In first, Poland to pay pensions to Shoah survivors abroad

Procedural change will allow some 50,000 Israelis of Polish descent to apply for allowances of about NIS 470 per month

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Holocaust survivor seen during a ceremony at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in Poland. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)
A Holocaust survivor seen during a ceremony at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in Poland. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Poland is making it easier for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi or Soviet oppression to apply for monthly pensions, possibly enabling tens of thousands of Israelis with Polish roots to start receiving payments as early as next summer, The Times of Israel has learned.

The government in Warsaw recently changed its laws to allow the Polish Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression to transfer a “monthly pecuniary allowance” of about €100 (NIS 470 or $135) to eligible claimants who reside outside of Poland and do not have access to a bank account in the country.

Prior to the change, people of Polish descent who were recognized as veterans or victims of oppression could receive the monthly benefits only if they had a bank account in Poland or knew a resident of Poland who was willing to transfer the money to them. Only very few people living outside Poland — reportedly less than 50 — actually applied for pensions.

It is estimated that as many as 50,000 Israelis could benefit from the new guidelines, which will take effect next year, and an unknown number in the rest of the world.

“What is new in these provisions is that Polish authorities, in particular the social security authority, will be able to transfer veteran benefits to claimants residing anywhere in the world at the cost of the Polish authorities,” said Sebastian Rejak, the Polish foreign minister’s special envoy for relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

“In short: an eligible claimant residing in Israel, or someone who suffered during World War II under German and/or Soviet occupation, will be able to receive his or her monthly benefits directly to his or her bank account in their country of residence. Up until now you had to have a bank account with a Polish bank or authorize someone living in Poland to do that in your stead. Now the situation will be different,” Rejak said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem.

“We received voices from people around the world who would be interested in acquiring that status of war veterans or oppressed people, but the obstacle, from their viewpoint, was the question of bank accounts and money transfers,” he explained. But the old procedure was “cumbersome for many potential claimants,” which is why the Polish government decided to carry the financial burden for bank operations needed to wire money to claimants abroad and to abolish the need for a physical address in Poland.

Rejak said he couldn’t tell how many people will be able to take advantage of the new regulations, but added that, potentially, “thousands would be eligible. The question is how many of them would be interested. But I don’t see any reason why anyone potentially interested wouldn’t want to apply.”

The new rules, which were already approved by the Polish parliament and President Bronisław Komorowski, will go into effect in October for residents of the European Union, and for the rest of the world in April 2015.

“The importance of this is that for the first time the government of Poland is reaching out to this particular group of people,” said Bobby Brown, the outgoing director of Project HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce), a joint initiative by the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, which recently closed its doors due to lack of funds. “My feeling is that the Holocaust is in many ways a shared experience. And the Poles do not have responsibility for what happened, but they have responsibility to take care of those who suffered in their country.”

Brown, who worked together with the Israeli and Polish governments on this issue, said Pensioner Affairs Minister Uri Orbach played a significant role in bringing about this change.

Who is eligible for the monthly benefits?

Every Polish citizen who suffered during the Nazi occupation — by being in a death, concentration, labor or transit camp, or in hiding — or the subsequent Soviet occupation, until 1956, is potentially eligible to receive the monthly pension, as well as their spouses.

“This group of eligible beneficiary includes persons confined to prisons, penal camps and ghettoes, and also deported deep into the Soviet Union. An additional category consists of children taken away from their parents for the purposes of either extermination or Germanization,” according to the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression’s website.

For example, a soldier of the Red Army who, during his march westward in World War II, stopped in Poland and married a Polish citizen, leaving the country after the war, can apply for the pension. “And if a child was born outside of Poland in the Soviet Union,” Rejak said, “that child never got Polish citizenship but suffered as a child of a Polish family in the Soviet Union — that child, who is now a grown-up, is eligible to apply for that status of war veteran or oppressed person. His parents might be long gone, he never ever had Polish citizenship, but he can still apply.”

According to Brown’s estimate, possibly 50,000 Israeli citizens — including the spouses of survivors and those born postwar in Communist Russia — could be eligible to receive these monthly allowances from the Polish government.

Claimants will have to provide documentation to prove their eligibility, but Rejak said the Polish Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression will accept archival records, such as provided by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, and even oral witness testimony, as proof of a person’s eligibility.

“To my knowledge, there is no reason for the Office of War Veterans to question documents that look credible,” Rejak said. “It has to be established that you were born a Polish citizen and suffered during the war in occupied Poland or some other place because you had to leave Poland, or you were born after the war to a family that was forced to leave Poland during the war, so as a child you actually shared in their lot, in their fate of oppression. That’s what makes you eligible.”

The Polish government aims “to do justice to those who suffered during the war, that’s how we see our responsibility to care for these people,” Rejak said. Naturally, not only Jewish people will benefit from the new provision. “Ethnic criteria are irrelevant but we acted with a special sensitivity for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, that’s why we wanted to know how the Israeli government saw things. The decision was made that the amendment would apply not only to residents of the EU but to each and every other country as well.”

However, Rejak added, Poland “definitely” has a special sympathy for Holocaust survivors. “To quote Elie Wiesel: ‘Not every victim was a Jew, but every Jew was a victim.’ So Jewish victims have to be looked at with special attention when we talk about World War II — that goes without saying. Their legal status is the same — it’s a question of sensitivity and reaching out.”

Once the new regulations go into effect in April, Polish authorities will inform claimants whether they are eligible for the monthly allowance, in which case they have to submit one more form before the Polish social security authority will start transferring the money.

“We think that the Polish example is going to be a precedent for other countries. And we’re going to do our best to make sure that other countries follow their example,” said Brown.

Although he no longer formally works for Project HEART, Brown said he would continue seeking for ways to help Holocaust victims and their heirs to retrieve property in Poland that was looted during the Holocaust era.

Founded in 2011 with the goal of helping restore looted property to its original owners or their heirs, Project HEART was incorporated earlier this month into the Pensioner Affairs Ministry, where it will continue to function with limited resources.

Brown also said that he would like Israel’s National Insurance Institute to start paying monthly benefits to people recognized as “Righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem. “That’s paying a debt that we have for those people,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Warsaw likes the idea. If the Israeli government, at some point in the future, makes a decision to pay pensions to Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Rejak said, “that would be most appreciated. Not as a quid pro quo, but as a generous gesture.”

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