By Otmar Lahodynsky
Ex-President of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) and former European Editor of the Profil news magazine in Austria
A new Polish law makes it difficult to return Jewish property that was confiscated by the Nazis during the Second World War.
A serious conflict has broken out between Poland and Israel. Last weekend, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signed a new law that makes it more difficult to restitute property confiscated under the Nazi regime in Poland. This affects mostly victims of the Holocaust or their descendants.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid summoned Israel’s chargé d’affaires and declared dramatically: “Poland today, for the first time, approved an anti-Semitic and immoral law. Tonight, I instructed the head of the embassy in Warsaw to return immediately to Israel for indefinite consultations … Poland has tonight become an anti-democratic, non-liberal country that does not honour the greatest tragedy in human history. Never be silent. Israel and the Jewish people will certainly not remain silent.”
Poland is the only EU country that has not offered compensation for private assets confiscated by the state. The only exception has been the property of Jewish communities, including synagogues or cemeteries. But for the property that was first looted from the 3 million Jews by the Nazis and then retained by Poland’s Communist regime, there has so far been no fair legal regulation.
At the end of June, Poland’s right-wing authoritarian government took a controversial step when the Sejm, the Polish parliament, passed a law that will block claims by the heirs of Holocaust victims. This will mean that appeals against administrative decisions will no longer be possible after 30 years and will prevent or complicate new and ongoing restitution proceedings.
According to the government of Israel and Jewish organisations, Poland is violating the rights of Holocaust victims and their descendants. “The pending amendment to the law will make it de facto impossible to return Jewish property or claim compensation. This immoral law will seriously damage relations between our countries,” the Embassy of Israel in Poland said in a statement on the law.
The law passed by the Polish parliament is a direct and painful violation of the rights of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said.
The new, controversial law stems from a 2015 decision by the Polish Constitutional Court. At the time, the court called for a time limit on challenges to administrative decisions regarding the return of confiscated property.
After the end of World War II, the property of Jews confiscated during the Nazi occupation, most of whom were murdered in death camps, became the property of Communist-ruled Poland.
At the end of the 1960s, Poland’s Communist leaders once again exploited anti-Semitic sentiments to expel Jews from positions of power. In Poland, “anti-Semitism without Jews” developed, as the Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai described in his book of the same title in 1972.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland’s democratically elected governments made only a few hesitant efforts to return property confiscated to its rightful owners or their descendants, or at least to offer compensation.
Poland’s authoritarian “Law and Justice Party” (PiS), which has ruled alone since 2015, has so far cared little about the interests of Jewish descendants of Holocaust victims. In 2018, for example, a law was passed stating that Poland must not be associated with the Holocaust in any way.
The right-win government also criminalized reports by Polish historians that proved cases of Jews being murdered by Poles, including in pogroms shortly after the end of the Second World War. After international protests, an amendment to the law abolished the three-year prison sentences originally envisaged by the law.
Poland’s relationship with Israel and the US has rapidly deteriorated in recent years. Only at the end of July did the US State Department put pressure on Poland to drop the law.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, brusquely rejected criticism from the Americans and Jewish associations, saying, “As long as I am Prime Minister of Poland, Poland will certainly not pay for crimes committed by the Germans. Not a zloty, not a euro and not a dollar!” Poland’s government, for its part, has repeatedly discussed new compensation payments from Germany from the Nazi occupation period.
But with the new planned law, it is now making it more difficult to return the property of millions of murdered Jews that came into the possession of the Polish state after the Second World War. In doing so, it perpetuates the crimes of the Nazis, with which official Poland does not want to be associated, and thus clearly puts itself on the wrong side of history.