The heads of three of the largest government pension funds in the United States called upon Poland today to make restitution to the owners and heirs of property confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
In a letter to Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, they pointed out that "Poland is the only member state of the European Union and the only major country in the former Soviet bloc without a law to restore or compensate victims for private property seized by the Nazis or nationalized by Communist governments."
The three officials are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and California State Treasurer John Chiang. Together, Stringer and DiNapoli manage pension funds totaling $340 billion.
The letter is the "first step," Stringer told The Jewish Week, pointing out that one of his predecessors, Alan Hevesi, used his position to leverage concessions on restitution claims from Switzerland in the 1990s. Hevesi threatened to move New York funds from Swiss banks and to withhold licenses the banks would need to operate in the state.
Their letter comes nearly a month after a bipartisan group of 42 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge that the State Department continue it's efforts to ensure the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property seized by the Nazis throughout Europe.
Stringer told The Jewish Week that approximately 60,000 Holocaust survivors live in the New York area and that about half of them live at or below the poverty level.
"Poland must fulfill its obligation to them and their heirs," he said.
In their letter to Kerry, the lawmakers wrote that many survivors in the U.S. “and around the world live in poverty knowing the property that was stolen from them and their families remains in the hands of governments and private owners who have no rightful claim.”
Among those signing the letter were New York Democratic Reps. Steve Israel, Jerrold Nadler, Nita Lowey, Joseph Crowley, Grace Meng, Kathleen Rice, Carolyn Maloney, Charles Rangel and Jose Serrano. Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin also signed.
Some 3 million Polish Jews, 90 percent of the Jewish population, were murdered by the Nazis. In addition, another 3 million Polish citizens died as victims of war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Gideon Taylor, chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said it is not known how many Holocaust survivors or their heirs in the United States might claim their property in Poland.
He noted that his organization has been working with the New York and California financial officers “to articulate the importance of them being engaged in this issue. We welcome their involvement and their leadership, which shows that this is an issue of concern to elected officials throughout the nation."
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Taylor also pointed out that the involvement of financial officers throughout the United States "played a very important role in ensuring" the $1.25 billion settlement in 1999 between Swiss banks and Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
DiNapoli said in a statement that the "tragedy of the Holocaust is still borne today by its survivors and the heirs of its victims. Compensation for their suffering and their losses is the right and just action to take. It is time for Poland to step forward. We hope and expect that the close bonds between our two nations will help Poland finally adopt a formal restitution policy."
In recent years Polish leaders have repeatedly promised to pass legislation that would provide for real property restitution or compensation. In 2009, Poland was one of 43 countries to attend the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in the Czech Republic that resulted in the Terezin Declaration. It established a set of guidelines to serve as an international standard for how governments should handle previously confiscated property.
But as the three financial officials pointed out, previous Polish governments have promised but failed to adopt private property restitution laws.
“[We] were disappointed by your predecessors’ decision to cease such efforts,” they wrote.
“The recent 70th anniversary commemoration of World War II highlights the urgent need to provide restitution to aging Holocaust survivors and their families. We welcome the opportunity to begin a dialogue with you around this effort.”
Abraham Biderman, co-chair of the WJRO executive committee, said in a statement, "Even at this late date, Holocaust victims and their families and heirs have a right to restitution or compensation for that property in Poland."