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World Jewish Congress Poised to Press Poland on Restitution

Leaders of world Jewry are planning a frontal assault on the government of Poland at a conference here this week on the restitution of properties of Holocaust victims or their heirs.

The planned pressure on Poland comes as Swiss and Jewish leaders are negotiating to reach an accord on the mushrooming issue of Holocaust victims’ claims against Swiss banks.

Sources at the conference, organized by the World Jewish Congress, said a deal could soon be struck under which Switzerland would hand over a sizeable lump sum early next year.

Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC executive, said in an interview that the decision to hold this week’s biannual meeting of the WJC leadership in Oslo was made seven months ago.

He said it came in recognition of what he described as Norway’s forthcoming posture on making restitution for properties seized from Norway’s Jews during World War II.

The Norwegian government set up a commission earlier this year to study the restitution issue. The commission is scheduled to give its report in March.

The looming attack on Poland comes after Jewish leaders received a letter this weekend from Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz that rejected a call from two Polish Jewish groups.

The Jewish groups wanted the restitution of pre-Holocaust Jewish communal property in Poland to be made to a foundation comprising world Jewish organizations and the small remaining Jewish communities in Poland.

Agreements to this effect have been negotiated in recent months with the governments of Hungary and Slovakia. Romania and Latvia have also expressed readiness to enter into relationships with a similar foundation.

Cimoszewicz’s letter came in response to a memorandum from the World Federation of Polish Jews and the Association of Polish Jews in Israel.

It also came after Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told Jewish leaders in New York during the summer that he looked forward to working with world Jewish groups on the restitution issue.

The organizations submitted the memorandum to the head of the Polish council of ministers, Leszek Miller, after his recent visit to Israel and his meeting there with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The memorandum demanded that legislation now moving through the Polish Parliament be amended to include mention that the restitution will be made to the foundation.

Cimoszewicz ignored this demand in his reply.

Instead, he said that the existing Polish Jewish communities are “the only competent body in Poland to represent Jewish religious interests and to act as heir for the communal properties.”

He wrote that there are nine such communities.

But Naphtali Lau-Levi, deputy chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a spinoff of the WJC, said in an interview that six of the nine supported communities are “in effect fictitious.”

He said the prime minister’s position effectively held Poland’s Jews, most of whom are elderly, for “ransom.”

The prime minister’s letter said restitution would cover 1,000 cemeteries, 228 synagogues, 70 prayer houses and several dozen other communal buildings.

Lau-Levi said this was a vast underestimation of the total property, adding that the WJRO’s records indicate that there are alone 7,000 synagogues to be covered in a future restitution arrangement.

Some 3.5 million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust. According to the WJC, there are now some 8,000 Jews in Poland.

Meanwhile, Swiss government and banking officials are said to be ready to come up with a sizeable restitution sum even before the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the extent of unclaimed Jewish assets still being held in unnumbered Swiss bank accounts.

Their readiness to move on the issue comes after the WJC and U.S. officials have launched a steady barrage of accusations that Swiss banks have hidden behind their secrecy laws in an effort to block the return of assets belonging to Holocaust survivors or their heirs.

It also comes after the WJC unearthed a series of recently declassified documents that it says proves that Switzerland, far from being neutral during the war, helped finance Hitler’s war effort by laundering money for Nazi Germany.

In the wake of its disclosures, the WJC has called on Switzerland to make a full accounting of its financial role during the war.

Earlier this month, a probe by Swiss banks reported that it found little more than $8,000 in unclaimed accounts possibly belonging to Holocaust victims.

Jewish officials counter that the total could reach into the billions.

Informed sources here said they expect ongoing informal negotiations with Jewish leaders to result in a “without prejudice” interim settlement by the Swiss government and banks early in 1997.

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