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November 27, 2015 / 15 Kislev, 5776
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Private Restitution Proposal Possible

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The issue of restitution for private property owned by Jews in Poland has long been a sore spot for many Jews of Polish origin. Before the Shoah, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. While many were very poor, a large number owned property, ranging from small plots of land to major estates. During World War II, the Germans confiscated all the property belonging to Jews. After the war, when some Jews returned, they were often attacked – as in the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, which compelled many Jews to leave the country. During the Communist era, much of the remaining property was confiscated by the state or claimed by the non-Jews now living in an almost Jew-free society.

Last week a draft resolution was announced that for the first time, would allow for financial compensation to claimants and the heirs of people of Polish origin who are not Polish citizens.

Over the years, every time I met a Polish official, I would ask, “What about restitution?” I was often told that the issue was complicated since “so many people lost so much during the war.”

The claim was that if Poland, a poor country, were be forced to give compensation to foreigners for abandoned property, the country would be broke because the bill would amount to billions of dollars.

Over the years, there have been many ideas thrown about on how to resolve the issue – ranging from handing over the deeds to the property to maintaining the status quo. The latest proposal is for compensation for between 15-20 percent of the value of the property.

This proposal has been criticized for being too little, and some are even calling it an insult. “Twenty percent of the value of my home,” one survivor said, “is not even worth the interest I would have gotten on the worth of the property if I had gotten the money on time and put it into the bank. It is an insult.”

The proposed compensation bill, which will apply within the current boundaries of Poland, is expected to cost the country some $10 billion.

“It is outrageous that the Polish government is inheriting 80 percent of the value of the homes of the few thousand Jews who survived,” said Yehuda Evron, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee, which represents 3,000 potential heirs in the United States, Israel, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

It is important to note that the Jewish claims for property restitution are expected to amount to only about 20 percent of the total claims, as many non-Jewish Poles also have claims against the government.

There are problems with any restitution bill. Proving that a property belonged to a claimant can be a major obstacle for people outside Poland. Many records were destroyed, and even those that still exist are buried in Polish archives.

There is a question of who should pay for searches of such archives- – claimants or the government. Who should perform the searches and should there be a time limit on claims? In the coming months, there will be a series of meetings between the Polish government and various Jewish organizations, including the Claims Conference, to try to clarify many of these issues.

Another issue of major concern is the property for which there are no heirs to file a claim. In many cases whole families were murdered and there is nobody to lay claim to their property. Many Jewish organizations representing Jews from all over the world would like any money realized from heirless property claims to be used to fund the preservation of Jewish heritage.

The Polish secretary of state, Ryszard Schnepf, whose father was a leader of the Polish Jewish community during the Communist regime, is the leading proponent of the new compensation bill. Due to a major disagreement with the government over Poland joining a Russian-German oil pipeline, he has resigned, leading many to fear that the compensation bill will be delayed again. A meeting between Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and leaders of the Claims Conference was canceled last week.

The current compensation bill is not the first to be brought to the Polish government. Six years ago, President Aleksander Kwasniewski rejected legislation offering full compensation to those who were Polish citizens before 1999.

A compensation law regarding community property enabled many Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and school buildings to be returned to the Jewish community in Poland. There have been several ongoing preservation projects that would not have been possible without the passing of the communal property restitution law.

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