Although the Second World War ended over 70 years ago, the fight over restitution is very much alive today.
My first column on this topic focused on the struggle for Jewish reparations over the years. I then looked at restitution funds which are still active and are accepting applications. In today’s column, I examine how governments are still grappling with legislation that could determine whether survivors or their heirs are compensated for the horrors of the Holocaust.
As recently as 2007, less than 20 per cent of the value of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators has been restored according to the Jewish Political Studies Review. “Even the highly publicized resurgence of restitution efforts since the mid-1990s resulted in the return of only three per cent of Holocaust property,” said the Review.
In order to address this, in May of this year, the United States passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act. The Act mandates that the State Department report on the progress of 47 countries that pledged in 2009 to return or pay restitution for stolen property or assets from Holocaust victims.
Although law does not give the United States powers to litigate to recover property, its reporting will apply pressure on signatories of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. Its passing also coincides with headlines about the one European country which has not passed legislation to compensate former owners for assets seized – Poland. As the AP points out, “Warsaw sees itself as the key target of the law. … Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz says he believes that the U.S. pressure through the JUST Act unfairly sets Jewish claimants above non-Jewish ones, creating tensions within Polish society.”
“This position of the (U.S.) Congress is not good because it wants some privileges for the Jews, for the Jewish community, but not for the Poles. I think that the Poles who live in the U.S. may feel hurt by that,” Czaputowicz said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A Polish-American group fighting the legislation called it “profoundly UNJUST”, opposing the Act’s reporting “on acts of certain foreign countries.” “Poland must not be held responsible for the genocide and property expropriations conducted by her German and Soviet occupiers.”
Haaretz.com quoted media reaction in Poland criticizing the law. “Finish this madness; the subject could cost Poland tens of millions” read a headline on a large Polish newspaper. “The Holocaust industry is attacking Poland,” read another.
“The JUST Act is a drop of justice in what was an ocean of injustice, as it will ultimately help in the restitution of Nazi-confiscated assets stolen during the Holocaust,” said U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.
As mentioned, Poland is the only country in Europe which has not passed legislation to compensate owners whose private property was confiscated under Nazi and later Communist rule. After over 20 failed attempts at legislation, the Polish government introduced a restitution law last October. That legislation has been criticized by Polish survivors of the Holocaust and their heirs.
• Compensation would be limited to the victims themselves and “first line heirs” – spouses, children and grandchildren but not extended family. Only Polish citizens would be eligible for compensation.
• It would be restricted to heirs of property-owners who lived in Poland at the time of nationalization. That would affect survivors who left at the end of the war whose property was late nationalized under Communist rule.
• It would be capped at 20 per cent of the property’s pre-war value or 25 per cent in Polish government bonds.
• And filings must be made within one year of the law being enacted after which property would be transferred to the Polish Treasury.
Articles in tabletmag.com and The New York Times explain the fallout from the proposed legislation. Critics say the bill would discriminate against virtually all survivors who are not current citizens of Poland. Supporters say the bill treats all claimants – Jew and non-Jew – equally.
“On what basis should Poland decide that those with Jewish ancestors get compensated, whereas Belarussians, Poles, Ukrainians or Crimean Karaites, or Tatars and Germans—all of whom used to live here before the war—shouldn’t be compensated?” Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski asked. “It means that the descendants of poor Poles are supposed to pay the descendants of those who were rich?”
Counters critic David Tilles, a dual British-Polish citizen with experience of the restitution process noted, “There is an expectation that, given all the suffering, restitution should be made easier, particularly for Polish Jews forced to leave by the Holocaust and the subsequent Communist regime’s anti-Semitic purges.”
Those sentiments were echoed in March in a bipartisan letter co-signed by 59 U.S. senators welcomed by the World Jewish Restitution Organization which called “on Poland urgently to address this historic wrong.”
The outcry seems to have had an effect. The Polish Justice Ministry has announced that it is reviewing its draft legislation.
Next time, I conclude my look at Holocaust restitution with one of the most difficult fights, the return of valuable artworks seized by the Nazis.