An official Israeli delegation to Poland believes it achieved a “breakthrough” in talks with Warsaw about possible compensation for private assets that belonged to Jews before the Holocaust, The Times of Israel has learned.
The five-member delegation, which included a former Israeli minister and was accompanied by a senior Israeli diplomat stationed in Warsaw, failed to reach an agreement with the Polish government. However, the Israelis said the Poles for the first time signaled readiness to engage seriously in a discussion about compensation and agreed on the need for further bilateral consultations.
Of all Central and Eastern European countries, Poland is said to be the most obstinate in its refusal to consider reimbursing Jews for property lost before or during the Holocaust.
“The Poles were extremely gracious and friendly and engaged us in very serious discussions,” said Bobby Brown, the director of Project HEART, a semi-governmental Israeli organization that seeks property restitution for Holocaust survivors.
“We did not reach a settlement, but we started a channel of communication and saw much goodwill. This is a very important step forward.”
Neither the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv nor the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw responded to Times of Israel queries before this article was posted.
The Israelis held meetings with senior officials from six Polish ministries — including the Foreign, Justice and Finance Ministries — and a handful of parliamentarians, both from the government and the opposition, Brown said. The delegation also met with officials from the National Institute of Museology and Collections Protection and the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression.
“Something like this has never happened before. It was a breakthrough that broke the taboo of Israelis and Poles talking rationally about the subject, of looking into various options and beginning a real discussion about what’s possible,” he said.
As opposed to other groups advocating for Holocaust restitution, Project HEART does not ask the Polish government to pass legislation to settle the claims. “We just want them to implement whatever process is the most simple, speedy and inexpensive to guarantee equal access for all those who fit the criteria,” Brown said. Project HEART deals only with private possessions, not addressing other issues such as community property, heirless property or suffering.
In the past, Polish officials said Warsaw had not yet passed a compensation law because the details were so complicated that it took a long time for the government to review it.
Besides Brown, the organization’s delegation to Warsaw included its chairman, former senior citizen affairs minister Rafi Eitan; former MK and Knesset speaker Dan Tichon; and Zvi Barak, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Pension Fund.
Established in early 2011 by the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Senior Citizen Ministry, Project HEART — which stands for Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce — seeks to identify Jewish property lost or stolen by the Nazis or their associates with the goal of obtaining restitution for survivors or their heirs.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry is generally skeptical about Project HEART’s activities, fearing that its demands for restitution are not coordinated with other such initiatives and that it might complicate relations with Central and Eastern European countries on a diplomatic level. But since the Polish government extended an official invitation to the organization — which itself represents an arm of the Israeli government — Israel’s deputy ambassador to Poland, Nadav Eshcar, served as an intermediary between the parties.
“We have many reservations regarding Project HEART’s activity, because it is not coordinated with others and because they have a line that is not necessarily in conformity with general Israeli interests regarding larger restitution issues and of course our relations with Poland,” a Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Warsaw is the most stubborn country when it comes to discussing the possibility of Holocaust restitution, the official said, adding that the government’s official invitation to Project HEART “came as a surprise” to the Foreign Ministry.
‘All this has to be dealt with, including how to institute a restitution procedure that Poland can live with, legally, politically and financially’
During an international Holocaust restitution conference last December in Prague, Poland was the only relevant state that did not send a delegate, infuriating representatives of groups fighting for compensation. “It says a lot that they refuse to even engage,” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, told JTA at the time. Other officials said they were disappointed with Poland’s apparent aversion to dealing with restitution but insisted the country was not a lost cause and that future negotiations might eventually yield a settlement.
Project HEART, which was launched with the blessing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aims to locate Holocaust survivors or their heirs who think their families owned property that was looted by the Nazis or their proxies and never received compensation. So far, the organization has collected some 177,000 claims. About 40,000 of them relate to property or goods that belonged to residents of prewar Poland.
“The Poles understood the ramifications of that,” Brown said, referring to the vast number of claims, which could end up in Polish courts. “If we put the claims through a court system, which one? If we choose the Polish courts, is that a caseload they can handle? What would happen to the real estate market?” The two parties also discussed the difficulties for Polish émigrés or their descendants in choosing to pursue their claims within the Polish judicature. “We want to make it fair, speedy and inexpensive for people to be able to approach the system,” Brown said.
Regulation of Holocaust restitution for residents of prewar Poland is extremely complicated because the country’s borders have changed since them, Brown said. “The Polish population also suffered tremendously during World War II. The peace that was imposed on them was not a Polish peace and resulted in large chunks of Poland being taken away and other parts being added. The entire population suffered the loss of property under the Communists,” he added.
“We understand that all this has to be dealt with, including how to institute a restitution procedure that Poland can live with, legally, politically and financially.”