The turmoil surrounding the canceled visit to Israel this week of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki provides a very timely reminder of a key aspect of Poland’s relationship with the past. More than 75 years since the Holocaust, Poland has still not provided justice to survivors and their families whose property was taken during the Shoah and its aftermath.
Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for justice for Holocaust survivors was heard loud and clear around the world. In his first official visit to Poland, at a joint press conference with Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz, Pompeo called for Poland to resolve Holocaust-era property restitution issues.
“We also appreciate the importance of resolving outstanding issues of the past, and I urge my Polish colleagues to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era,” he said.
Morawiecki’s response that the issue has been “definitely resolved” is wrong. He erroneously referred to a Communist-era treaty between Poland and the United States as having resolved the issue. That 1960 treaty addressed only people who were citizens of the United States at the time of the taking of their property by Poland. Therefore, the treaty did not cover most American Holocaust survivors from Poland.
This was made clear by the US State Department in a 2015 letter. Nor would that agreement have affected claims from Polish Holocaust survivors or their families who live today in Israel or other countries.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has taken an important role in calling for Poland to do what is right. In October 2017, the Israeli government, together with the Jewish world, protested proposed Polish legislation that would have excluded the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families.
Poland is the only country in the European Union that has not passed comprehensive national legislation to return, or provide compensation for, private property confiscated by the Nazis and/or nationalized by the Communist regime from Jews as well as non-Jews.
At the announcement of that flawed legislation, Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki was very clear about what remained to be done.
“I’m ashamed that it has taken Poland until now, 28 years after the fall of communism, to prepare such a bill. This should have been taken care of a long time ago,” Jaki said. Following the protests about the exclusion of Holocaust survivors and their families from the draft legislation, it was withdrawn for reconsideration, but a new version has not yet been put forth.
Approximately three million Jews – 90% of Poland’s Jewish population – were systematically murdered by the Nazis. The remaining Holocaust survivors cannot wait any longer for justice.
We are proud to see renewed calls for justice from Israel and the United States, both strong allies of Poland.
President Reuven Rivlin spoke movingly in support of justice, when leading the 30th annual March of the Living from the gates of Auschwitz to Auschwitz-Birkenau last April.
“Too many citizens in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe stole Jewish property, took control of Jewish homes, handed over their Jewish neighbors, murdered them and turned their backs on those who, just a moment before, had been a part of them,” he said. “And when the survivors of the Holocaust returned after the war, they were sometimes met with hostility, violence, pogroms and murder.”
For many years, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has urged the Polish government to address the issue of Holocaust-era restitution.
The summit meeting planned for this week in Israel of the Visegrad nations – Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – was to have considered important challenges of the present and the future.
But, as we have seen in the current argument over the history of the Holocaust, in order to move forward, nations need to address the past.
Now is the time for Poland to pass a law that is fair and just to all – including Holocaust survivors and their families.
Gideon Taylor is WJRO chairman of operations and Ambassador Colette Avital is WJRO secretary-general.