Tiny houses in small town Poland are not worth much money. But for many Holocaust survivors whose families once owned those properties, those houses represent something priceless: a small link to family history, and a chance for justice.
That chance is growing slimmer by the year as memories fade, documents are lost, and governments fail to legislate or implement restitution laws.
“We’re soon going to live in a world without Holocaust survivors,” said Gideon Taylor, the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). “In a sense, as we saw the mortality of survivors in front of us, the cases that drive us are these: We meet individuals who can walk and look on a street and point at a house and say, ‘I lived here.'”
Behind every case is an individual, said Taylor, speaking with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem ahead of a historic first gathering of the International Coordination Forum for the Restitution of the Holocaust Era Assets held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 8 and 9.
Passionate about the plight of Holocaust survivors — and the continued injustices presented to them by the countries of their birth — Taylor volunteers his time with WJRO, an umbrella organization that represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Together with his small professional team and volunteer support fleet of lawyers and diplomats, Taylor raises awareness of the human rights violations perpetrated by many countries through their recalcitrance to address the issue of Holocaust restitution, and lobbies governments to push for fair legislation.
“It’s not about the money. What we’re looking for is fairness, justice, the return of what is taken,” said Taylor in a Irish lilt slightly dulled through his many years in America. “It’s a recognition. Ultimately it’s all symbolic; it’s not bringing back any life or family — what was lost.”
The question of why now is, beyond the aging survivor population, also a function of history. Eastern European countries, locked behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union until 1991, were shut off from western restitution efforts.
After their transition to democracy, some countries, citing Bulgaria, quickly resolved restitution issues, said Taylor.
‘Ultimately it’s all symbolic; it’s not bringing back any life or family — what was lost’
“Early after the fall of Communism, Bulgaria addressed private and community property — often returning actual property, and created a generally comprehensive restitution program,” he said.
On the completely other side of spectrum, however, is Poland.
“Virtually all other countries in Eastern Europe have some kind of legislation or fund [for Holocaust survivors]. In Poland there have been a series of attempts, but they have never been brought before the government and passed,” said Taylor.
Home to three million Jews before World War II, Poland, which ironically launched the much acclaimed POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, has not properly addressed its role in the confiscation of property during the Nazi occupation and Communist regime, said Taylor.
“It’s about the history — how people are perceived, what’s said. They [the Poles] regard themselves as a victim country. And there were huge horrors reaped on Poland, where many non-Jews perished as well as Jews. But it’s simply a matter of this is property that belonged to an individual,” he said, regardless of the individual’s faith. “Any country that is moving forward — before looking to the future, has to address the past.”
It is a past that is deeply affecting the present. Today, a significant portion of Holocaust survivors live under the poverty line. Many European Jewish communities support their elderly through monies gained through the restitution of Jewish communal properties. Jews from Poland do not have this option.
‘This is not a Jewish issue, this is a Polish issue’
“We talk to Polish officials and tell them, ‘This is part of the Jewish history — the glorious part and the painful parts.’ It is important for the relationship between Poland and Jews, for its role as a modern democratic society, that they do not address just parts of the history, but the entirety of the Polish Jewish experience,” said Taylor.
WJRO sees WWII restitution as a human rights issue, not a purely Jewish concern, and works closely with parallel non-Jewish organizations.
“The issue tends to get regarded, wrongly, as a Jewish issue. This is not a Jewish issue, this is a Polish issue,” said Taylor.
As such, WJRO attempts to rally governments to its cause and this week’s forum is a new international effort. It was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Social Equality, included special envoys and representatives for Holocaust-related issues from various countries. In addition to Taylor, there were representatives from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), as well as diplomats from EU countries, the United States and others.
‘The international community is not doing enough to address the legacy of the Holocaust’
After the closing session on Thursday, the forum issued a statement saying, “We are witnessing today an unprecedented growth of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, racism and xenophobia in Europe, while the international community is not doing enough to address the legacy of the Holocaust and with the issue of restitution of or compensation for confiscated goods, rights and property from Holocaust era (1933-1945) and its aftermath.”
The forum commended the “recent positive developments on the restitution of property in Serbia, Romania and Latvia and encouraged these states and others to continue to make progress on restitution.” It also moved to, among other subsections, “promote the legacy of the Holocaust (Shoah), restitution and compensation regarding immovable property, art, Judaica and other cultural assets looted during the Holocaust era and its aftermath within the European Union agenda and public opinion.”
And herein lies the essence of the problem: with no sanctions to enforce or strong political pressure, organizations such as WJRO can “promote” or “commend” a country’s good will. Taylor acknowledged the difficulty, saying “it’s a moral case.”
But with major victories in the three countries in 2016 alone, perhaps that may be enough. “There is a momentum, an awareness,” said Taylor.