PRAGUE (JTA) — In 1988, Yehuda Evron received a memorable letter from Lech Walesa, the first post-communist president of Poland, on the eve of the country’s transition to democracy.
“He wrote that within a few months we would get my wife’s property back,” recalled Evron, now 80. His wife was the only Holocaust survivor of a family that owned a residential building and factory in Zwienec that had been confiscated by the Nazis and then seized by Poland’s communist government.
Evron, a Romanian emigre and leader of the New York-based Holocaust Restitution Committee, which represents claims of thousands of survivors from Poland, chortled bitterly last week when recalling his initial optimism after corresponding with Walesa. Nearly 25 years have passed since, many more survivors have died and Polish leaders repeatedly have reneged on promises to enact a restitution law to compensate for the billions of dollars in property stolen from Jews and non-Jews during and after the Holocaust.
Home to more Jews than any other country before World War II, Poland is now the only European country to endure Nazi occupation that has not enacted a law to ensure some kind of private property compensation or restitution to Holocaust survivors or their heirs.
Evron talked to JTA at last week’s Prague meeting on Holocaust restitution, called the Immovable Property Review Conference, which was organized as a follow-up to a 2009 conference in this city that produced a historic resolution on Holocaust assets. The resolution, called the 2009 Terezin Declaration, was signed by 46 countries that committed to speeding up the restitution of private and communal property to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
This year’s conference and the 2009 parley were organized and supported by the Czech Foreign Ministry, U.S.-based Jewish organizations and the U.S. State Department, with participation from countries throughout Europe.
At last week’s gathering, many of the references to 2009 were in the form of laments that so little had been accomplished in three years.
"In sum, restitution of property confiscated during the Holocaust proceeds exceedingly slowly, if at all,” said a report prepared for the conference by the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella group.
The focus remains on Central and Eastern Europe, where compensation for communal and private property seizures began in the 1990s and in most cases continues at a glacial pace.
In Croatia, for example, the main progress since 2009 has been the proposal of an amendment eliminating a citizenship requirement imposed by Croatia’s restitution law — but the amendment has not been submitted to lawmakers for consideration.
In Romania, all compensation to private property claimants has been suspended; critics blame a corrupt and bankrupt compensation fund.
In Latvia, where 300 Jewish communal properties were never returned, a bill offering some compensation has been stalled for six years.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has withheld the final two years of a government compensation program to aid Hungarian survivors who reside outside the country.
"Notwithstanding its restitution laws, Hungary has, in a number of respects, failed to meet standards advanced in the guidelines" established at the 2009 Prague conference, the WJRO report said. In Hungary, "there are prolonged, unreasonable delays in adjudicating property claims and in making the compensation payments once claims are positively decided, while the guidelines insist on prompt decisions and payment."
There have been a few bright spots.
In 2011, Lithuania authorized payment of about $50 million over 10 years to compensate the Jewish community for communal property seized by the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes. Serbia passed a restitution bill affecting Jews and non-Jews that the Jewish community expects eventually will address Holocaust claims specifically.
Last month, the Czech Republic’s lower house of parliament approved a plan to return billions of dollars worth of communal property confiscated from Jews and Christians by previous communist governments. If the bill passes, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities is set to receive $500,000 a year over 30 years.
The worst restitution record, conference goers said, belongs to Poland.
In 2010, Terezin Declaration signatories approved a set of nonbinding best practices, such as suggesting solutions to the problem of heirless property and making the claims process more transparent and affordable. After initially agreeing to the document, Poland made an abrupt about-face and withdrew its support. To add salt to an already festering diplomatic wound, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in 2011 went on Polish radio to complain of U.S. pressure on restitution issues.
“If the United States would have wanted to help Polish Jews, a good moment for that would have been 1943-44, when the majority of them were still alive,” Sikorski quipped.
At last week’s conference, Poland was the only signatory to the 2009 Terezin Declaration that did not send a delegate.
“It says a lot that they refuse to even engage,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which is responsible for Holocaust restitution from Germany and Austria.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy treasury secretary who served as special representative of the U.S. president and secretary of state for Holocaust issues during the Clinton administration, told JTA that he was disappointed in Poland but insisted the country was not a lost cause.
“When I began going hat in hand to these Eastern European governments in the 1990s, no one would have ever imagined we could have gotten all the agreements that are in place for the return of property,” Eizenstat said. “In Poland, you have a process for the return of religious communal property, and that’s thanks to the pressure of conferences like these.”
A counselor at the Polish Embassy in Prague, Isabella Wollejko-Chwastowicz, told JTA that a compensation law was “so complicated” that it was just taking a long time for the government to review. The explanation contradicts the most recent public Polish government position that Jewish groups simply are demanding too much.
Baroness Ruth Deech, a property expert and member of Britain’s House of Lords, said Poland’s position is infuriating.
“Looking at it from the outside, we read that 60 percent of Poles oppose private restitution and that the Jewish community in Poland today is fearful that pressing for justice will give rise to anti-Semitism,” she told an audience at the Prague conference.
Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, countered that Poles’ aversion toward restitution is economic, not anti-Semitic.
But failing to come to agreement on a restitution bill could be more costly for Poland, restitution advocates note. Jews could press private property claims in court, and the lack of clarity on land ownership in Poland hinders economic development. In Warsaw, for example, one-third of the city’s real estate was in Jewish hands before World War II, according to Eizenstat, who is still involved in restitution negotiations and works as a pro bono consultant to the Claims Conference.
Eizenstat said he hopes economic arguments will convince Polish officials to move ahead with restitution.
“A restitution law would also help Poland deal with the expensive issue of unclear land ownership that already harms its economic interests,“ he said.
Such appeals to the pocketbook are significant, since the West can no longer hold out admission or rejection into the European Union or NATO as an incentive, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a longtime restitution negotiator. Eastern European countries already have won admittance to these international bodies.
If you cannot prove economic self interest, then you need to convince governments to provide restitution by continuing to appeal to the leaders’ moral conscience, Baker suggested.
For his part, Evron continues to press his wife’s case with Poland. But he doesn’t have high hopes.
He bemoaned Poland’s tactic of forcing claimants to spend years and thousands of dollars pressing their cases in Polish courts, where they are frequently asked to produce evidence destroyed during World War II. Even when victory is achieved, like a positive decision recently granted for his wife’s residential building claim, cases are turned over to the Finance Ministry for review, Evron said.
“I asked my lawyer how long the review would take. He answered, could be a year, could be forever,” Evron said. “I have now spent more money on this case than the building is worth and my son asks why bother? My answer: It’s the principle that matters. You take something, you give it back.”