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US urges Poland’s Duda not to sign WWII restitution law passed by parliament

Blinken says he’s deeply concerned over passage of law severely curtailing possibility for Holocaust survivors and their families to obtain property restitution

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks off, after speaking during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 2, 2021.  (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks off, after speaking during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 2, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)

NEW YORK — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Polish President Andrzej Duda not to sign legislation passed by the parliament in Warsaw on Wednesday that will effectively prevent future restitution to heirs of property seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The law will block 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.

Blinken in a statement said he was “deeply concerned” by the legislation’s passing. “We urge that President Duda not sign the bill into law or that, in line with the authority granted to him as President, he refer the bill to Poland’s constitutional tribunal,” he said.

While Duda could potentially veto the law, such a prospect is seen as unlikely.

The US secretary of state said Poland needs a comprehensive law for resolving confiscated property claims, which would benefit many poles and provide some measure of justice for victims. “Until such a law is enacted, the pathway to compensation should not be closed for new claims or those pending decisions in administrative courts,” he said.

The top US diplomat said that while “Poland is an important NATO Ally,” the new law, along with the advancement of another piece of legislation targeting the independent media in Poland, runs “counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand.”

On Feb. 6, 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda announces his decision to sign legislation penalizing certain statements about the Holocaust, in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

“We urge the government of Poland to demonstrate its commitment to these shared principles not only in words, but also in deeds,” Blinken said.

Israel reacted similarly to the legislation, urging the Polish government to scrap it as Knesset members warned that it would deny survivors and descendants of victims the rights to property stolen from them.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Israel “will not compromise an iota on Holocaust remembrance” in a Wednesday statement, adding that 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.

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.

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