Restitution is one of the very many topics in our mutual relations
What were the reasons for the cancellation – at the last minute – of the visit of Israeli officials in Poland? In its press release issued on Sunday evening, the MFA stated that “the Israeli side made last minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would focus on the issues related to property restitution.” What was the original topic of the talks? Did the agenda also include restitution?
The Israeli side requested to meet with different institutions and ministries, including the ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of digital affairs in early April this year. The delegation was to be headed by Mr. Avi Cohen-Scali, the Director General of the Israeli Ministry for Social Equality. The ministry represented by Director Cohen deals with issues related to citizens’ access to public services, digital projects, and the care for survivors and their property.
The meeting was supposed to focus on issues related to public diplomacy. However, the moment it turned out that the composition of the Israeli delegation was changed, and it was to be headed by Ambassador Dan Haezrachi, a plenipotentiary for Holocaust property restitution, and the main topic on the agenda proposed by the Israeli side was to be restitution, the meeting was cancelled.
Is Poland going to raise the topic of property restitution in the talks with the Israeli or US representatives, at a different time and level?
Poland does not raise the topic of property restitution with other countries on its own initiative.
However we answer questions and legal doubts related to this issue when they are raised by our foreign partners in diplomatic relations.
“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,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit in Poland. Is the matter of property restitution closed for Poland? Are we open to negotiations on this topic, and to what extent?
In Poland, there are legal procedures that enable the restitution of property or to claim compensation. These procedures allow all eligible persons to exercise their right to lost property, irrespectively of their nationality or origin. Every person whose property was taken away in violation of the nationalization laws adopted after the Second World War now has the right to challenge the legal force of those decisions.
Since 1989, Poland has spent around PLN 8.6 billion on compensation for property taken over after the war, not including the property returned in kind. The value of returned real property in Warsaw alone amounts to billions of Polish zlotys. These are enormous amounts of money.
Will the JUST Act (S. 477), which requires the Department of State to report to Congress assessing the national laws of covered countries regarding the return of Jewish property, influence Polish-US relations?
Polish-US relations are well established. Poland belongs to a group of the US’s closest and valued allies. The issue of property restitution is one of the very many topics raised by the US side in our mutual relations and, as such, it is not of key importance for the overall Polish-US relations. US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher has recently confirmed it.
In our assessment the adoption of Act itself is a negative undertaking even though it does not carry any legal consequences, but only requires the US Administration to submit a one-time report. Many Poles who fought against Germany during WW2 have settled in the United States, leaving their property behind in Poland. They have a right to feel offended that the Act favours people of Jewish descent. This lack of equality in treating persons of Jewish descent and persons who do not have these origins causes people to feel they have been treated unfairlyand is a source of understandable concern.
Is there a risk that the issue of property restitution will become a tool of informal pressure on Poland, for example in the context of negotiations concerning enhanced US military presence in our country?
The issue of property restitution should not be associated with security policy issues of strategic importance not only for Poland but also for the United States of America. Poland is a very important ally for the US in the context of defense policy. The US strategy in this regard is unequivocal and we are not linking it with issues that are outside the security policy area.
According to the US, the great majority of claims of US citizens form the Holocaust period were not covered by the indemnification agreement of 1960 invoked by Poland. The US position is that the agreement applies to only to US citizens who were US citizens at the time when their property was nationalized by the communist authorities in Poland. Whereas Polish citizens whose property was seized during the Holocaust and who later emigrated to the US and became US citizens or whose descendants became US citizens are not covered by the 1960 Agreement and “may continue to assert their claims to property lost by operation of Polish law and administrative procedures.” How will Poland respond to this position?
There is some confusion surrounding these issues in the public discourse. We cannot speak about “property taken over by Poland during the Holocaust,” because obviously movable and immovable property was confiscated by the III German Reich. From the beginning these confiscations were illegal in light of international law and domestic law. For one, the Decree of 6 June 1945 invalidated court decisions (including those concerning property) that were issued by German courts during the occupation. After the war, a number of legal regulations were passed to reverse the effects of confiscations made by the occupying forces and to regulate the legal situation of property.
This Decree provided that German property previously owned by persons belonging to nationalities that had been persecuted by the German authorities (e.g. Jews and Poles) was to be returned to the original owner, provided he or she had filed for the return of such property.
When it comes to nationalization, the authorities treated every owner of pre-war assets in the same way. Nationalization was based on the features of the property, e.g. the area of a farm or the number of employees, not the origin of its owners. Saying that after the war the Polish authorities treated owners of Jewish origin in a explicitly discriminating fashion is an abuse.
And what about the so-called heirless property…
In this case we have the same regulations as in other countries: after a heirless death the inheritance is passed on to the community of the last place of residence of the deceased or to the State Treasury. Similar laws apply in the US and Israel.
During a recent discussion, representatives of the Polish authorities underscored that they would not agree to a different solution. It would mean that, the material aspect aside, an indirect admission that the Polish State is unworthy of the heritage of Polish Jews. After all, this heritage is part of our history.
The contribution made by Polish Jews to Polish culture history, economy, science and social life is indisputable. They also fought against Germans on WW2 fronts in the Polish armed forces.
We preserve the memory of Polish Jews, we protect their heritage. In the last few years we set up a fund to preserve the Jewish Cemetery at ul. Okopowa in Warsaw which now amounts to PLN 100 million. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN is also appreciated internationally. In a unique way on the European scale we care for German Nazi death camps. We do all this not because someone tells us to do it, or that this is what the Terezin Declaration or the JUST Act requires us to do, but because believe it is just and the right thing to do.
Can the property restitution issue, Israel’s expectations towards Poland and the Polish position on this matter influence how the issue of war reparations for Poland from Germany will develop?
Let’s not mix the issue of property restitution and reparations from Germany. Restitution is an internal issue. As I have said, we will not agree to divide Poles on account of their origin or their residence, into those that live in Poland and those that are also citizens of other states.
Under the law, Polish Jews and their descendants are Poles, although in certain cases they have to apply to confirm or restore Polish citizenship. We welcome the fact that they benefit from this law; 10 thousand Israeli citizens confirmed their Polish citizenship in 2015-2017. Also Polish Jews and their descendants make up a significant percentage of the people who apply for confirmation of their Polish citizenship in other countries. Persons who hold foreign citizenship have the same rights as Poles when it comes to property restitution claims.
The issue of war reparations from Germany is of a different nature. It concerns Polish war victims, irrespective of their origin, also those of Jewish origin. We continue to feel the effects of WW2. Poland has suffered one of the biggest material losses of all the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition. Despite this fact it was practically deprived of its share of the war reparations. It also did not receive any post-war relief under the Marshall Plan and the communist regime imposed on us in Yalta slowed down our economic development for decades.
Source: PAP (Polish Press Agency)