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Report: At Israel’s behest, US pressing Poland on Holocaust restitution law

State Department source tells Israeli newspaper Washington is urging Warsaw to amend bill that would effectively block claims to seized property

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken  (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)

Israel and the United States have been working in tandem in recent weeks to pressure Poland to shelve or alter a proposed law on Holocaust restitution, according to a Thursday report.

The legislation, which must still be approved the Polish Senate and be signed by the president before entering into force, sets a cutoff date for some legal challenges of up to 30 years, meaning administrative decisions made more than 30 years ago can no longer be challenged.

Critics of the law argue that it will effectively prevent Jews from reclaiming property that was seized before and during the Holocaust.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has been leading the contacts with the Biden administration, asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to help Israel thwart the Polish law, according to the Haaretz daily.

A US State Department source quoted by the newspaper said the Biden administration was keeping close tabs on the legislation, adding that the US is “urging the Polish parliament to fix the proposed law so the already pending claims can continue.”

The source also said the US was concerned about the legislation’s impact on anyone to claim restitution, “regardless of citizenship, religious or ethnic background.”

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of US senators sent a letter to Polish President Andrzej Duda expressing their “grave concerns” about the bill and urging him to oppose it.

“These amendments would tell the survivors of Poland’s Jewish community, which was the largest in Europe before World War II, that there is a time limit on their ability to seek redress for the crimes of the Nazis and the communists,” the senators wrote.

“While we share your belief that Poland should not be held responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis and the communists, we also believe that this is an opportunity to demonstrate Poland’s commitment to achieving justice for the victims of these heinous crimes.”

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, speaks during press conference of Three Seas Summit at National Palace of Culture in Sofia, on July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

After the bill passed Poland’s lower house in late June, Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski said he hoped Israel would change its view on the bill, which has caused an increasingly acerbic diplomatic row between Jerusalem and Warsaw, with Lapid accusing Poland’s prime minister of using antisemitic language.

The Israeli embassy in Warsaw has warned that “this immoral law will seriously impact relations between our countries.”

Holocaust restitution in Poland is unpopular among many citizens, and Duda campaigned against it ahead of his reelection last year. 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.

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 restitution.

Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the US Embassy, in Warsaw, Poland, on May 11, 2019, to protest against pressure from Washington to compensate Jews whose families lost property during the Holocaust. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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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