By Dr. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Originally published on layoftheland.online
The restitution of Jewish property in Eastern Europe has never been a topic of any great interest to the wider public, even in Israel, and has very rarely received serious media attention. Until now!
During the past several weeks, a bill passed initially in the Polish Sejm (Parliament) and Senate, and signed into law on August 14 by President Andrzej Duda, has sparked an extremely heated controversy which is seriously threatening the future of Polish-Israeli relations, which had been quite cordial since Poland’s transition from Communism to Democracy. The law in question does not specifically mention Jews, or the Holocaust, or World War II, but in practical terms makes it almost impossible for Holocaust survivors to be able to reclaim their pre-World War II property or obtain commensurate compensation, even if they have already filed the appropriate claims in a Polish court.
President Duda justified the passage of the bill by pointing to the fact that there had been numerous cases of fictitious claims and that criminals had been able to unjustly obtain property that had never belonged to them, resulting in the ejection of “tens of thousands of people being thrown onto the pavement.” In his words, “re-privatization to restore justice became almost synonymous with injustice and human harm.” In that respect, it is important to mention that the bill was passed by a huge majority in both the Sejm and the Senate, and was fully supported not only by the government coalition, but by the opposition as well. Undoubtedly, part of that support stemmed from economic factors, given the large number of properties owned by Jews in prewar Poland, especially in urban centers.
Israeli officials were already aware of the seriously negative implications of the bill for the efforts to achieve restitution (or compensation) for Jewish-owned property before the votes in the Sejm and Senate. Israeli chargé d’affairs Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon gave an impassioned speech to the joint Senate committees before the vote was taken, in which she emphasized Israel’s obligation to “give a voice to Holocaust survivors and their descendants…who have the right, historically, morally, and legally to present their claims and to receive the compensation they deserve for their property.” Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears, and the support for the bill was overwhelming, which prompted strong criticism from the U.S. government and international Jewish organizations, but especially from Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. He not only called the bill “unethical and antisemitic”, but also instructed the new Israeli ambassador to Poland to remain in Israel in the meantime, immediately recalled our Chargé d’Affairs, in Warsaw for indefinite consultations, and suggested that the Polish ambassador to Israel remain on vacation in Poland. In his words, “This time should be used to explain to the people of Poland the meaning of the Holocaust to the citizens of Israel, and the extent to which we will refuse to tolerate any contempt for the memory of the Holocaust and its victims.”
Needless to say, Lapid’s harsh attack on the Polish government did not go unanswered. In an obvious response, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pavel Jablonski told journalists this on August 16 that the government was “reviewing” the trips to Poland of Israeli high school students, approximately 40,000 of whom travel annually to Poland for Holocaust study trips and visits to sites of ghettoes and death camps under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education. Jablonski called the trips “propaganda” – an unequivocal insult to the manner in which Israeli schools teach the Shoah.
At this point, it is not exactly clear how this crisis in Israeli-Polish relations will be resolved, but in order to understand its roots and causes, we have to return to a somewhat similar, previous dispute between the two countries over a law passed in Poland in 2018, which also aroused considerable anger and indignation in Israel. The so-called “Holocaust bill” criminalized use of the term “Polish death camps”, as well as any attempt to attribute Holocaust crimes to the Polish state. And while the first part of the bill was in fact justified, because it was the Germans who built the death camps in Poland, and the only Poles in death camps (Auschwitz and Majdanek) were inmates not collaborating perpetrators, the second clause was a brazen attempt to whitewash the widespread participation of individual Poles in Holocaust crimes. Negotiations between Polish and Israeli officials and historians led to a very bad compromise signed by former Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, which was strongly criticized by Yad Vashem, because it appeared to accept the Polish narrative of World War II and the Shoah, which promoted the canard of equivalency between Polish participation in Holocaust crimes and assistance by Poles in rescuing Jews from the Nazis, when in fact the number of Poles guilty of the former, surpassed those who rescued Jews many times over.
Thus the heart of the debate between Poles and Jews over Holocaust-related issues is the false narrative of the events of 1939-1945. The Polish narrative is primarily one of their own undisputed suffering under the Nazis, with little room or empathy for that of their Jewish neighbours and fellow citizens. Poland was one of the most antisemitic countries, if not THE most antisemitic country in Eastern Europe prior to World War II, and the estimated figure by reputable Polish historians, such as Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, of approximately 200,000 Jews murdered directly by Poles, or turned over by Poles to the Nazis to be killed during the Holocaust is a clear manifestation of that animus. The fact that Poland’s suffering under the Nazis has not received the same treatment as that of Jewish Holocaust victims further complicates the situation.
This situation, it must be noted, is not unique to Poland. Practically every post-Communist democracy in Eastern Europe has created a fake narrative of their Holocaust history, primarily to hide the important role played by their nationals in Holocaust crimes, and to promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes, which they insist constitute genocide. These measures are all being taken in order to emphasize their suffering under Communism and deflect attention from their Holocaust crimes. While the Nazis were able to enlist helpers in every country which they occupied or with whom they had an alliance, only in Eastern Europe did collaboration with the Nazis include participation in systematic mass murder of Jews. Until now, the policy of the previous Israeli governments was to ignore these lies, in order to maintain friendly relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, although the fake narrative created by these countries was an unforgivable insult to the victims, their families and the entire Jewish people. The new policy by Foreign Minister Lapid is a welcome and necessary change, but ultimately we will have to enter into serious dialogue with our Eastern European friends to convince them that telling the truth about their role in the Holocaust will ultimately be most beneficial to them and their citizens.
About the writer:
Holocaust historian Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, is Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) which deals with Holocaust distortion in Lithuania.