Israeli leaders pan ‘disgrace’ as Poland passes law curbing WWII property claims

FM Lapid says Jerusalem will review 2018 joint statement on Holocaust remembrance; Knesset speaker cancels plans to form inter-parliamentary friendship group

File: The lower hose of Poland's parliament, or Sejm, filled with new lawmakers, and foreign diplomats as guests, during the gala inauguration of a new four-year term of the national parliamentin Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
File: The lower hose of Poland's parliament, or Sejm, filled with new lawmakers, and foreign diplomats as guests, during the gala inauguration of a new four-year term of the national parliamentin Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The Polish parliament on Wednesday passed a law that will effectively prevent future restitution to heirs of property seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust, drawing swift and intense rebuke in Israel, as relations between the countries continued to deteriorate.

The law will prevent property ownership and other administrative decisions from being declared void after 30 years, which would mean that pending proceedings involving Communist-era property confiscations would be discontinued and dismissed. It affects Polish, Jewish and other property claims that are subject to contested previous determinations.

Israel had urged the Polish government to scrap the legislation, with Knesset members warning recently that it would deny survivors and descendants of victims the rights to property stolen from them.

The bill must now be signed by President Andrzej Duda in order to become law. He could potentially veto it, though that is seen as unlikely.

Reacting to its passage, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Israel “will not compromise an iota on Holocaust remembrance” and said Poland knew that annulling the law was “the right thing to do.”

Lapid also said Israel would review its 2018 joint statement with Poland on their commitment to fighting warped remembrance of the Holocaust. That statement ended a bitter dispute over another law that would have criminalized accusing the Polish nation of complicity in the extermination of Jews during World War II. But it was strongly criticized at the time by Lapid and many others in Israel for supposedly whitewashing Holocaust history to appease the Poles.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP, File)

Other Israeli politicians also condemned Poland’s passage of the restitution law.

Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen said the legislation “disgraces the history of the Jewish people, the memory of Holocaust victims and the Polish nation itself.”

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said he was canceling plans to form an inter-parliamentary friendship group, calling the new law “outrageous thievery” and saying it would harm the countries’ relations.

Supporters of the law say it will provide greater clarity on property rights and eliminate the constant problem of corruption and fraudulent claims made with forged documents.

While the law covers both Jewish and non-Jewish former property owners and their heirs, campaigners say that Jewish owners will be disproportionately affected because they were often late in making claims.

Some three million Polish Jews, 90 percent of the country’s Jewish community, were killed during World War II in Poland.

After the war, Communist authorities nationalized vast numbers of properties that had often been left empty because their owners had been killed or fled.

Once Communism fell in 1989, Poland never adopted a comprehensive restitution law like other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, leaving it up to individuals to take their chances in court.

The vote on the bill came amid a chaotic day in the Polish parliament that saw MPs vote in favor of a new law that critics say will curb media freedom and hit ties with the United States, but the ruling coalition also lost several key votes, putting its long-term future in doubt.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Rome, June 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)

The media law would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from holding a controlling stake in Polish media companies.

The vote came during a stormy session of parliament that at one point was interrupted when MPs approved an opposition motion to suspend proceedings to delay the media law vote. In the end, the session resumed and the media law passed by 228 votes in favor and 216 against in the 460-seat lower house of parliament.

In July, 82 of Israel’s 120 members of Knesset signed a letter to members of the Polish parliament asking them to oppose the legislation.

“We, members of Israel’s Knesset, are contacting you with a request to vote against the law that denies Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims [the right] to demand the return of the property stolen from them,” read a Hebrew-language version of the letter published by the Ynet news website.

“There is no doubt that Poles took part in the persecution, theft and extermination” during the Holocaust, read the letter spearheaded by Likud MK May Golan and Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav Hertzanu. “That is the historic truth and it cannot be changed. The attempt by Poland to distance itself from the crimes committed in its territory by Poles is mistaken and dangerous, because how is it possible to educate young people not to repeat crimes that weren’t committed?”

The lawmakers added: “We implore you — as Polish citizens, as public leaders, as humans — to acknowledge the crimes and act to fix them. Not just for the sake of the victims’ memory and respect for the survivors, and not for the sake of the relations between our countries, but for Poland. Acknowledging history, not rewriting it, is the act that would increase the respect for the Polish nation.”

The signatories on the letter hailed from every party in the Knesset except the Islamist Ra’am.

The United States also stepped up its public pressure against the Polish legislation last month. Cherrie Daniels, the US special envoy for Holocaust issues, said the Polish legislation “would cause irreparable harm to both Jews and non-Jews by effectively extinguishing claims for restitution and compensation of property taken during the Holocaust that was subsequently nationalized during the communist period.”

Daniels said Poland is the only country in Europe to have regressed over the past year in meeting commitments to return seized property or provide compensation for Holocaust victims and their families.

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