Columns

58 U.S. Senators to Polish Government: Give Fair Restitution to Holocaust Victims

A group hold up a Solidarity banner as hundreds of Poles gather to express their solidarity with Jews who perished in the Holocaust, were expelled from Poland 50 years ago or feel the effects of anti-Semitism today in Warsaw, Poland, on March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WASHINGTON — Fifty-eight senators called on Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to support legislation that allows just compensation for Holocaust victims whose property was seized by the Nazis and kept by the subsequent communist regime.

Draft legislation published on Oct. 20, would eliminate the possibility of the return of actual property and provide only limited compensation for seized assets — 20 percent of the value of the property in cash or 25 percent in government bonds. It would prevent compensation for ownership of companies that were destroyed. The bill would also prohibit claims by foreign citizens who did not benefit from eligible postwar treaties, including between Poland and the United States. The World Jewish Restitution Organization found that the proposal would exclude the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families, who mostly left Poland during the Holocaust or in its aftermath.

Claimants would only have a year to file, after which property would be transferred to the Polish treasury.

Last month, the Polish Council of Ministers returned the bill to the Ministry of Justice for reconsideration, leading advocates to fear the legislation could be tabled indefinitely. All other major European countries have passed restitution legislation. About 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust, amounting to 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population.

In the letter to Morawiecki led by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), more than half of the U.S. Senate expressed their “concerns” about legislation that “would adversely affect Holocaust victims and their heirs and is therefore of urgent importance to many of our constituents, millions of Americans, and Holocaust survivors around the world.”

“This proud, culturally-rich, and long-standing community was utterly decimated by the murderous Nazi regime. Sadly, Jewish victims of Nazi crimes, including many American citizens, have found it difficult to secure compensation for, or the return of, property that was seized by the Nazis and subsequently nationalized by the Communists,” they wrote. “Members of the U.S. Senate on both sides of the aisle stand united in seeking justice for victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.”

The senators argued that the draft “falls short of the standards set forth in the Terezin Declaration,” a 2009 agreement among dozens of countries on Holocaust-related assets, “and—if passed without amendment—would be a failure of justice.”

“We are deeply concerned that the bill, in its current form, would discriminate against virtually all American survivors and heirs on the basis that they are not currently citizens of Poland and that they were not residents of Poland when their property was nationalized. The current draft law would also exclude individuals who are not ‘first-line heirs’ of Nazi victims or survivors. This provision would disproportionately impact Jewish victims and their families,” they wrote. “As a result of the Nazi attempt to exterminate world Jewry, most European Jewish families were completely destroyed, including 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish community. Therefore, the remaining Jewish heirs are often non-linear — such as nieces, nephews, and cousins. The one-year window for filing claims will be particularly difficult for foreign claimants as the draft legislation does not yet provide for a simple application process or easy access to archives.”

“As strong supporters of the critical and mutually beneficial U.S.-Polish relationship, we believe our alliance is rooted in our shared democratic ideals, including a respect for the rule of law and its ability to ensure justice for victims,” the senators added. “We urge you to work with the Polish Parliament to pass fair and just restitution legislation that would both fully realize the goals of the Terezin Declaration and further strengthen the bond between our countries.”