Poland’s good intentions

Poland would offer restitution to all victims of the Nazis, Jews included, if only...

The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ironically, the ancient Hebrew maxim, ‘he who encompasses too much encompasses nothing at all,’ applies to contemporary Poland.
Poland’s post-communist regime is a case in point.
Its parliament is willing to grant restitution not only to Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, but also to people of all nationalities whose property was confiscated by the Nazi and communist regimes. The Polish legislators blame their purported inability to fulfill their good intentions on the domestic financial consequences. They contend that the cost would add $6.3 billion to the national debt. Prime Minister Donald Tusk believes the projected restitution will be feasible only when (and if) the country’s economic situation improves.
This contradicts an unusually upbeat ad published in the International Herald Tribune at the behest of Poland’s Ministry of Treasury, the text of which states (in part): “Poland is currently one of the fastest developing economies in Europe. It has ranked for several years among the EU leders in terms of GDP growth. Leading international financial institutions estimate that Poland’s economy will grow by between four and 4.2 per cent in 2011.”
Nevertheless, its government pleads poverty when it comes to granting restitution for private property confiscated by the Nazis during World War and by the communist regime installed by the former Soviet Union in its aftermath.
Those who are losing out include not only Jews, but also Germans whose real estate was seized when communist Poland annexed Silesia, as well as Poles whose property was left behind in the Western Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania when these segments of Poland’s pre-1939 territory were annexed by the former USSR.
Failure to return property to its legitimate owners is a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights enacted in 1953 and ratified by Poland, which states that “no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and... by the general principles of international law.”
It also runs counter to the Terezin (Czech Republic) declaration adopted in 2000, to which Poland is a signatory. This includes guidelines for the restitution of private and communal assets, including “private property claims of Holocaust victims concerning immovable property of former owners, heirs or successors...”
Poland accepted these principles when it joined the European Union.
Even if Poland’s current economic difficulties are taken into account, its unwillingness to grant partial or even tentative restitution is morally wrong. The application of this policy to Jewish property owners is not justifiable for historical reasons.
In September 1939, when Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht conquered Poland, there were more than three million Polish Jews – more than 10% of the country’s population. Due to the brutal treatment to which they were subjected in the Nazi-run ghettos, and their subsequent transfer to the infamous death camps, less than 300,000 survived. The number of properties or assets for which Polish Jews are seeking restitution is estimated at 170,000.
Most of this tragic remnant emigrated to Israel, while others waited for opportunites to enter the US, Canada or one of the Western European countries.
The non-Jewish Poles as well as the Silesian Germans, White Russians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians were not subjected to these inhuman conditions, and relatively few found it necessary to leave their native lands.
Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, was quoted by the US- based National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) as saying Poland “is telling many elderly pre-war landowners, including Holocaust survivors, that they have no foreseeable hope of even a small measure of justice for the assets seized from them.”
In response, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sidorski said “a good moment for the US to have helped the Jews was 1943-1944,” but “now the intervention is late.” Officially. Israel has steered clear of this controversy, leaving the World Jewish Restitution Organization to deal with the Polish authorities insofar as confiscated Jewish property is concerned.
A former co-chairman of the WJRO, Naftali Lavie, himself a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, recalled his prolonged and intrepid efforts to convince Polish officialdom that compensation for confiscated private assets (there has been restitution for communal assets) should be granted. “Unfortunately, there always was a last-minute hitch that barred implementation of the agreements reached in principle,” he said.
Unfortunately, that is the case today.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent. He reports from Israel to CBS Radio and commentator.