(JTA) – In an unusual move, Israel accused Poland of “discriminating against Holocaust survivors” in considering legislation on restitution whose language excludes many Jewish would-be recipients.
Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, on Friday lodged an official complaint with the Polish foreign ministry over a bill unveiled last week, which would require those seeking restitution for nationalized property to be citizens living in Poland and exclude all heirs except “first-line heirs,” meaning spouses, children or grandchildren.
Some three million Polish Jews, or 90 per cent of their pre-war population, were murdered in the Holocaust.
“Israel believes the envisaged legislation discriminates against Holocaust survivors,” read a draft of Azari’s letter of protest, whose content an official in Jerusalem shared with JTA Friday.
The letter constitutes a departure from the Israeli foreign ministry’s usual approach to restitution issues in recent decades, in which the ministry plays a facilitating role while refraining from directly commenting on legislation or unresolved restitution issues.
The letter objects to the exclusion of non-citizens and second-degree relatives from restitution under the new bill. It notes that Nazi persecution meant no other groups “shared the fate of the Jews” in occupied Poland.
“First the Nazis seized private property and then the communist authorities of Poland seized it, when most Polish Jews were already dead,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to speak to media about the issue.
Because the Holocaust “wiped out a whole generation” of Polish Jews, the official added, “it means the bulk of Jewish claimants are not direct descendants. That’s the discriminatory element in the bill.”
The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) in a statement acknowledged Israel’s open involvement in the issue and thanked the Israel government’s position.
“We greatly welcome the strong engagement of the government of Israel asking Poland to address this issue,” said Gideon Taylor, the organization’s chair of operations. “This is about justice and we have been urging the government of Poland to amend the proposed legislation to ensure that it is fair for all claimants including Holocaust survivors and their families in Israel and around the world.”
Poland is the only major country in Europe that has not passed national legislation for the restitution of property seized by the Nazis nor for property nationalized by a communist regime, according to the WJRO.
In 1997, Poland passed a law for restitution on communal-owned properties, but more than 15 years after the claim filing deadline, a majority of more than 5,000 claims has still not been resolved and most of the resolved claims have not led to restitution or compensation, the WJRO said.
Restitution experts estimate that following the Holocaust, Jewish individuals and institutions in Poland lost property with a combined value exceeding $1 billion.