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Pressing Poland On Holocaust Restitution Presents Dilemma For U.S., Jewish Groups

President Obama and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, May 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Obama and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, May 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

WASHINGTON – Poland is a stalwart American ally in Europe, a bulwark against an increasingly belligerent Russia and, with the recent opening of a major new Warsaw museum, is enjoying a flush of accolades for its belated embrace of its Jewish roots.

But there’s a thorn in the bouquet: Poland is seen as having the world’s worst record on the restitution of Jewish property lost during the Holocaust.

Officials of Jewish groups seeking restitution say they will be making a renewed push to put the restitution issue on Congress’s agenda and expect new pressure to advance the issue.

But ratcheting up the pressure on Poland poses an acute dilemma for U.S. policymakers. The country’s outlier status – it is the sole European country that does not offer private property restitution to survivors of the Holocaust or their heirs – makes it an obvious target for Jewish activists. But Poland is also among the most reliable U.S. allies and has close relations with Israel and American Jewish groups. Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, will be featured next month as a guest at the American Jewish Committee’s annual conclave.

Perhaps as a result, few Jewish officials or members of Congress were willing to discuss the issue on the record. Requests for comment from the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Polish Embassy in Washington were not answered.

Efforts to pressure the Poles have remained largely in the realm of the rhetorical, with no legislation proposed to address the problem as was done in the past on other thorny issues of Holocaust restitution, like unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies.

In January, during confirmation hearings for Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the co-chair of the congressional Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe, sought reassurances that Kerry would continue to press Poland on the issue.

Cardin noted that Poland tells heirs seeking compensation to turn to the country’s courts, an arduous and expensive process. It’s also a process likely to fail because the government refuses to advance legislation that could underpin such litigation.

Recourse to the courts, “a process that presents insurmountable obstacles for most victims of property theft and especially victims of the Holocaust, will ultimately be futile for most claimants, and even for a tiny fraction of successful claimants would be drawn out and needlessly burdensome,” Cardin said.

Kerry replied that he would “continue to encourage Poland to address property claimants’ concerns quickly and fairly.”

More recently, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, brought up restitution in a March 17 security meeting with Polish officials.

Douglas Davidson, the State Department’s special envoy on the Holocaust, also is deeply involved in advancing the restitution issue, Jewish organizational leaders said. Davidson, who was traveling, could not be reached for comment.

Jewish officials also said the Obama administration has been engaged on the issue, with the president himself bringing it up in his meetings with Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister.

Such entreaties, however, have largely failed to move the Polish government.

In November, Poland sent only a low-level diplomat to a conference in Prague on restituting private property. The conference featured the presentation of a paper by the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization describing the treatment of the restitution issue by successive Polish governments as a backward trajectory.

“While the government has issued numerous draft laws with respect to regulating private property restitution, Poland has never enacted a single law pertaining to immovable properties seized from private owners in the country during the Holocaust era and its aftermath,” the paper said.

In part, the problem is a result of vastly decreased U.S. leverage over Poland, where the restitution of private property remains deeply unpopular because of the potential for upheaval among the current residents of the properties. Restituting communal property such as synagogues and graveyards is more straightforward.

Moreover, nations that once cultivated U.S. Jews in their quest for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are now members of the alliance. And they have thriving economies, to boot.

“It’s a different world than it was ten years ago for these countries,” one Jewish official said. “Poland is becoming a wealthier country than it was ten years ago.” An official of another Jewish group, speaking on background, said one avenue of pressure could be to withhold Jewish support for Poland achieving visa waiver status, a measure that would allow its citizens to enter the United States for ninety days without a prearranged visa.

But Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s international Jewish affairs director, said such a move would be counterproductive.

“These issues are not popular with the domestic constituencies in any of the Eastern Europeans countries where we’ve pressed it,” Baker said. “The last thing we want is to make it more unpopular.”

(JTA)

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5 Responses to “Pressing Poland On Holocaust Restitution Presents Dilemma For U.S., Jewish Groups”

  1. In the equations for justice the overwhelming tragedy can have very little justice now. Poland should do more.

    But Jewish leaders should not have Poland on the top of their agenda right now.

    Instead Hungary, that allows Lazlo Czatary, the murderer of more than 15,000 Hungarian Jews, to live comfortably in his Budapest apartment without facing trail, should be on the top of the list. He is more than 95 years old, so it wouldn't take that long to return Poland to the top of the list.

  2. Anonymous says:

    AS FOUNDER OF Rabbis for Romney I WARNED YOU ABOUT OBAMA.

    Watch this. It is well worth it. NO one in this administration knows anything. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

  3. Bruce Hain says:

    There is one big problem that is notably omitted here: Poland and Czech Republic have yet to pay property claims of ethnic Germans who were dispossessed of land and property in what is now Poland and Czech Republic. This dispossession represents a vast amount. The German "League of the Displaced" have had a difficult time given the biased political climate in Germany, are suppressed, and the affected generation, almost gone, are resigned to their fate.

  4. Bruce Hain says:

    He would have to have been very highly placed to kill so many. Anything like Rakozy?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Anti Semites Are Having a Field Day.

    The shenanigans going on with the Holocaust Claims Conference and the daily reports in various newspapers is reprehensible. If I were not a child of Holocaust survivors and Jewish I would truly develop anti Semitic feelings and be jealous with hatred of the Jewish people. Why? Jews have been hated throughout history because non Jews believe we control the financial world and find every possible method to steal money from others.. I am sixty five years old and was born in a DP camp.. My parents, survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald died when I was relatively young. Except for a cousin, their entire families perished in the Holocaust and all their property including land and businesses was taken from them. Any elderly Holocaust survivor who is in need of food, medicine or financial assistance which Germany just made available should receive the additional funding through the Holocaust Claims Conference.

    Due to the mishandling and theft involved with the Holocaust Claims Conference the world is regarding the entire Jewish population as thieves. Is this the legacy we want after many of us lost most of our families to the Nazis?

    While I realize Holocaust survivors will say that the money given by Germany belongs to them, I can suggest other venues where this money would help the children, grandchildren and future generations of those who suffered in the Holocaust. There certainly are many Holocaust survivors who financially did well after the war. I am sure they would also like to see funding from the Holocaust Claims conference used for the Jewish education of their children and future generations. How many Rabbinical Theological schools offer courses in Holocaust history or education? This is the way to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and those who died. Day schools are in desperate need of financial assistance and synagogues are having financial problems. Many young Jewish families, especially Religious families are struggling to keep kosher, send their children to Yeshivas, support synagogues and purchase homes in religious neighborhoods.

    Are we going to allow the same leadership of the Holocaust Claims Conference to misappropriate and mismanage funds to the point where over fifty million dollars was stolen? It is time for new leadership. Unless others join me in speaking out, ten years from now we will be reading about more theft and misuse of funds while most of the Holocaust will have died.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

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