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August 11, 2021 5:04 pm

‘Legalized Theft’: Israel, World Jewish Leaders Slam Polish Parliament’s Approval of Legislation Dismissing Restitution for Holocaust Survivors

avatar by Ben Cohen

Members of the Polish parliament voting on a controversial bill to restrict foreign ownership if media companies. Photo: Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta.

After a chaotic day that began with a split in the right-wing coalition that rules Poland, the lower house of the country’s parliament, the Sejm, dismayed international critics by passing legislation that effectively closes off restitution for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as those whose property was seized by the Communist authorities in the years following World War II.

The vote brought immediate condemnation from the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), the main NGO negotiating with national governments on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

“We are outraged by today’s vote in the Polish lower house, which is equally unfair for both Jews and non-Jews,” the organization’s chair of operations, Gideon Taylor, told The Algemeiner in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.

Taylor added that if the bill is signed into law by President Andzrej Duda, “the Polish government will have effectively legally foreclosed the possibility for rightful owners to secure redress for what was taken from them.” He called on Duda to veto “this harmful bill and … work together with WJRO to settle once and for all the issue of private property restitution.”

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Today’s session was the second time in six weeks that the lower house of the Sejm voted on the legislation. In late July, it was approved by the Senate with three amendments, two of which were rejected in today’s vote.

The legislation amends the Polish Code of Administrative Procedure to dismiss outstanding claims that are more than 30 years old for the restitution of property seized during the periods of Nazi and Communist rule. The law also rules out appeals against legal decisions made outside the same 30-year deadline.

In the run-up to today’s votes, American and Israeli leaders had joined with Jewish advocates in urging the parliament to reject the legislation. Among those who voiced their objections was US House Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose letter on Monday calling on her Polish counterpart to block the legislation went unheeded.

While there was little expectation that the legislation would be rejected, its passage is certain to fray Poland’s relations with Israel and the US even further.

In the wake of today’s vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — who has frequently been at loggerheads with the Polish government on the issue of Holocaust commemoration — said that he “condemned the act the Polish Sejm passed today, which violates the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims.”

“The State of Israel will not compromise the memory of the Holocaust,” Lapid declared.

Moshe Kantor, the President of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), meanwhile charged that the Polish government was using its own laws to enable the theft of property.

“This is not just another law, it is legalized theft, and the language is written in such a way that it implicitly seeks to single out Jews as undeserving of retrieving what was stolen from them,” Kantor said in a statement. “It is not privileging Jews as some claim in Poland, it is disenfranchising them, creating a higher bar than for all others.”

Kantor added the law’s passage “further highlights Poland’s unique position as the only country in the region which makes Holocaust restitution impossible, and runs counter to its international commitments.”

Despite endorsing the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust property restitution, Poland remains the only nation among its 47 signatories to have entirely ignored its commitments. In 2017, the US Congress passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors (JUST) Act, which obliges the US government to report on compliance with the Terezin Declaration, resulting in angry demonstrations mounted by right-wing groups in Poland.

In his statement to The Algemeiner, the WJRO’s Taylor stressed that the issue for survivors and their descendants was more than simply financial.

“Property restitution is about more than money — for many Holocaust survivors and their families, a home is the last remaining physical connection to the lives they once led, to the countries where they were born, and to the towns where they grew up, before their lives were shattered,” Taylor remarked.

The much-anticipated vote on the Code of Administrative Procedure was overshadowed by arguably more sensational political developments in Poland on Wednesday.

The day began with Prime Minister Mateusz Marowiecki firing Deputy PM Jaroslaw Gowin over the latter’s opposition to a draconian bill targeting a US-owned independent broadcaster in Poland that was also on the Sejm’s agenda on Wednesday. After opposition politicians nearly succeeded in suspending parliamentary proceedings for the next month, the votes on the Code of Administrative Procedure and the media bill went ahead, with the government securing victory on both.

Under the terms of the media bill, Discovery Inc., the US owner of Poland’s largest private television network, would be forced to sell its Polish holdings as part of a broader ban on “non-European” ownership of media outlets in the country. The bill is regarded by critics as a transparent maneuver to close down TVN24, an all-news station which is part of the Discovery-owned TVN network and has been critical of Marowiecki’s nationalist government.

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