollar.
The abandonment of the effort to recover the property of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors and their heirs stands in stark contrast to the state auditor’s harsh audit report, published in March 2022, on the government’s failed handling of the issue.
The State Audit Committee in the Knesset recently discussed this audit report and is monitoring the implementation of its recommendations. It is, therefore, essential that the government re-establish the ministerial committee for the restitution of Jewish property that was established in the past and that the committee supervises the negotiations with Poland and all the ongoing issues and disputes.
The writer is a researcher on the restitution of Jewish property and the founder of the working group for the restitution of Jewish property. He served as a senior adviser for the restitution of Jewish property in the Prime Minister’s Office, senior director of the Jewish Property Restitution Department in the Ministry for Senior Citizens (Social Equality) and a member of the advisory board of the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague.