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Restitution of Property Stolen During Holocaust Is ‘Question of Dignity and Justice,’ Israeli Diplomat Tells Polish Senate Hearing

avatar by Ben Cohen

A marcher in Warsaw carries an antisemitic sign at a May 2019 protest against the restitution of property stolen from Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation. Photo: Agencja Gazeta/Maciej Jazwiecki via Reuters.

A senior Israeli diplomat told a Polish Senate committee hearing on Wednesday that a widely-criticized new law that closes off the restitution claims of Holocaust survivors was a “question of dignity, justice and memory.”

Addressing a joint session of the Legislative and Human Rights committees, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon — Chargés d’affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw — restated the State of Israel’s objections to the new law, which was passed overwhelmingly by the lower house of the Sejm, Poland’s parliament, last month, and is currently awaiting the Senate’s approval.

“The murdered and survivors of the Holocaust were, and some still are, citizens of this country,” Ben-Ari Yaalon said. “Poland was their home. It was here that for centuries they prospered as the largest Jewish community in the world. The Holocaust robbed them of everything. Therefore, the question of their ownership is a question of dignity, justice and memory.”

Addressing the Polish government’s argument that Germany bears sole responsibility for the compensation of property stolen during the Holocaust, Ben Ari Yaalon emphasized that following the defeat of the Nazi regime, Poland’s newly-installed Communist rulers separately nationalized thousands of properties belonging to Holocaust victims.

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“Their property was first stolen by the Nazis and then nationalized by the communists,” she observed.

Ben Ari Yaalon’s remarks included a ringing appeal to Polish legislators to reconsider the law.

“Listen to the voice from the Jewish world,” she declared. “Listen to the voice of the Jewish state. Listen to the pain this legislation is causing. Listen to the voice of the survivors. They are telling you to reconsider this legislation. It is not too late.”

Wednesday’s hearing, which was also attended by Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, was described by one Polish newspaper as offering a “fragile hope” for resolution of the simmering row between the government in Warsaw and the State of Israel and Jewish organizations.

A report in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita said that there was growing talk of a cross-party coalition to defuse tensions over the law. This would involve amendments to soften the law, which according to the paper might attract the support of elements of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) as well as its right-wing nationalist allies. It was unclear, however, whether the amendments would allay the profound concerns expressed by Jewish organizations and Israeli leaders.

The bill passed by the lower house of the Sejm would mean the dismissal of outstanding claims for the restitution of property seized during the Holocaust that are more than 30 years old. The law also rules out appeals against legal decisions made outside the same 30-year deadline.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) — an Israel-based NGO that works for the restitution of property stolen during the Holocaust — stated that Wednesday’s Senate hearing marked an opportunity for Poland to do “the right and fair thing” for the Jewish and non-Jewish property owners alike who are impacted by the new law.

“As is clear to all, after World War II, the Communists nationalized private property on a massive scale — homes, businesses, land — all were turned over to the State,” the organization’s chair of operations, Gideon Taylor, told The Algemeiner in an email on Wednesday.

“This is not about the terrible things that Germany did in Poland during the war,” Taylor explained. “It is about what the Polish State did after the war.”

Taylor added that “Holocaust survivors, their families and others have waited decades for a measure of justice for property that was confiscated from them. In effect, claimants who filed under the current requirements will now be told that their claims are extinguished.”

He concluded: “Poland now has the opportunity do the right and fair thing for these Jewish and non-Jewish rightful property owners.”

Wednesday’s hearing came one day after the head of the PiS Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski — who wields enormous influence over the Polish government — angrily rejected Israeli criticism of the legislation.

“We make our laws ourselves, and we owe nothing to anyone,” Kaczynski asserted.

He also complained that Germany had not fulfilled its wartime-era financial obligations. “There are bills that have not been settled with us. For the crimes and destruction of World War Two, Germany owes us over a trillion dollars,” Kaczynski said. Germany’s government disputes the allegation and insists that all financial claims linked to the war have been settled.

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