What does Poland’s Holocaust restitution bill mean for the Jewish world?

"It is true that there were many non-Jewish Poles who were victims of the Holocaust and that the country itself was invaded. But the tragedies that befell the Jewish people there were unique and systemic."
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Polish Americans protest against a bill passed by the US House of Representatives which supports victims of the Holocaust and their families in the restitution and recovery of property on March 31, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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We’re curious…

Last week, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed a bill that would create major obstacles for Holocaust survivors to recover property that was seized by the Nazis and then confiscated by the Polish Communist regime. The legislation would make it “virtually impossible for Holocaust survivors and their families… to obtain restitution of, or compensation for, property unlawfully taken away during the Holocaust and Communist periods,” according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). 

Before the war, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews and the largest Jewish community in Europe. Three million of them — 90% of the population — were killed in the Holocaust. The majority were murdered in ghettos, death camps and concentration camps in German-occupied Poland, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Despite this history, Poland is the only country in the European Union that has not passed a comprehensive law to return or provide compensation for private property taken during the Holocaust or Communist periods. The Anti-Defamation League tweeted that with the new legislation, “Poland’s poor history on Holocaust-era restitution just got worse.” Why did the Polish parliament vote for this legislation? And why does this proposed law matter for the international Jewish community?

Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust

In the book “Cultures of the Jews: A New History,” David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis, described Jewish life in Poland and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Biale portrayed the Polish Jewish community as a diverse mix of religious and cultural movements, including the Hasidim (which emphasized mysticism and ecstatic prayer) and the Maskilim (an intellectual movement that encouraged Jews to learn the European languages and Hebrew, and to study secular subjects in addition to Jewish studies).

According to Biale, it was in the years between the two world wars that Polish Jewish life “flourished perhaps with the greatest intensity.” He compared Eastern European Jewish culture in this period to “a supernova star” that “burned perhaps most brightly just before it was snuffed out.” The Jewish community in Wloclawek, a city located in central Poland, was one example. Its Jewish population increased from 4,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century to 10,000 by the 1930s (about 20% of the town’s total population).

Biale wrote that the Jewish community in Wloclawek also enjoyed a cultural renaissance in this period. It was run by a board whose officials were elected by all male Jews in the town. The board encompassed the wide range of Jewish political and cultural movements active in the community: Hasidim, the Agudah (representing the ultra-Orthodox), religious Zionists, socialist Zionists, Revisionist Zionists, and the Bund (non-Zionist socialists). Most of these political movements were affiliated with their own school systems and youth movements. Additionally, “a Jewish press, a theater and sports organizations flourished.”

At the same time that Jews and Jewish culture in Poland proliferated, the Great Depression — combined with increasing Polish nationalism — led to “significant new antisemitism that sought to exclude the Jews (who constituted 10% of the population) from many corners of Polish life. This included a series of pogroms, economic boycotts and attacks on Jewish students at universities. Meanwhile, it became more difficult for Polish Jews to emigrate. Biale concluded that in Poland, “a vibrant Jewish culture flourished for a limited time,” and all of the rich tensions, conflicts and cultural variety that defined the Jewish community “found their final expression.”

Was Poland the victim or perpetrator in the Holocaust?

In remarks following the bill’s passage, Polish government officials focused on Poland’s role during the war and evaded any responsibility for the Holocaust.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki vowed that his country “will not pay for German crimes: Neither zloty, nor euro, nor dollar.” Similarly, Poland’s foreign minister said in a statement that “Poland is by no means responsible for the Holocaust, an atrocity committed by the German occupier.” It is true that Poland was a victim of Nazi aggression and that the Nazis killed 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens. But the claim that Poland does not share any responsibility for what happened is historically inaccurate.

In a 2018 article published in The Atlantic, “The Truth About Poland’s Role in the Holocaust,” Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, argued that Poland’s role is best described as a contrast in “collaboration” with the Nazis on the one hand, and “courage” in saving Jewish lives on the other.

“Poland was the victim of German aggression, suffering one of the most brutal occupation regimes among countries in the Nazi orbit,” Friedberg wrote, adding that more Christian Poles have been recognized for risking their lives to aid Jews than citizens of any other European country. “But many others supported and enabled Germany in its campaign to exterminate the Jews.”

Friedberg recounted a series of incidents that she argued “muddy the waters between victim and oppressor in the chaotic environment of wartime Poland.” The “tangled history” of the village of Gniewczyna Łańcucka is a case in point: “In May 1942, non-Jewish residents of the town held hostage some two to three dozen local Jews. Over the course of several days, they tortured and raped their hostages before finally murdering them. Yet recent interviews with locals reveal that other Christian Poles in Gniewczyna Łańcucka tried to shield Jews.”

Friedberg’s study underscores the complexity of Poland’s role in the Holocaust and how it encompassed all four of the main human paradigms of the period: victim, perpetrator, upstander and bystander.

Violent riots against Jews in Poland continued even after the war. The most shocking of these incidents was the Kielce pogrom in 1946 in which a mob of Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians murdered 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust and returned to or settled in the town. The story of the Kielce pogrom is powerful, emotional and distressing. “While the pogrom was not an isolated instance of anti-Jewish violence in postwar Poland, the Kielce massacre convinced many Polish Jews that they had no future in Poland after the Holocaust and spurred them to flee the country,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Coming just one year after the end of World War II, the massacre shocked people around the world.”

What is the new legislation?

According to Haaretz, under the new law, outstanding claims to recover property seized during the Holocaust “that have not reached a final decision in the last 30 years would be halted or dismissed,” and new appeals of decisions reached more than 30 years ago would also be barred.

Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference and chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), clarified that the legislation is about actions Poland took after the war. “What we’re talking about is not what Germany did during the Holocaust, but about the property that was confiscated after the war by the Communist government,” Taylor told Bloomberg News. The Polish state “took property, benefited from it for 70 years and now — with this bill — is saying that ‘we have no responsibility.’”

“This is not staying still, and this is not going forward — this is going backward,” he added.

Poland has had past issues of denying all responsibility for the Holocaust and even codifying this as a law. In 2018, the country passed a “Holocaust speech bill” penalizing anyone who accused Poland or the Polish people of being complicit in Nazi war crimes. Although the law was eventually amended to make such statements a civil as opposed to criminal offense, the legislation strained relations between Israel and Poland.

Why did Poland’s parliament pass this law?

According to Owen Alterman, senior international affairs correspondent at i24 News, while the Israeli position is that the least Poland can do is give a measure of justice to the families of Holocaust survivors, the Polish position is that allowing these families to reclaim the properties is a slippery slope “with no end” that would “create injustice to many Poles who have used this land over the course of decades.”

In response to the bill, Israeli foreign minister and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid said that “no legislation will erase” the memory of millions of Jews who were killed on Polish soil. Lapid said that the law is “a horrific injustice and disgrace that harms the rights of Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and members of the Jewish communities that existed in Poland for hundreds of years,” adding that it would “seriously harm relations between the countries.”

Meanwhile, Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski argued that the bill was designed to protect against “fraud and abuse,” tweeting, “Poles, like Jews, were victims of terrible German crimes. The act passed in the Sejm [lower house of parliament] protects the victims of these crimes and their heirs against fraud and abuse.”

The Polish government’s attitude toward this general issue is illustrated by its objections to the phrase “Polish concentration camp” as opposed to “Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland” or “concentration camp on Polish soil.” They argue that the former phrase wrongly implies that Poland set up or ran the camps. For example, in 2012, President Barack Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” while posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter. Polish officials heavily criticized Obama’s use of the term, and the president was quick to write a letter of apology.

What does this mean for the Jewish world?

WJRO chair of operations Taylor said in an interview on i24 News that the legislation is “very disappointing” symbolically as well as substantively. “What this bill is saying to Holocaust survivors is that you don’t matter, your claims don’t matter, and history doesn’t matter,” he said, adding that “this is a very serious blow” to the relationship between Poland and the international Jewish community.

Taylor explained that “for many Holocaust survivors, a building, a small house in a town, a factory or a shop [is] the last symbolic connection they have to a world that was destroyed…their last connection to their roots. That’s why this issue runs deep. It’s a very powerful symbolic statement.”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, also condemned the legislation, saying in a statement, “This law is a slap in the face to what remains of Polish Jewry and survivors of Nazi brutality everywhere. It also sets a terrible precedent throughout Europe as survivors and descendants continue to seek justice.” Lauder argued that “the time has come for the international Jewish community to reevaluate our relationship with a government that is behaving with unimaginable callousness” and “emulating the worst traditions in Polish history, rather than the… uplifting ones.”

The bottom line

The conversation surrounding this legislation raises the question of how to deal with a complex history. Nations as well as people can relate to this: The feeling of being blamed for something you did not do is devastating. And, in this case, it’s also true that Poland bears responsibility for terrible antisemitism that permeated too much of modern Polish history. The Kielce pogrom, which happened one year after the Holocaust, is a case in point.

It is true that there were many non-Jewish Poles who were victims of the Holocaust and that the country itself was invaded. But the tragedies that befell the Jewish people there were unique and systemic. The educational question we can all ask ourselves is, how should our own histories animate our presents? Is Poland doing a good job answering this question?

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