Poland was the home of 3.3 million Jews prior to World War II, 90 percent of whom perished in the Holocaust. Today, Poland is “the only major country in Europe that has not passed national legislation for the restitution of property wrongfully seized during the Holocaust and/or nationalized by the Communist regime,” according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), an international umbrella group of major Jewish organizations seeking justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
In 2009, more than 40 countries signed the Terezin Declaration, a pledge to provide restitution to address the property claims of Holocaust victims and their families “in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner.” The results have been mixed, with some more generous in expediting claims and some less so. Jewish and non-Jewish Poles whose properties were seized by the Nazis or their collaborators, or nationalized by the Communist regime, waited in vain.
This past week, after more than two decades of inaction, the Polish government announced a plan for legislation to address the issue. But the WJRO expressed “profound disappointment” in noting that the proposal “excludes the vast majority of Polish Holocaust survivors and their families.” In order to qualify for compensation of 20 to 25 percent of the value of the properties in question, claimants must be current citizens of Poland and must have lived in Poland at the time their property was nationalized by the Communist government, after World War II. By that time, there were hardly any Jews left in the war-ravaged country.
What’s more, only spouses, children, or grandchildren would be recognized as legitimate heirs. “This unprecedented exception to existing Polish succession rules would disproportionately harm heirs of victims of the Holocaust,” the WJRO noted, disqualifying siblings, nieces, or nephews of victims.
All told, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the proposed legislation was designed in part to exclude the great majority of Polish Jews and their families from receiving compensation.
The WJRO and, presumably, the State of Israel, which enjoys a positive relationship with Warsaw, will seek to engage the government and urge that the legislation reflect a measure of justice for the families of those who have suffered so greatly. “For many Jews, the issue is not about money as much as it is about an emotional connection to their history and to the homes where they grew up,” Gideon Taylor, a lay representative of the WJRO, told NJJN. “This is a race against time and a unique opportunity to address the profound historical and moral issues that need to be resolved.”
We urge all Jewish organizations and members of the community to speak out on this injustice before it becomes law. It is the least we can do to not only honor the memory of the millions of innocent men, women, and children who were murdered, but to ease the burden of their rightful heirs.