“We will often find compensation if we think more of what life has given us and less about what life has taken away.” The words of Scots theologian William Barclay which, while no doubt a wise philosophical approach, cut little ice in the modern mercenary milieu, especially if there are grievances to be assuaged. Thus, the Polish foreign ministry has announced the cancellation of a planned visit by Israeli officials because it seemed Israel wished the talks to focus on the restitution of property that once belonged to Jews.
The foreign ministry wrote in a statement on its website: “Poland decided to cancel the visit of Israeli officials after the Israeli side made last minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on issues related to property restitution.” This announcement came as the Polish government is working on legislation to protect the country against any claims for compensation arising out of the Second World War.
The leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said earlier this month that Poland had no financial obligations arising from the wartime years “in terms of the law” and “elementary morality.” Rather, he said, over EUR 1 trillion in war reparations could be owed to Poland, which suffered massive damage at the hands of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
The issue has become sensitive since United States President Donald Trump signed a year ago the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, by which the US State Department is expected to report to Congress on what steps countries in Europe have taken to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for property seized under Nazi German occupation and communism.
Speaking in an interview at the time, Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, said that the JUST Act did “not offer any legal instruments” and was “not just” because it divided Polish citizens into “Jews and non-Jews.” “There can be no discrimination against non-Jews, and the majority of those to whom restitution applies are people of Polish nationality,” he said.
Michał Dworczyk, head of the Polish prime minister’s office, told public broadcaster Polish Radio earlier this month that the US law had no legal force in Poland and that “it is regrettable that some people are trying to use for political ends the fact that such a document has been adopted in the United States.” The US SpecialRepresentative to monitor and combat anti-semitism, Elan Carr, gave an assurance that the United States has no intention of dictating anything in the matter of the Holocaust victims and that the JUST Act does not oblige Poland to do anything in respect of the property lost by the victims.
Most of Poland’s large Jewish population – some thee million people or ten per cent of the country’s population at the time – was murdered by the occupying Nazi forces during the Second World War. After the war, the communist government confiscated large amounts of property and nationalised it. Most of the owners of the nationalised property were non-Jewish Poles.
Be that as it may, the issue requires some decisive action if it is not to fester ad infinitum. Unlike many other European countries, Poland has not enacted specific legislation to deal with restitution or compensation claims, although it has been possible to make claims on the basis of the facts in individual cases. However, that process is far from straight forward. This, and the passage of time, as we saw in Restitution, also increases the scope for skulduggery by those so minded.
Successive Polish governments have said they cannot afford to compensate the victims. A restitution scheme was being prepared by the Polish government, but this was suspended in 2011 in the economic downturn in the wake of the financial crisis, and, although Poland’s economic position is stronger now, no new legislation has been forthcoming.
Indeed, in the face of a rally in Warsaw on Saturday by nationalist groups rejecting any calls for Poland to pay compensation on the grounds that Poles themselves were the primary victims on Nazi atrocities, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told state-run PAP news at an election rally: ”We will not allow any damages to be paid to anyone because it is us who should get damages”.
If progress is to be made, both sides will have to be realistic. While simply saying that loss should lie where it fell is no answer, nor is using the issue as stick to beat successive Polish governments, without acknowledging the particular circumstances of Poland.