More time sought for Polish property claims

ROME, Feb. 13 (JTA) — Restitution efforts for Jewish communal property seized in Poland during World War II are about to get under way in a serious fashion — just three months before the deadline to file claims. The newly elected co-chairmen of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which will coordinate claims and manage restituted properties, said this week that they would work with the Polish government to try to extend the deadline. Last month, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller pledged to support an extension. Meanwhile, the Foundation said in a statement that the body´s top priority "is to file as many claims as possible" before the May 11 deadline. More than 1,000 claims have been submitted so far, but claims for several thousand more properties remain to be filed, including claims for more than 1,000 cemeteries. The Foundation´s board of directors met in Warsaw last week and elected two new co-chairmen — Jerzy Kichler, chairman of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, and Kalman Sultanik, president of the Federation of Polish Jews in the United States and chairman of the American Section of the World Zionist Organization. The board also appointed Eve Anderson to serve as the Warsaw-based chief executive officer. She will coordinate the complicated and expensive process of filing and researching claims for the restitution of synagogues, yeshivas, hospitals, mikvahs, orphanages, cemeteries and other properties that belonged to the pre-Holocaust Jewish community. The personnel decisions represent a breakthrough in a bitter — and highly emotional — conflict between the Jewish community in Poland and the World Jewish Restitution Organization that had held up the restitution process for years. In 1997, the Polish government enacted legislation allowing the Jewish community to file claims to recover communal properties, but set a five-year deadline. The WJRO was founded in 1992 by international Jewish organizations and survivors groups to serve as a central body coordinating efforts to recover communal and organizational Jewish assets that were seized by Nazi and Communist governments. However, Poland´s 1997 law recognized the local Jewish community as the only legal claimant to prewar communal properties. That outraged the WJRO and some other Jewish bodies, which demanded a dominant role in the process. They insisted that today´s Jewish community in Poland — which has only some 5,000 registered members — could not represent the more than 3 million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust or the thousands of survivors who now live abroad. Feuding over how to cooperate in reclaiming and managing property stymied the process for two years after the 1997 law was passed. The fighting was so bitter that in September 1999 a U.S. State Department representative was called in to mediate. In an effort to resolve the feud, the Foundation was created in 2000 as a partnership between the WJRO and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. But it too soon foundered because of continued internal bickering, despite mediation efforts by philanthropist and Jewish leader Ronald Lauder and by Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. With the election of co-chairmen representing both local Polish Jews and the WJRO, the conflict appears to have been resolved. "I am glad the two partners, WJRO and JRCP, are working together in a spirit of full harmony and mutual understanding," Sultanik said. "At our meetings last week there was full agreement as to how to proceed in reclaiming as many communal properties as possible," he said. "We were encourage by the assurances of Polish government officials that the May 2002 deadline will be extended, so as to enable the Jewish people to recover all communal properties and cemeteries. Their statements reflected the moral obligation of Poland to the Jewish people."

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