Polish PM: Paying Holocaust property restitution would be ‘victory for Hitler’

Poland is only European Union country that hasn’t passed laws regulating compensation of looted or national property, and Morawiecki says it never will

File: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki inspect a military honor guard on February 16, 2018 in front of the Chancellery in Berlin. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)
File: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki inspect a military honor guard on February 16, 2018 in front of the Chancellery in Berlin. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki vowed that his country will never pay restitution for Jewish properties stolen during the Holocaust, saying that such a move would be a “victory for Hitler.”

At a Saturday campaign rally in Lodz, Morawiecki doubled down on his insistence that his Law & Justice party “would not consent” to claims of Holocaust restitution, telling voters “We will defend Poland.”

Morawiecki said paying restitution “violates international law and would also be a posthumous victory for Hitler, which is why we will never allow it.”

Poland is the only country in the European Union that has not passed comprehensive national legislation to return, or provide compensation for, private property confiscated by the Nazis or nationalized by the communist regime. 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.

Illustrative: Jews are seen lining up in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. (Courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives via JTA)

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.

The debate over Holocaust restitution in Poland has surfaced in election debates ahead of EU vote and the parliamentary elections later this year. A 2018 law signed by US President Donald Trump, designed to encourage the restoration of Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust, has drawn criticism from Poland’s right-wing government, which insists the matter is closed.

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.

Nationalist groups have also opposed the law, arguing that paying compensation would ruin Poland’s economy. Earlier this month, thousands of Polish nationalists rallied against the measure in Warsaw, in what was described as one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times.

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

Morawiecki echoed the feelings of the protesters at a campaign rally later that day, saying it was Poles who deserved compensation for World War II.

It has also, again, raised tensions with Israel.

Last Monday, Poland canceled a visit by Israeli officials, whom they said intended to raise the issue Holocaust restitution during the scheduled bilateral talks.

A day later, a 65-year-old Israeli man spit on the Polish ambassador in Tel Aviv, in what Warsaw said appeared to be an “anti-Polish act of hatred.”

Last year, Warsaw passed a law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi German war crimes.

The move sparked an outcry from Israel, which saw it as an attempt to ban testimonials on Polish crimes against Jews.

Last June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Morawiecki ended a diplomatic standoff over the law. As part of the understandings, Poland agreed to amend the law to remove any criminal penalties.

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)

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.”

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

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