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May 10, 2018 6:03 pm

Jewish, Polish Officials Play Down Fears of Fresh Political Tension After Trump Signs Holocaust Restitution Law

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US President Donald Trump speaks in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square during a state visit to Poland in July 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel.

After months of strained relations following Poland’s adoption of  a controversial World War II commemoration act, Jewish representatives and senior Polish officials on Thursday moved to head off another potentially bitter row – this time over American legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump that addresses the property claims of Holocaust survivors.

The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, signed by Trump on Wednesday, mandates the US State Department to report to Congress on the steps taken by several European countries to compensate Holocaust survivors or their heirs for assets seized under Nazi German and Communist rule. The act takes as its point of departure the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, agreed by 46 countries following an international conference in Prague in 2009, that aims at “ensuring assistance, redress and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution.”

While Poland is one of the Terezin Declaration’s signatories, concern has been expressed by some Polish politicians that the JUST Act creates a double standard for Jewish and non-Jewish claimants. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz criticized the legislation “because it wants some privileges for the Jews, for the Jewish community, but not for the Poles.”

“I think that the Poles who live in the US may feel hurt by that,” Czaputowicz said.

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But Jewish organizational officials in Washington, DC were adamant that no such distinctions exist.

“The JUST Act does not single Poland or any other country out,” Eric Gallagher – the Washington representative of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) – told The Algemeiner. “It simply encourages the countries that endorsed the Terezin Declaration – Poland among them – to fulfill restitution pledges that they themselves have made.”

Gallagher said that one of those pledges was “to pass a fair national restitution law.” Such a law, he said, “would benefit all victims of the Nazis, not just Jews, and we are hopeful that Poland will amend and pass its proposed restitution law so that it allows Jewish claimants to benefit from it.”

Andrzej Pawluszek – an adviser to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – said that it was “obvious” that President Trump would sign the JUST Act, given its adoption by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But he also stressed that while the legislation requires monitoring of country compliance, it has no jurisdictional powers.

“The law only says that the State Department is to monitor the situation and inform Congress of what is happening in this matter, and that’s all – it does not give you any legal instruments,” Pawluszek told The Algemeiner.

Asked about the prospect of deepening political tensions involving the US, Poland and the Jewish community, Pawluszek replied that “another matter is the anxiety that arouses.”

“But that does not follow from this bill, but from various comments in which this problem is raised,” he continued.

Gallagher meanwhile expressed hope that “if we can overcome misconceptions in Poland about restitution – chief among them that this concerns Nazi-looted property, and not property that was looted by the Nazis and then nationalized by the Communists after the war – I think there is every reason to believe that Poland and the Jewish community can find common cause on this issue.”

Several Holocaust survivors welcomed the passage of the JUST Act. “We have waited too long for justice for our property,” Norman Trysk-Frajman, a Florida resident who spent his childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto, said afterwards. “Our families, who were slaughtered during the war, left it to us.”

Lea Evron – born in the Polish city of Zywiec in 1935 – said that “justice has not been afforded to me for the theft of the property owned by my family in Poland.”

Mrs Evron added: “The apartment building that was owned by my parents and in which I lived as a child is still there, yet someone else has title to it and I never received the proper compensation for such a transfer of ownership. That building and the factory behind it are my only direct connections to my past.”

The JUST Act was introduced to Congress in 2017  by a bipartisan group of legislators, among them Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in the Senate and Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Grace Meng (D-NY) in the House of Representatives.

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