Poland backs property restitution reforms slammed by Israel
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland on Friday defended planned changes to its property restitution regulations, after Israel said the reforms were “immoral’ and would prevent Jewish claims for compensation or property seized during the Holocaust and communist times.
The U.S. State Department strongly criticized the changes and urged Poland to abandon them.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder sharply condemned the draft law, calling it a “slap in the face to what remains of Polish Jewry and survivors of Nazi brutality everywhere. It also sets a terrible precedent throughout Europe as survivors and descendants continue to seek justice.”
Lauder said the time has come for the “international Jewish community to reevaluate our relationship with a government that is behaving with unimaginable callousness and is emulating the worst traditions in Polish history rather than the best and most uplifting ones.”
Poland’s Foreign Ministry said that the reforms were misunderstood and that they would not stop restitution claims being made — as is the case now — through courts.
They “do not in any way restrict the possibility of bringing civil suits to seek damages, irrespective of the plaintiff’s nationality or origin,” the ministry said.
The Israeli Embassy had charged that the changes being processed in parliament would “make it impossible” for seized Jewish property to be returned. It said they would also prevent Holocaust survivors and their heirs from seeking compensation. Poland was home to a vibrant Jewish community for many centuries, until the Nazi German invasion in World War II.
“This immoral law will have a serious impact on the relations between our countries,” the embassy said on Twitter.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry replied that these comments “are indicative of ignorance of the facts and the Polish law.”
The U.S. was also critical of the legislation with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying that the changes were a “step in the wrong direction” while urging Poland “not to move this legislation forward.”
“We believe in the importance of settling Holocaust-era restitution issues to ensure fairness and equality for all victims,” Price posted on his official Twitter account.
The changes were ordered in 2015 by Poland’s top Constitutional Tribunal and set a 30-year statute of limitation on challenges to administrative decisions issued by various offices in gross violation of the law. They are intended to end fraud and irregularities in property restitution in Warsaw, Krakow and other cities and locations.
The rules apply to Jews and non-Jews. The constitutional court said they are needed to bring the regulations in line with Poland’s supreme law and to give the restitution process a timeframe.
In a vote Thursday night, Polish lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the changes, which still need approval from the Senate and from President Andrzej Duda before they can become law.
Before WWII Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of some 3.5 million people. Most were killed in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany’s occupation and their property was confiscated. Post-war communist authorities seized the property, along with the property of non-Jewish owners in Warsaw and other cities. The end of communism in 1989 opened the doors to restitution claims.
In 2001, a draft law foreseeing compensations for seized private property was approved in parliament but vetoed by then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski, who said it violated social equality principles and would hurt Poland’s economic development - implying that compensation claims would result in massive payouts. He also said individual claims should be made through the courts.
Poland is the only European country that has not offered any kind of compensation for private property, including Jewish property, seized by the state in its recent history. Only the remaining communal Jewish property, like some synagogues, prayer houses and cemeteries, mostly in disrepair, have been returned, where possible, or compensated for.