BUDAPEST, March 7 (JTA) – There is a risk that thousands of properties that belonged to Poland’s Jewish community before World War II will not be returned – not because of problems with the Polish government, but because of conflict among Jews.
Poland’s 1997 restitution law set a five-year deadline for submitting all claims to communal religious property confiscated by the Nazis and nationalized by the postwar Communist regime.
But a hard-fought agreement between the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the tiny Polish Jewish community to cooperate on the recovery and management of Jewish communal property has apparently fallen through – 14 months before that deadline.
The current developments mark the latest episode in the acrimonious and highly emotional conflict between world Jewry and the Polish Jewish community that has held up the restitution process in Poland for years.
The agreement, signed last June after years of wrangling, mainly dealt with property in places where no Jews live today.
It mandated the establishment of a joint foundation to research and submit claims, defend claims before state and local officials, own and manage reclaimed property or compensation and use any proceeds for the needs of Polish Jewry both in Poland and abroad.
There is no firm estimate of the value of property involved, but it could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Under the agreement, reclaimed property in 19 of 49 Polish counties would be retained and used by the local Jewish community. In the remaining 30 counties, reclaimed properties or compensation would be transferred to the new foundation for broader use.
Nine months later, however, the foundation has not yet started operations and has not been registered by the Polish state.
And the WJRO, demanding a greater oversight role and greater accountability, has held back a promised $800,000 loan that was pledged three years ago to cover legal and other necessary expenses for filing claims.
Jews in Poland accuse the WJRO of reneging on the agreement. Independent observers who have monitored the restitution process also blame the WJRO for blocking progress since last June.
“They have just put up obstacles,” said one outside observer who has followed the restitution process. For example, he said, the WJRO did not formally ratify the June agreement until September.
“The Polish Jewish community says that it just can’t wait anymore,” the source said. “I see no such urgency from the other side.”
Jewish leaders in Poland, citing a “moral obligation to their ancestors and to the martyrs of the Shoah,” announced last month that they will go it alone – with or without a foundation and with or without WJRO cooperation or financial support – in order to end a “dangerous stalemate.”
“We can’t waste any more time on quarreling,” Jerzy Kichler, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Congregations in Poland, told JTA. “We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our history and to world Jewry. We’ll have to hire more than 100 researchers and other people to do the job. We’ll take out bank loans or find the money somewhere else.”
Kichler said the Polish Jewish community has good relations with other international Jewish organizations such as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and hopes to receive their aid and advice.
“We are ready to cooperate with all who want to be part of the restitution process, but not hijack it,” another Polish Jewish leader said.
World Jewish Congress Vice President Kalman Sultanik, one of the signers of last June’s agreement on behalf of the WJRO, rejected the suggestion that the WJRO is to blame for the current standoff.
He said the WJRO is ready to release the funding once it is convinced that it would be spent properly.
In a telephone interview with JTA, Sultanik said the Polish Jewish community was taking an “extremist position” to find an excuse to break cooperation and go ahead with restitution efforts on its own, presumably to gain primary control of the proceeds.
“We will never accept this,” he said.
Amid the acrimony, an enormous job is looming.
Estimates of the number of Jewish properties believed eligible for restitution amount to more than 4,000, but fewer than 600 claims have been submitted so far.
To meet the deadline, at least 10 claims a day will have to be submitted in a costly and exacting process that entails searching archives and filing a variety of legal documents.
“I am very disappointed that the two sides were not able to implement the agreement that was signed and ratified last summer,” Henry Clarke, a U.S. State Department representative who mediated last year’s agreement, told JTA. “There are too many properties, and there is a real risk that they won’t be claimed.”
Founded in 1992 by a number of international Jewish organizations and survivors groups, the WJRO was intended to be a central body coordinating efforts to recover Jewish communal and organizational assets seized by Nazi and Communist governments.
But Poland’s 1997 law recognized the local Jewish community as the only legal claimant to prewar communal properties.
This outraged the WJRO and other world Jewish bodies, which demanded a dominant role in the process.
They insisted that today’s Jewish community in Poland – with only 5,000 or so registered members – could not truly represent the more than 3 million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust or the thousands of Polish Jewish survivors living abroad.
“Those few thousand Jews who live in Poland are not the inheritors of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history, of the Jewish hospitals, yeshivas, schools, synagogues,” said Sultanik, who also is president of the American Federation of Polish Jews.
Feuds over how to cooperate in reclaiming and managing property stymied the process for two years after the 1997 law was passed. The disputes were so bitter that in September 1999, Clarke was called in to mediate so that restitution could get under way.
Outside observers who followed the process described an occasionally vicious verbal war between the two sides.
“Some of the Israelis in particular demonstrated a contempt for the local Jewish community,” one source, speaking on terms of anonymity, said. One Israeli representative was described as “yelling and screaming” during a recent meeting.
Sources close to both sides said the WJRO may ask the Polish government to extend the May 2002 deadline.
The sources also raised concern that if cooperation between the WJRO and the Union of Religious Congregations is definitively broken, dissident members of the Polish Jewish community – who also are in conflict with communal leaders – may step forward and try to present themselves as partners in the restitution process.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.