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August 24, 2021 11:44 am
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Poland’s Troubling Legislation, and the United States’ Unwavering Commitment to Holocaust Era Justice

avatar by Gideon Taylor

Opinion

Poland’s parliament, the Sejm, is seen while in session. Photo: Reuters/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta.

On Saturday, August 14, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a new bill into law that seeks to make it virtually impossible for all former Polish property owners — including Holocaust survivors and their heirs — to secure redress for property that was illegally stolen during the Communist era, and that remains in Poland to this day. It is unspeakably sad that the law will enter into force on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

The new law is a major blow to both Jews and non-Jews who have been struggling for decades to obtain justice for property that was wrongfully nationalized by the Polish Communist regime.

Holocaust survivor Dr. Miriam Tasini’s quest for justice is just one of many that will be personally impacted by this new law in Poland.

As a young child, Miriam lived in a large house in Krakow, and had a happy and loving childhood. Sadly, all that changed when the Nazis invaded Poland. Fleeing from Krakow to Lviv, her family left behind a beautiful home overlooking the Vistula Riva and a lucrative bakery business, which were both brutally confiscated by the Nazis, and subsequently nationalized by the Communist regime in Poland after the war. While Miriam miraculously survived the horrors of labor and concentration camps, she lost many family members in the Holocaust.

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Miriam, now 85 and living in Los Angeles, has been struggling in Polish courts for years to reclaim her family’s property — the last remaining physical connection she has to her childhood. Now Miriam may never get back her property or receive just compensation. Under the new law, Miriam’s claim — which has remained pending in the Polish legal system for years and has not yet reached a conclusion — is set to be extinguished without redress.

Twelve years ago, Poland joined together with 46 other countries at the Prague conference to endorse the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets, committing to address the private property claims of Holocaust victims in a fair, comprehensive, and nondiscriminatory manner.

Just over a year ago, the US Department of State released the groundbreaking Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, which — in a key finding — stated that Poland remains the only European Union member state with significant Holocaust-era property issues, not to have enacted comprehensive private property restitution legislation.

Earlier this year, President Biden pledged that “the United States will continue to champion justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.”

We commend the United States government’s unwavering commitment to securing justice for Holocaust survivors and prioritizing the resolution of outstanding property issues.

Days before the scheduled vote in the Polish Sejm on the new legislation, strong bipartisan letters of objection were sent from US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and US House Members to Poland’s Marshal of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek, asking her to withdraw the bill.

Immediately after the “yes” vote, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his deep concern, urging President Duda not to sign the bill into law. After the bill was signed by President Duda, Secretary Blinken reiterated his stance by emphasizing: “We deeply regret the adoption of these amendments [severely restricting restitution and compensation for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era]. Further, we urge the Polish government to consult with representatives of affected parties and to develop a clear, efficient, and effective legal procedure to resolve confiscated property claims and provide some measure of justice for victims.  In the absence of such a procedure, this legislation will harm all Polish citizens whose property was unjustly taken, including that of Polish Jews who were victims of the Holocaust.”

In July, when the proposed bill was sent to the Polish Senate, it also came under scrutiny when 12 prominent US Senators, led by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a letter to President Duda urging him to “press for the withdrawal of the bill from the Polish Senate, but if the bill is passed, veto it.”

International leaders at the highest levels also expressed their condemnation of the bill.

We do not suggest in any way that Poland is responsible for the crimes of Nazi Germany. This is about Poland addressing the wrongs committed by its own post-World War II Communist government. The house or shop or factory in a town in Poland affected by this legislation was taken by Poland after the war, remains today in Poland, and has benefited Poland for more than 76 years.

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.

We also must not forget that there are many other countries in Europe that have yet to fulfill their commitments on Holocaust era property restitution, as the JUST Act Report articulates.

As a matter of urgency, we call upon Congress to convene a hearing on the JUST Act Report, and hold accountable all countries that endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration, including Poland.

Progress on Holocaust justice depends upon continued and heightened United States leadership. We must help survivors secure what is rightfully theirs. For Holocaust survivors, restitution or compensation for property is about justice and fairness. It is an acknowledgment of the destruction of their families and an opportunity to restore and reconnect with at least a small part of a life and culture that was so wrongfully taken from them.

Tragically we are losing survivors every day. Time is of the essence. We must address this dark chapter in human history by facilitating the restitution of or compensation for wrongfully confiscated property. This issue will not go away until justice is achieved.

Gideon Taylor is Chair of Operations, World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), and President of the Board of Directors of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference).

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