Poland cancels Israeli officials’ trip over Holocaust property restitution row

Poland cancels Israeli officials’ trip over Holocaust property restitution row

Warsaw says composition of delegation set to visit from Jerusalem suggested talks would focus on restoring Jewish assets

Far right demonstrators protest against the US Senate's 447 Holocaust Restitution bill, in Warsaw on May 11, 2019. (Photo by Alik KEPLICZ / AFP)
Far right demonstrators protest against the US Senate's 447 Holocaust Restitution bill, in Warsaw on May 11, 2019. (Photo by Alik KEPLICZ / AFP)

Poland on Monday said it had canceled a visit by Israeli officials who intended to raise the issue of the restitution of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust, a matter Warsaw insists is closed.

“Poland decided to cancel the visit of Israeli officials after the Israeli side made last minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution,” the foreign ministry in Warsaw said in a statement posted to its website.

It said the delegation, headed by Avi Cohen-Scali, the director general of the Israeli Social Equality Ministry, had been due in Warsaw on Monday.

In a statement Sunday announcing the delegation’s visit, the Social Equality Ministry had said it was spearheading efforts to “widen the circle of those who receive restitution,” including promoting legislation to that effect in “additional countries.” It noted especially a bid to promote recognition of Romanian Holocaust victims by Germany and Romania.

Then-Minister of Senior Citizens Gila Gamliel speaks during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on December 30, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

In the statement, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel commended the Polish government for “its firm stance in the face of voices of anti-Semitic protest,” while warning that time was “running out” on the effort to restore Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust.

Gamliel was apparently alluding to a rally by several thousand nationalists in the Polish capital on Saturday against a US law on the restitution of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust, an issue that has surfaced ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.

The protest took place amid a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic hate speech in public life in Poland and appeared to be one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times.

Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party as well as the centrist and liberal opposition have downplayed the law signed by US President Donald Trump in May 2018, insisting that it will have no impact on Poland.

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

The US Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act — known as the 447 law — requires the US State Department to report to Congress on the progress of countries including Poland on the restitution of Jewish assets seized during World War II and its aftermath. Protesters in Warsaw said paying compensation would ruin Poland’s economy.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki echoed the feelings of the protesters at a campaign rally Saturday, saying that it is Poles who deserve compensation.

Jewish organizations, particularly the World Jewish Restitution Organization, have been seeking compensation for Holocaust survivors and their families, and consider compensation a matter of justice for a population that was subjected to genocide.

Poland is the only European Union country that hasn’t passed laws regulating the compensation of looted or national property, and the head of the WJRO, Gideon Taylor, noted Saturday that such property “continues to benefit the Polish economy.”

Pre-war Poland was a Jewish heartland, with a centuries-old community numbering some 3.2 million, or around 10 percent of the country’s population at the time. Most Polish Jews were murdered in massacres or concentration camps.

The railway track leading to the infamous ‘Death Gate’ at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp on November 13, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/via JTA)

Anti-Semitic concerns regarding Poland have recently resurfaced.

Last June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Morawiecki ended a diplomatic standoff over a Polish law that made it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the extermination of Jews during World War II. As part of the understandings, Poland agreed to amend the law to remove any criminal penalties.

But the two leaders’ joint statement on the matter was criticized in Israel for appearing to accept Poland’s official position that it was not in any way responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust.

Last year President Reuven Rivlin told his Polish counterpart, Andrjez Duda, that while “there is no doubt that there were many Poles who fought the Nazi regime… we cannot deny that Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination.”

The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem has said “decades of historical research reveals… Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”

Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)

It did, however, say the term “Polish death camps,” which has particularly rankled Poles, was a “historical misrepresentation.”

In February, Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz drew Poland’s ire by saying “Poles suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” Poland then canceled Warsaw’s participation in a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem, branding Katz’s comments “racist.”

In April, the World Jewish Congress condemned a Polish town after reports that residents hung and burnt an effigy “made to look like a stereotypical Jew” in a revival of an old Easter tradition.

On Monday, Yair Lapid, no. 2 in the opposition Blue and White party, lashed out at Netanyahu and Katz over Warsaw’s cancellation of the Israeli delegation’s visit, saying “the Polish government again embarrasses the Israeli government on the subject of Holocaust remembrance.

“If Netanyahu and Katz do not stop this and stop negotiating the Holocaust, the world will know that the memory of the Holocaust is not sacred to the Israeli government,” he said. “This disgrace must be stopped.”

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