Jewish pressure for new Polish restitution deal

The Jerusalem Report 19 September 2005
Netty C. Gross

A new campaign to pressure Poland to pass special legislation that would facilitate restitution of Jewish-owned property from the Holocaust period or compensation for buildings no longer standing is about to be launched. So say World Jewish Congress Board chairman Dr. Israel Singer and Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski, co-chairs of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, set up in 1992 to represent Israel and world Jewry in Holocaust restitution negotiations.

Singer says the WJRO is opposed to a proposed Polish law that would award heirs of Nazi-confiscated property that was subsequently nationalized by the Communists 15 percent of its assessed value. To date, individuals who have pursued private claims through Polish courts have often been stymied by cumbersome legal demands and difficulties in obtaining relevant prewar documents.

"The attitude of the Polish government toward restitution of private property has been callous and we will not accept these nominal offers," says Singer, who is also president of the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and has played a major role in badgering European countries to arrive at restitution settlements. Singer says the WJRO is also "deeply unhappy" with the slow pace of restitution of Poland's Jewish communal properties. A 1997 law recognized the small local Jewish communities as the legal heirs to communal buildings in the 1,500 destroyed prewar Jewish communities. But Singer says that because of bureaucratic issues, only 3 percent of the over 5,000 claims for communal properties have been met.

Singer would not detail what sort of pressure might be applied on Poland but did not rule out turning to U.S. politicians for assistance, as was done in negotiations with the Swiss banks.

According to a recent WJC position paper, the approximately 3.25 million Jews who lived in Poland before World War II - 10 percent of the population - owned a disproportionate amount of real estate. In cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Lvov, Jews are believed to have owned 40 percent of the real estate. Some 90 percent of the Jews perished during the Holocaust and a preliminary estimate commissioned earlier this year by former cabinet minister for Di-aspora affairs Natan Sharansky said Poland's debt to Jewish heirs could run as high as $30 billion. Poland may be home to "the mother of all restitution deals," Singer says.

The battle is being waged for private heirs, says Singer, but he acknowledges that if it succeeds, the WJRO and other Jewish organizations such as the Claims Conference stand to inherit all heirless Jewish property in Poland, since many entire families were wiped out.

A well-informed Polish source told The Report that a new version of the proposed law is currently being considered by a special government commission in Warsaw. The source acknowledged the importance of resolving the issue in Poland in order to bolster its standing in the world community, but said that the vast sums involved could prove to be "very painful for our economy." He said that current Polish law bars creating special legislation for Jews, and thus Poland would have to pay out claims to all Poles whose wartime property was confiscated and then nationalized. "We are just in the process of modernization and this could prove very difficult," he said. The Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv had no formal comment on the matter.
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