Poland remains the only country in the European Union that does not have comprehensive legislation to deal with the restitution of private property confiscated by the Nazis — and, in Poland’s case, later nationalized under communist rule.
That fact is a friction point in what is otherwise seen in Warsaw as a natural kinship with the Trump administration. President Trump had been expected to make his second official visit to Poland for Sunday’s ceremony, before he canceled Thursday citing the need to stay home to monitor Hurricane Dorian.
Washington has been slow to call out Poland’s nationalist government as it chips away at democratic institutions, breaches the country’s constitution and spurs anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Most recently, the country’s deputy justice minister was forced to resign after it emerged that his ministry had waged a harassment campaign against judges resisting government efforts to control the judiciary.
But the Trump administration has weighed in on the issue of restitution of Jewish property, a matter that is politically fraught in Poland. And earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 88 senators led by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press Poland to settle the issue.
Poland, however, argues that it is already settled, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reportedly saying in May that bending to pressure on restitution would constitute such an injustice to Poles that it would be a “victory” for Hitler.
“It’s potentially the most explosive issue between the U.S. and Poland,” said Tomasz Pludowski, a professor at Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas who specializes in U.S. relations. “It could create a lot of hostility toward Americans in Polish society. The current government is also very afraid of it.”
Poland’s right-wing leadership argues that as a victim of Nazi Germany itself, the country should bear no further responsibility for wartime injustices. Some 6 million Poles died during the World War II, the greatest proportional loss of any nation during the conflict. Roughly half were Jewish.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, in addition to the slaughter they waged, houses, land and businesses were confiscated — largely from Jews. After the war, when Poland became a communist state under Soviet influence, private property was nationalized. The country also lost territory in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania in the postwar carve-up of Europe.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Poland signed several agreements to hand back communal lands that had been seized, including one with the Jewish community, which lodged more than 5,000 claims.
But the issue of private property claims has proved thornier. Poland argues that Jews and non-Jews alike who want to claim property they owned before the war, and that has since been confiscated, can lodge a claim in Poland’s courts.
The process is slow, however. In their letter to Pompeo this month, the U.S. senators wrote that “Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families as well as others have found it nearly impossible to reclaim or seek compensation for the property that was nationalized by the Polish Communist regime.”
Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, a former New Yorker, said that the claims process is functioning but that it is difficult to navigate for those living outside Poland, as the majority of the descendants of Jewish Poles do.
Given Poland’s complicated history, restitution should not be treated as a purely Jewish issue, Schudrich said; rather, the solution needs to involve compensation for all those who lost property, including the many Poles who lost their homes under communism.
“Unfortunately, this small factor, which is not so small, is missed by many people,” he said.
Still, he added, the fact that the issue has not been dealt with is “a stain on the Polish soul.”
Last year, Poland ignited international controversy with a proposed law, dubbed the “Holocaust bill,” that effectively prohibited statements accusing Poles of crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, as well as any reference to concentration camps in the country as “Polish death camps.”
But restitution, with its financial implications, could prove more politically sensitive at home.
Moving to resolve the issue would certainly be unpopular, analysts say, noting that efforts by Jewish groups to secure compensation for property for which there are no living heirs are particularly controversial. Such cases are eligible for claims in Poland’s legal system.
The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, signed into law by Trump last year, recommends that compensation for heirless property be distributed for the benefit of Holocaust survivors.
Poland argues that the act unfairly puts the rights of Jews who lost property above those of Poles who also did.
Under its provisions, the State Department is required to report to Congress the steps European nations are taking to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for seized assets.
Pompeo raised the issue in a visit to Poland in February, calling on Warsaw to enact a law to settle Jewish property claims, a step that stirred public debate.
At a sand-colored block of flats set around a children’s playground in Warsaw’s Mokotow district, posters appeared on the glass entrance doors in the days after Pompeo’s comments. “This property might be handed over due to Jewish claims in Poland,” they read.
Residents said they did not oppose valid claims but worried that the restitution process was open to corruption, with the process reportedly riddled with cases of fraud.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Poland’s ruling party as it courts right-wing votes ahead of October elections.
“More radical parties, especially right-wing, are criticizing the government for being too lenient and are coming up with more-aggressive anti-Jewish and anti-American rhetoric,” Pludowski said.
Daniel Fried, who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland two decades ago, said the only way forward is to recognize that any resolution is going to be “symbolic” and “incomplete.”
“On one level, there’s no way to make restitution for the Holocaust,” he said. “It’s gone. People are dead. They’re not coming back.”
Michal Giersz in Warsaw and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.