Sept. 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Nazi invasion began World War II — and the devastation of Polish Jewry.
For a thousand years, Jews lived in Poland — they raised families, established businesses, worked the land, and built homes.
By the end of the war, the Nazis had robbed Jews of their every possession and murdered around 3 million Jews. The surviving remnant struggled to regain their property after the war, only for it to be confiscated again by the Polish Communist regime.
Unfortunately, the struggle continues for those survivors still with us, and for their families.
At its heart, their struggle is about memory – businesses, land, and homes are the last physical connection to a lost family and generations-old family history.
Norman Trysk-Frajman was 10 years old when the Germans forced his family to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. Now 89, Norman affectionately remembers his grandparents and recalls a beautiful and privileged childhood. He lived in a home with indoor plumbing, attended private school, rode a bicycle and walked his dog.
Now, all that remains are his memories and two worn and yellowed property deeds of the two Warsaw apartment buildings owned by his grandparents, where his family lived.
Norman, now in Florida, is still fighting to get his property back.
This week brought Norman and other survivors a powerful statement of support from the United States Senate.
Eighty-eight Senators sent a resounding bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to “act boldly and with urgency” to encourage Poland to resolve the issue of private property restitution to Holocaust victims. The letter was led by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and signed by key senators including all Senators running for President and the chairs and ranking members of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee.
The letter states, “Now is the time, while the last Holocaust survivors are still alive, to back up our words with meaningful action. We encourage you to pursue bold initiatives to help Poland to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”
As the senators note, Secretary Pompeo previously spoke publicly on behalf of survivors in February at a Warsaw press conference with the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, during his first official visit to Poland as U.S. Secretary of State. Pompeo said, “We also appreciate the importance of resolving outstanding issues of the past, and I urge my Polish colleagues to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.”
Shockingly, Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki publicly rebuked Secretary Pompeo just days after he left Warsaw, incorrectly calling the issue “closed.”
Poland is the only European Union country that has not passed a law that would allow for the restitution of private property despite promising to do so repeatedly. In 2018, Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki said that he was “ashamed” that Poland had not introduced legislation for the restitution of private property in the 28 years since the fall of Communism. “This should have been taken care of a long time ago,” he said.
Last year, the Congress unanimously passed and President Trump signed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST Act), which was designed to help Holocaust survivors like Norman. The law requires the State Department to submit a report to Congress on the status of restitution in European countries, including Poland.
The United States Senate and Secretary Pompeo have spoken clearly. Eighty years after the start of the Second World War, and decades after Poland became a democratic country, Poland must provide justice to Holocaust survivors like Norman for what was wrongfully taken from them.
Gideon Taylor is chair of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO).