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Explained: Why Poland is backing laws that make it tough for Jews to reclaim stolen property

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the legislation a "disgrace”, while the country’s embassy in Poland said it would "make it impossible" for seized property to be returned and make it harder for families to seek compensation.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: June 30, 2021 7:26:53 am
Participants attend the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland. (Photo: Reuters)

On June 24, Poland’s lower house of parliament passed a draft legislation that would change the rules for property restitution in the country. But this move has come under criticism both domestically and internationally, with critics saying it would make it harder for Jews to recover property seized by Poland’s Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. For at least the past year, Poland has been defending its plans, which came to a head last week with the passing of the draft legislation.

Reuters reported that this legislation “would implement a 2015 Constitutional Tribunal ruling that there should be a deadline after which faulty administrative decisions can no longer be challenged. The law sets this deadline at 30 years.”

How does this legislation affect Jewish families?

Occupied Poland’s Jewish community was almost entirely wiped out by Nazi Germany during World War II and their property looted, stolen and nationalised by the post-war Communist government. Jewish property owners and their descendants, as well as Jewish organisations have been campaigning for decades for compensation and for the return of the stolen property.

Some researchers trace the start of restitution claims to 1989, after the fall of Communism, but others argue that it started much earlier, after the end of the war. In his paper titled ‘Jewish property after 1945: cultures and economies of ownership, loss, recovery, and transfer’, Jacob Ari Labendz writes that discourse on the subject of reparations began as early as 1945.

In his writings, World War II historian David Gerlach mentions that most of the property lost by the Jews was never recovered and he delves into what stolen property meant to Jews and how it shaped their memories about the past, particularly how new owners and non-Jewish owners of these objects view them differently than survivors of the Holocaust. While many Poles have been accused of complicity, thousands of others also risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbours during the war years.

Why is this debate important?

Prior to the war, Poland was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. Last year, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Poland became the only EU country to not have legislated on property restitution. Back then, major Jewish organisations had brought attention to how the lack of legislation was impacting survivors and descendants of victims. Gideon Taylor, director of operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), had told news publications that the country’s economy continues to benefit from the nationalisation of property of Jewish owners by the Communist government in the post-war years in Poland.

A DW report from last year cites an assessment conducted by the Israeli government 14 years ago in which experts determined that heirless property taken over by the Communist regime in Poland had a combined value of about $30 billion totalling approximately 1,70,000 private properties.

What does Poland have to say?

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has maintained that the country was a victim during World War II and that it should not be saddled with any financial obligations. Days before the country’s election last year, this debate resurfaced, following which President Andrzej Duda said he would never allow compensation for Jewish property that was taken away during the war.

Bloomberg news had quoted Duda saying in a televised address on a state broadcast outlet before Poland went to polls that “there won’t be any damages paid for heirless property… I will never sign a law that will privilege any ethnic group vis-a-vis others. Damages should be paid by the one that started the war.” At that time, observers had said Duda’s views skewing sharply towards the right, and being expressed more strongly than before, were an attempt to attract voters during a contentious election, by pushing nationalistic rhetoric.

For the past few years, historians have been expressing growing concern over memory politics in Poland, which they say is resulting in an attempt to rewrite history. In February this year, for the first time in the country’s history, an individual used the country’s ‘Holocaust Law’ to sue in civil court. This law forbids blaming Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust. On February 9, 2021, a district court in Warsaw convicted two Polish Holocaust historians, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, of “violating the honor” of Edward Malinowski, a Polish man who had served as mayor of a village in Poland during WWII, for a book they had written exploring the country’s history and involvement during the war years.

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The judge ordered the historians to issue a public apology. Grabowski had later given interviews summarising the court judgement where the two historians were convicted of “ascribing to Poles the crimes of the Holocaust committed by the Third Reich can be construed as hurtful and striking at the feeling of identity and national pride.”

While the authors are appealing the verdict, Holocaust historians believe that this law and this ruling will make it difficult to conduct research on crimes that occured on Polish soil during World War II.

In 2018, following criticism by the US and Israel, the Polish government was forced remove parts of this Holocaust law that imposed jail terms on people who suggested the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes.

Researchers believe that this aggressive way in which memory politics has evolved in the country can be traced to the 2015 electoral victory of the Law and Justice Party, that has consistently engaged in a campaign to push for an airbrushed reading of Polish history that specifically attempts to erase evidence of Christian Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust, by focusing on Nazi and Soviet atrocities, and how Polish people were also victims— narratives that suit nationalists in the country.

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What is the latest development?

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the legislation a “disgrace”, while the country’s embassy in Poland issued a statement on Twitter saying it would “make it impossible” for seized property to be returned and make it harder for families to seek compensation. The US joined Israel in criticising Poland’s move. “The decision of Poland’s parliament yesterday was a step in the wrong direction. We urge Poland not to move this legislation forward,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter.

Then, on June 27, Israel summoned Poland’s ambassador to express its “deep disappointment” over the passing of the Bill in the country’s lower house of parliament. In turn, the Polish foreign ministry summoned Israel’s charge d’affaires in Warsaw.

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