WARSAW (May. 14)
Poland, the last country in the former Eastern Bloc to address restitution for individuals whose land, businesses and homes were confiscated by the Nazis and then the Communists, is coming closer to passing a long-awaited restitution law. A draft resolution that will be introduced to a parliamentary committee in June would, for the first time, make compensation available to claimants and their heirs living outside of Poland who do not have Polish citizenship.
“Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz told us that the legislation would be passed by the end of the year,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, who recently held meetings with the Polish government on a variety of issues.
Several longtime observers of Polish politics, including the prime minister’s adviser on Jewish affairs, say the bill has an excellent chance of passing.
However, the proposal to provide compensation at a rate of just 15 percent of the current value of properties — legislators are expected to raise it slightly, to 20 percent — is being blasted by Jewish claimants.
“This offer is totally unacceptable, and I will advise survivors and their heirs not to accept, I repeat, not to accept such an offer. They took our homes, they benefited from our property — they should give it back or pay for it in full,” said Kalman Sultanik, chairman of the Federation of Polish Jews of the United States, survivor of several concentration camps and a JTA board member. Sultanik himself lost a family home in Poland.
His comments were echoed by potential claimants and their representatives.
“I think the Polish proposal is ridiculous,” said Estelle Freyberg of Putnam County, N.Y. Freyberg’s mother had a large brick factory and farm in Lomaz, Poland.
“It’s stealing from the heirs,” she said. “The property was stolen in 1939. There was no compensation for the use of property. Fifteen percent or 20 percent amounts to nothing.”
The Polish government has been under tremendous pressure from Israel and the United States over the past decade to compensate victims of the Holocaust for the confiscation of their property. Only about 10 percent of Poland’s approximately 3.5 million-strong Jewish community survived World War II.
Israel Singer, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization and president of the Claims Conference, as well as chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council, issued a general statement on the lack of restitution so far in Poland: “At a time when other European nations have faced up to their responsibilities, it is particularly important that Poland, where so many millions of Jews were murdered, deal appropriately with this issue. Jewish properties stolen or sold under duress are now being sold by the government for full value.”
Jewish claims are expected to add up to 20 percent of total claims, which will largely be from Poles and their heirs whose property was taken by the Communist regime.
In an interesting twist of fate, one of the government representatives responsible for explaining the legislation to the Jewish world is Poland’s secretary of state, Ryszard Schnepf, whose father at one point was head of the Polish Jewish community under the Communists.
Schnepf realizes that some people will be unhappy with the bill, but adds that it’s better than what some other countries have offered.
“It’s true that Romania has offered compensation at 100 percent, but Hungary only gave 5 to 10 percent,” and only in bonds that could be used to buy land or portions of state firms, Schnepf said. “We are offering something according to our economic possibilities.”
At the end of April, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, representing the interests of Holocaust survivors and their heirs, issued a position paper urging Poland to provide full compensation. It noted that “there are countries whose economic plight is much worse than that of Poland, yet they are determined — and have been trying — to compensate claimants with the full, current market value of property stolen by the Nazis and/or Communists.”
The proposed compensation bill, which will cover everything within the current boundaries of Poland, is expected to cost the country some $10 billion. It is likely to exclude Warsaw, due to the capital’s complicated property history, which included its destruction, the loss of documents and a massive legal tangle.
Six years ago, legislation offering full compensation to those who were Polish citizens before 1999 was passed by Parliament, but was subsequently rejected by President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
There is no country in Central and Eastern Europe with a larger number of emigrants who have claims to property. Poland today has a population of about 40 million but there are another 20 million former Poles or their descendants living abroad, which is one reason why passing a restitution bill has been so difficult.
That explanation is not satisfactory for Yehuda Evron, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee, which represents 3,000 potential heirs in the United States, Israel, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“It is outrageous that the Polish government is inheriting 80 percent of the value of the homes of the few thousand Jews who survived” the Holocaust, Evron wrote in an e-mail to JTA.
Representatives from international Jewish organizations, including the Claims Conference, will meet with members of the Polish Treasury in the coming month to make clear their concerns about the bill.
Foremost among them is the difficulty for Jews living abroad to make a claim, as well as the paperwork and legal fees involved.
“We will negotiate with the Polish government so that procedures will ensure that Holocaust survivors who are in need and in the last days of their life can take advantage of whatever is offered without being weighed down by procedures,” Sultanik said.
Then there is the matter of heirless property, which Jewish organizations have suggested should be used to fund the preservation of Jewish heritage.
If there is anything Jewish groups have learned from previous experience with restitution in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s that the devil is in the details.
The AJCommittee’s Baker, who has worked with many countries in the region on compensation programs, said that if heirs have to spend money on legal fees and costly document searches, it will defeat the purpose of offering what is already unsatisfactory compensation.