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Restitution issue once again at the center of tensions between Poland and Israel

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Poland – The issue of the restitution of real estate that belonged to Jewish families returned to the forefront with a new Polish law adopted by the Sejm on June 24, and a new emotional reaction – largely disconnected from reality – from Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

The law adopted by the Sejm on June 24, which is now before the Senate, will make it impossible to challenge decisions taken in violation of the law in force more than 30 years ago. The introduction of a time limit for challenging decisions taken by the communist authorities after the war had been made necessary by a ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court from 2015 (before PiS came to power). The aim is to guarantee a minimum of legal certainty for current property owners. The descendants of the former owners who were deprived of their property by virtue of the nationalizations carried out by the communist regime after 1945 will still be able to claim financial compensation through the civil courts. Of course, the 30-year limit for challenging administrative decisions taken in violation of the law of the time applies to everyone, and thus also to non-Jewish Poles.

However, the issue of restitution of property confiscated by the communist authorities from Jewish families or their heirs is particularly sensitive, since it is part of the broader context of restitution and compensation that has never been regulated by law since the fall of communism in 1989–90, while Poland, with its large pre-war Jewish population (3.3 million citizens out of a total of 35 million, of whom about 3 million died in the genocide carried out by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland), is the country most affected by this problem.

The Israeli foreign minister’s reaction to the passing of this new law was to say that “This isn’t the first time that the Poles have tried to deny what happened in Poland at the time of the Holocaust. This law is immoral and will seriously harm relations between the two countries. No law will change history. It is a disgrace that will not erase the horrors and memories of the Holocaust. 

In fact, the vote on this law has nothing to do with any denial of the Holocaust – but Yair Lapid has a habit of making sweeping assertions.

In 2019, he claimed that during World War II, Poles “cooperated in creating and running extermination camps,” which is untrue and caused a vigorous reaction from the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum authorities, who pointed out to him that such a false claim was as hurtful as denying the Holocaust.

At the time of the tensions surrounding the Polish memorial law, the same Yair Lapid claimed that his grandmother had been murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles, when in fact she was deported and killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where, for the whole duration of the war, the only Poles present were among the prisoners.

With this new dispute over the issue of restitution,

tensions rose again after the response of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to the current Israeli foreign affairs minister’s latest provocation.

Morawiecki said that, as long as he remains prime minister, “Poland will pay nothing for German crimes. Not a single zloty, not a single euro, and not a single dollar.” Yair Lapid responded: “We are not interested in Polish money, and the very insinuation is antisemitic.

And it is true that, in this case, the law introducing a 30-year cap on the administrative decisions that can be challenged relates to private claims, not to claims for financial compensation made by some American Jewish organizations for property without heirs under a U.S. law passed in 2018. After the Israeli foreign minister and the Polish prime minister,

it was the turn of Polish nationalists to turn up the heat by dumping a pile of rubble in front of the Israeli embassy in Warsaw to symbolize the return of Jewish property.

Another problem with the delicate issue of restitution is indeed that the properties that belonged to Jewish families exterminated by the German occupiers were often in ruins after the war and were rebuilt by communist Poland.

Moreover, the questioning of old decisions taken by the communist regime, often in violation of its own laws, has led to numerous abuses and cases of corruption, as was seen with the many scandals linked to such restitutions in Warsaw.

See on this subject:

Summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as was the Israeli chargé d’affaires in Warsaw), the Polish ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, explained the motivations behind the new law in a series of tweets published for the Israelis:

Imagine a house in Warsaw. Burnt out and abandoned in 1945. Before the German occupation six families had lived in this place. One of them was Jewish. Some tenants perished, some were deported to concentration camps, some others fled the persecution. Shortly after the war the house was nationalised by communists. Two new families moved in. Then three more. Some of them had lost their own property in eastern Poland, now part of the Soviet Union. And never received compensation. Births, weddings, funerals. Precarious lives under communist dictatorship. Generation after generation. Then comes freedom. In 1990 local authorities offer the remaining occupants a deal: you can purchase your flats, at a reasonable price. Most eagerly agree. New sewage system is installed. Roof mended, windows replaced, furniture updated. Then comes a surprise. In 2005 a law firm representing prewar proprietors suddenly pops up. They demand for the premises to be vacated and returned to the legitimate owners. Lots of similar claims – predominantly in Warsaw. Some of them straightforward and transparent. But many others dubious, to say the least. Some ownership certificates are missing, some documents are forged. Fertile ground for egregious real estate scams. The so-called “wild reprivatisation” leads to utter chaos. Mafia-like entities control large part of the real estate market. Organised white-collar crime thrives. After 45 years of communist rule, and more than 30 years since democratic transition, people who had never had anything to do with the war and the Holocaust, now face eviction from the properties they had legally acquired and invested in. They live in fear and insecurity. Hundreds of pending cases and hundreds of families who do not know whether the apartment or the house they live in is actually theirs. In 2015 the Polish Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling which basically put an end to these predatory practices. Now it is being implemented in the Polish Code of Administrative Procedure. A 30-year, non-discriminatory statute of limitations has been imposed, the longest possible according to Polish legal system. The administrative procedures will be terminated. Nevertheless all interested parties will still be entitled to file civil suits and obtain compensation, in a fair procedure before the court of law.

During the vote in the Sejm, there was no controversy: PiS voted in favor, as did most of the opposition, except for the Civic Coalition (KO), which abstained. In the opposition-dominated Senate, however, changes may still be made,

for example by preserving the possibility of continuing to challenge old administrative decisions for proceedings already under way when the law is enacted. This might be a way of easing tensions with Israel, as well as with Jewish organizations and the United States, which have also criticized the law.