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'Listen to the voices of survivors'

Israeli envoy to Polish senate amid Holocaust row: Restitution law harms rights

Charge d’affaires says proposed bill is bad for Jews and others; critics say it could block Jewish heirs from claiming property left during Holocaust

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's charges d'affaires in Poland, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon (courtesy Foreign Ministry)
Israel's charges d'affaires in Poland, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon (courtesy Foreign Ministry)

Poland’s proposed law on property restitution claims violates the rights of current and former Polish citizens, said Israel’s charge d’affaires in Warsaw in an impassioned address in front of the Polish Senate on Wednesday.

Speaking in English through a Polish translator, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon made the case that the legislation is harmful to many Polish citizens beyond Holocaust survivors.

‘The changes introduced into the legislation…will block past property owners who were unable till now, for different reasons, to pursue their cases from doing so,” said Ben-Ari Yaalon, stressing that the bill would harm thousands of victims of both the Nazis and the Communist authorities.

“This is a very serious violation of the individual rights of various Polish plaintiffs. This is not just a problem of Jews,” she said.

At the same time, Ben-Ari Yaalon emphasized that the rights of Holocaust survivors represent a fundamental moral interest that must not be ignored in the legislation.

“We share a moral obligation to respect the rights of Holocaust survivors, former citizens of Poland, current citizens of Israel. It is our duty. Each and every one of us,” she said.

Poland’s senate debates the controversial property restitution bill, July 7, 2021 (screen capture Facebook)

“The issue of their property is an issue of dignity, of justice, and of memory,” she stressed. “We are here to give a voice to Holocaust survivors and their descendants, whose property was first seized by the Nazis, and later nationalized by the Communists.”

The bill, which passed the lower house of parliament on June 24, is intended to provide greater legal certainty for current owners of prewar properties against historical claims dating back to the Nazi German occupation.

But critics say it could effectively block descendants of Jewish families from claiming properties left empty during the Holocaust and Israel has condemned the legislation as “immoral.”

The bill has caused an increasingly acerbic diplomatic row between Jerusalem and Warsaw, with Israel’s foreign minister accusing Poland’s prime minister of using antisemitic language.

Holocaust survivors hold banners and wave an Israeli flag during a protest in front of Polish embassy in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2018, against a controversial bill that made it a crime to hold Poland responsible for Nazi crimes, Feb. 8, 2018. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

Ben-Ari Yaalon, a granddaughter of a survivor and descendant of a Polish Jew murdered in the Holocaust, said she recognizes Poland’s desire to strengthen property rights for its current citizens, but that it cannot be done by denying previous owners their rights.

“There is a need to balance the various rights,” she said, arguing that the legislation in its current form favors the rights of one group over another and should be reconsidered.

“There must be a just solution,” she said, “a solution that takes into account history, takes into account values, takes into account morality.”

After the fall of communism in Poland, Ben-Ari Yaalon argued, the administrative legal system in place enabled former property owners of all ethnicities and religions to seek redress and reclaim property.

“This administrative code stood as a lighthouse,” she said.

The proposed changes would force Jewish and non-Jewish Polish victims “to pay once more for others’ wrongdoing.”

“Listen to the voice from the Jewish world,” Ben-Ari Yaalon asked the listening Polish legislators. “Listen to the voice of the Jewish state. Listen to the pain this legislation is causing. Listen to the voice of the survivors.”

“They are telling you to reconsider this legislation. It is not too late.”

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, in 1943. (AP Photo)

Poland’s senators continued to debate the bill after the Israeli envoy stepped down from the podium.

Polish-Israeli Holocaust survivor and poet Halina Birenbaum, who was in Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other camps, addressed the Senate as well.

“It is inconceivable to me that in Poland in 2021, free from any occupation, the right to disinherit us Jewish survivors of the Shoah from our and our murdered fathers and grandfathers of private property,” said Birenbaum in Polish. “We lived in Poland for hundreds of years, they built, learned, created — served in the army, paid all civil taxes.”

Holocaust survivor Halina Birenbaum (R) speaks at the opening of the Turin International Book Fair on May 5, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)

“Today I am 92 years old,” she continued. “I am still speaking and creating in Polish. I experienced firsthand the results of the law to ban all Jews from living after robbing all their property.”

“Now, today we create the right to disinherit us survivors of our and our murdered fathers, grandfathers of property.”

After the bill passed Poland’s lower house in late June, deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski said at the time that he hoped Israel would change its view on the bill, which has sparked an increasingly bitter diplomatic row.

Jablonski said in a televised briefing after meeting Ben-Ari Yaalon to brief her on the bill that Israeli criticism was “inappropriate” and “we hope that the approach of the Israeli side will change.”

‘Not aimed against anybody’

Jewish claims on property were frozen during the Communist era and, unlike other countries in the region, Poland has never had a comprehensive law on restitution claims since the fall of Communism in 1989.

Some families that lost property have since sought restitution or compensation but the process has been chaotic and long.

In some cases, there have been fraudulent claims for restitutions.

Far-right demonstrators protest against the US Senate’s 447 Holocaust Restitution bill, in Warsaw on May 11, 2019. (Alik Keplicz/AFP)

The new law, which still has to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before entering into force, sets a cutoff date for some legal challenges of up to 30 years.

This means that if a person bought a prewar property in 1989 and has a specific official confirmation from that time proving their right to own it, any previous historical owners would now be excluded from contesting that right.

Many Polish citizens believe that claims should only be addressed to Nazi Germany and that it is unfair for Poland to pay out any damages from the Holocaust era.

‘Not interested in Polish money’

The Israeli embassy in Warsaw had earlier said “this immoral law will seriously impact relations between our countries.”

It “will in effect prevent the restitution of Jewish property or compensation requests from Holocaust survivors and their descendants as well as the Jewish community that called Poland home for centuries. It’s mind-boggling,” the embassy said.

The Foreign Ministry also summoned Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski.

Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, poses for a picture in Jerusalem on October 11, 2018.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last Sunday responded to comments made by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki the previous week in which he said that Poland would not “pay” for German crimes — “not one zloty, not one euro, not one dollar.”

“Poland’s prime minister should check the facts again. Millions of Jews were murdered on Polish soil and no law will erase their memory,” Lapid wrote.

“We are not interested in Polish money and the very hint is antisemitic. We are fighting for the memory of Holocaust victims, for our national pride, and we will not let any parliament pass laws that aim to deny the Holocaust.”

Issues of Holocaust restitution and revisionism have repeatedly plagued Israeli-Polish ties. In 2018, Warsaw passed a law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi German war crimes. The move triggered an outcry from Israel, but the standoff largely ended when Poland agreed to amend the law to remove any criminal penalties.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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