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Poland Uses Yom Kippur to erase the past

By Mark Wilf

The Polish government's new law bars restitution to Holocaust survivors, part of a trend erasing any Polish responsibility for what happened to Jews during the war.

Holocaust survivors stand behind a barbed wire fence after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1945 in Nazi-occupied Poland. Photo credit: Yad Vashem.

This summer, the government of Poland passed legislation curbing the rights of Holocaust survivors and their families. Shockingly, the law is set to take effect Thursday on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

For Polish survivors and their descendants, who have sought justice for decades over the wrongful seizure of their property, this is a massive blow. For Jews, the High Holy Days are a time to remember the lessons of the past, recognize injustices and seek to correct them. Jewish tradition understands that this requires an honest study of the past and a commitment to seeking justice.

The new Polish law does just the opposite, foreclosing any current or potential claims that Jews and non-Jews have to property that was first expropriated during the Holocaust and then nationalized during the communist era that followed. For Polish survivors and their descendants, who have sought justice for decades over the wrongful seizure of their property, this is a massive blow.

Leaders of many countries recognize that this is a reprehensible action on the part of Poland and have offered strong criticism. Here in the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his deep “regret” at the law, urging changes and saying it “will harm all Polish citizens whose property was unjustly taken, including that of Polish Jews who were victims of the Holocaust.” On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders has called for scrapping the law.

In Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the law was “a shameful decision and disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust,” while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recalled Israel’s chargé d’affaires from Warsaw and delayed having the Israeli ambassador to Poland take up his post.

Poland’s European allies have also spoken up. Eric Pickles, the United Kingdom’s special envoy on post-Holocaust Issues, pressed the country to change course: “Restitution of confiscated Jewish property remains unfinished business. Poland's many friends urge it to agree [to] a fair and reasonable scheme.”

In response to these forceful statements, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared, “As long as I am the prime minister, Poland will surely not pay for German crimes. Not a zloty, not a euro, not a dollar.”

That retort seeks to distract from the issue at hand. While it is true that Poland suffered greatly under Nazi occupation, the property in question was taken by Poland’s former government after the war and remains in Poland today.

Holocaust victims suffered expropriation of their property twice — first by the Nazis in the Holocaust and then, after the post-war Polish government nullified Nazi takings, a second time by the communist authorities. To many Holocaust survivors, seeing their struggle culminate in this legislation under a democratic Poland is akin to their property being taken a third time.

Their seized homes, apartments, offices and factories are now owned either by the government or by private individuals. Although there is no reliable or centralized estimate on the total number of claims, a 2016 list from Warsaw alone included 2,613 street addresses with open claims. Making amends need not impact current occupants of the property. Other countries have provided claimantswith substitute property or compensation, and a 2017 legislative proposal by the Polish government would have taken this approach.

Moreover, a 2020 State Department report found that Poland, which at 3.3 million had the largest European Jewish community prior to World War II, is the only European Union member state with significant Holocaust-era property issues that has not enacted comprehensive legislation on national property restitution or compensation covering Holocaust confiscations.

The truth is that this law is part of a broader trend of Polish government actions over the last few years to steer the narrative of the Holocaust away from Jewish suffering and erase any Polish part in — and responsibility for — what happened to Jews during World War II.

It comes on the heels of similar Polish measures, the most troubling being legislation that circumscribed speech blaming Poland for anything that happened during the Holocaust. That problematic bill was passed by the Parliament in 2018 on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This effort coincides with a rising nationalist tide that has increased sensitivities to anything that could be seen as defaming Poland, and makes political parties see benefits to promoting bigoted views. The governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), as well as far-right parties, have made anti-restitution laws a key part of their platforms alongside anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ laws. In 2019, thousands of Polish nationalists marched against the U.S. in anti-Jewish protests decrying Washington’s push for compensation.

While Poland’s commemoration of the many non-Jewish Poles who suffered at the hands of Nazi aggression is certainly appropriate, minimizing Jewish suffering during the Holocaust is outrageous and unacceptable. It not only undermines victims’ legitimate claims for restitution, but also covers up the root causes of their oppression — causes that must be acknowledged and addressed in order for history not to repeat itself.

As Jewish communities, we have a special responsibility to preserve the truth about what happened in the Holocaust. We must stand up to fight any efforts to erase or downplay the story of what Polish Jewry or Jews from other countries endured. Whatever happens in Poland, we can take immediate action here in the U.S. to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and strengthen the calls for justice abroad.

The Jewish Federations of North America, of which I am chair of the board of trustees, is advocating for legislation in the U.S. at the national and state levels to ensure children learn about the Holocaust in school. For example, the federal Never Again Education Act, signed into law in May 2020, authorized $10 million over five years for Holocaust education nationwide.

Today, only 20 states have mandated education on the Holocaust. The laws vary by state, but generally the legislation requires that all schools provide age-appropriate education specifically about the Holocaust in elementary and/or high school. Holocaust education is taught in other states, of course, but it’s done so in an ad hoc way that doesn’t ensure all students learn the facts about this terrible genocide.

A 2020 study of millennials and Generation Z by the Claims Conference, a body negotiating compensation from Germany for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, found that 44 percent of Americans ages 18 to 39 couldn’t identify what Auschwitz is. More than 1 in 10 thought Jews bore some responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust, and 30 percent had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms or in their own communities.

Regular, ongoing, fact-based Holocaust education is the first step in inoculating young people against untruths about the Holocaust and honoring the survivors who remain. But increasing Holocaust education at home is just one key step. Federations, along with allies such as the World Jewish Restitution Organization, are pushing for Poland to pass comprehensive legislation that would meet the commitments it made under the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which outlined several measures toward compensation for property belonging to the victims of Nazi persecution.

We support Congress and the State Department’s ongoing monitoring of restitution in Europe, as approved in the 2018 JUST Act that Federations supported to keep the issue front and center. The Senate should also swiftly confirm the nominee for special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism to ensure that a top diplomat is addressing these issues globally.

At Yom Kippur, a time of atonement, reflection and action toward justice, we must redouble efforts to support Holocaust education. We must reinforce our commitment to standing strong against attempts to distort, downplay or diminish what happened during the Holocaust, in Poland and elswhere. We must, so it can never happen again.

 © NBC News


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