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U.S. group works to jump-start Polish restitution

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NEW YORK, April 3 (JTA) — A leading American Jewish organization is trying to resolve Jewish infighting that is jeopardizing the reclamation of thousands of Holocaust-era properties in Poland.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee invited Polish Jewish leaders to New York this week, hoping to reconcile the tiny Polish Jewish community with the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

At the heart of the conflict appears to be a very public grab for money and power, marked by personal animosities.

At stake are up to 4,000 Jewish communal properties — synagogues, schools, hospitals and administrative buildings — worth perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.

The properties were first confiscated by the Nazis, then nationalized by Poland’s Communist regime.

The involvement of the JDC — a founding member of the WJRO and an active participant in Polish Jewish affairs — follows an appeal from several American Jewish leaders.

Polish Jews and the WJRO reached an agreement last June to cooperate on reclaiming the properties, but their collaboration unraveled some six weeks ago.

According to one source close to the issue, “It’s going to be tough to resolve this because there’s been a hardening of feelings on both sides.”

The five-year deadline for filing claims expires in May 2002, but only 600 claims have been filed so far.

Reclaiming every property would require filing 10 claims a day for the next year — a tedious, if not impossible, process of research and documentation.

At least one participant in this week’s negotiations, World Jewish Congress Vice President Kalman Sultanik, sounded optimistic.

“I don’t think there is any other option” to working together,

“because time is working against us,” Sultanik said.

“The Jewish community is like us, with only one interest in mind: not wasting time, and trying to reclaim as many Jewish properties as possible, as soon as possible,” he said

Jerzy Kichler, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Congregations in Poland, took part in the New York negotiations this week but could not be reached for comment.

But another Jewish leader, who remained in Poland this week, told JTA that reconciliation “seems impossible to us. The WJRO has lost credibility, and we must devote all energy to restitution of Jewish communal property rather than to another round of negotiations.”

If they miss the deadline, it’s unclear whether Polish Jews would forfeit their right to further claims, or if the government would give them more time.

Some observers suggest the Polish government would not want to appear hard-nosed, provoking Jewish outrage and, possibly, accusations of anti- Semitism.

In any case, frustrated Jewish observers lay the blame for the current crisis entirely at the feet of the Jews themselves.

They wonder why the two sides can’t work together through the claims process, secure the properties or compensation — and then haggle afterward over how to divide it.

In 1997, Poland passed a property restitution law, set the five-year deadline, and deemed the tiny Union of Jewish Religious Congregations — which represents 5,000 registered Jews — heir to vast communal property holdings scattered across Poland’s 49 counties.

The WJRO — a coalition that includes the JDC, World Jewish Congress, American and Israeli Holocaust survivor groups, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Claims Conference and B’nai B’rith — reacted angrily.

The WJRO noted that far more Holocaust survivors from Poland’s Jewish community — which once numbered over 3 million — today live outside Poland than within it.

Therefore, the WJRO contended, it would better represent the interests of survivors than the few Jews remaining in Poland.

However, some WJRO members went further, accusing the remaining Polish Jews of not being “real Jews” and of having “sold out” to Polish authorities.

In turn, Polish Jewish leaders accused the WJRO of trying to run roughshod over the local community.

Nevertheless, in recent years the two sides appeared to be cooperating on a plan to create a foundation to research and submit claims, defend claims before state and local officials, own and manage reclaimed property or compensation, and allocate proceeds for the needs of Polish Jews in Poland and abroad.

Reclaimed property in 19 of 49 counties would have been retained and used by the local Jewish community, while properties or compensation in the other 30 counties would have been transferred to the new foundation for broader use.

The foundation board was to be composed of five representatives of the WJRO and five members of the local Jewish community, and chaired by American Jewish leader and cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder.

The WJRO had pledged $800,000 to the foundation to pay for researchers, lawyers and filing fees.

But the agreement collapsed nearly two months ago, apparently when the WJRO announced it would withhold its funding unless the Union gave the WJRO complete oversight of every financial transaction.

Today, the foundation exists only on paper, and has not even been registered by the Polish state.

With the WJRO and the Union in a standoff, Lauder stepped into the breach in March. He was quoted as criticizing the “internal bickering” of the WJRO, and reportedly established a body called the Polish Restitution Foundation, Inc. to fill the void.

However, Lauder did an abrupt about-face last week, ending his direct involvement without explanation. He could not be reached for comment.

The local Jewish leadership has pledged to go it alone if need be, even taking loans from Polish banks to cover research and administrative costs.

Still, the JDC hopes to mend fences.

While the Polish government may ultimately extend the deadline for filing claims, observers suggest the government may face domestic pressure from Polish groups who feel the Jews squandered a generous opportunity, and do not deserve another.

But an extension might not make much of a difference if the JDC fails to mend fences.

“I don’t think anyone wants to bank on what the Polish government may do,” said one source close to the situation. “But that’s not a solution anyway. So what if they extend it one more year? Would that only give the WJRO and the Union another year to argue?”

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