Poland snubs holocaust victims

A new law is making the return of assets from Jewish ownership more difficult*

Poland is the only EU country that has never offered any compensation for private assets seized by the state. The only exception is the property of Jewish communities – namely synagogues or graveyards.

However, there has never been any fair legal regulation regarding the property of three million Jews, which was initially stolen by the Nazis and then kept by Poland’s communist regime. 

In fact, quite the opposite has occurred: at the end of June, the Polish right-wing authoritarian government took a step against the justified claims for restitution. The majority-controlled parliament (Polish: Sejm) has adopted a law that will block the claims of descendants of Holocaust victims, if – with the approval of the senate – it legally comes into force. The amendment to the Law on Administrative Court Proceedings will mean that it will no longer be possible to make appeals against administrative decisions after 30 years have passed. This will make new and ongoing restitution proceedings more difficult.

According to the Israeli government and Jewish organisations, Poland is in so breaching the rights of the victims of the Shoah or of their descendants. “The upcoming amendment to the law will in effect make it impossible to have Jewish property returned or to demand compensation. This immoral law will seriously damage relations between our countries”, the Israeli Ambassador to Poland complained in a statement on the law. 

The law adopted by the Polish parliament is a direct and painful breach of the rights of Holocaust survivors and of their descendants according to Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. The new law is a terrible injustice and a disgrace, and will seriously damage relations between the two states.

The new, controversial law can be traced back to a decision handed down by the Polish Constitutional Court in 2015. At the time, it called for a time limit to be set for appeals against administrative decisions regarding the return of confiscated property. After the end of the Second World War, the property of Jews, most of whom were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, which was seized during the Nazi occupation of Poland was transferred to the communist Polish government. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the democratically elected Polish government that followed made only limited, reluctant efforts to return this property to its rightful owners or their descendants or at least to offer compensation.

In particular, the right-wing authoritarian Polish government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which governs alone, has shown little regard to date for the interests of Jewish descendants of Holocaust victims. Thus, a law was adopted in 2018 according to which Poland is not allowed to be associated with the Holocaust in any way. This also criminalised reports by Polish historians substantiating cases of the murder of Jews by Poland – including after 1945. Following international protests, the originally intended prison sentences (of up to three years imprisonment) were removed in an amending law. 

Nevertheless, Poland’s strained relationship with Israel and the USA has further deteriorated in recent years. The US State Department increased pressure on Poland at the end of July. According to a statement by the US State Department, the draft law would make claims for restitution of or compensation for property seized by the Nazis or Communists in Poland more difficult. 

Poland’s Prime Minister brusquely rejected the criticism of US politicians and Jewish associations. “As long as I am Prime Minister of Poland, Poland certainly will not pay for German crimes. Not one Zloty, not one Euro, not one Dollar!” Poland’s government for its part has again been discussing new compensation payments by Germany in relation to the Nazi occupation period.

But with the planned new law, they are making returning the property of millions of murdered Jews that came into the possession of the Polish state after the Second World War more difficult. In doing so, they are perpetuating the crimes of the Holocaust, with which Poland officially does not want to be associated, and are therefore clearly in the wrong themselves. 

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid clearly addressed this: “The Polish law that hinders the return of or compensation for Jewish property is a terrible injustice and disgracefully breaches the rights of survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants who stem from Jewish communities that have lived in Poland for centuries.” 

*First published in “shalom” magazine, Rome. 

*Otmar Lahodynsky, ex President of the Association of European Journalist (AEJ) anche former European Editor of the Profil news magazine in Austria

Otmar Lahodynsky