Campaigners for the restitution of property owned by Jews in pre-war Poland celebrated on Friday after a proposed new law to stymie it was withdrawn from the country’s lower legislative chamber.
The British Government’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues Lord Eric Pickles welcomed the “very good news” that the Bill on Warsaw Property Rights had been withdrawn, having earlier called Poland “an anomaly” for not setting out a programme for restitution in-line with its commitments.
Pre-war Poland was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish populations, but Jews were among the persecuted minorities to have their possessions and property taken or confiscated during the Holocaust.
In 2009 Poland was one of 46 countries to convene at Terezin in the Czech Republic, agreeing to make “every effort to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress”.
They also outlined a set of measures “geared towards ensuring assistance, redress and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution” in what later became known as the Terezin Declaration, whose signatories include the UK and US.
The timing of the Bill’s withdrawal may be related to the forthcoming JUST Act in the United States, which has bipartisan support, and to Poland’s geostrategic priority of ensuring continued US military protection from Russia.
In 2018 American lawmakers passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, which requires the US State Department to report on the progress or otherwise of Terezin signatories in progressing restitution claims. That report is due soon – and is expected to finger Poland.
In response, right-wing Polish lawmakers had sought to introduce laws that would have made any restitution dependent on Jewish family’s heirs living in Poland.
The issue has become highly politicised in recent years, and even featured in this year’s presidential campaign, with the leader of President Andrzej Duda’s party suggesting Duda’s nearest challenger would give away Polish property to Jewish claimants. Duda subsequently won re-election.
Speaking to Jewish News on Friday, Pickles said the Bill’s withdrawal was “very good news,” adding: “It helps create an atmosphere where people of goodwill can work towards righting an old injustice.”
Jewish peer Baroness Ruth Deech has repeatedly pushed the British Government to raise the issue with Poland, which she said was “squatting on the property of three million” Holocaust victims.
Earlier, Pickles had said that the UK was “willing to work with any country” in an effort to support Poland in facilitating restitution.