On Monday, 59 US senators sent a bipartisan letter to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urging his government to quickly pass fair legislation regarding restitution, which in its current form, would “discriminate against virtually all American survivors and heirs.”
Authored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the letter says that draft legislation regarding restitution of property confiscated during and after the Holocaust would “adversely affect Holocaust victims and their heirs and is therefore of urgent importance to many of our constituents, millions of Americans and Holocaust survivors around the world.”
The Polish Justice Ministry said last month it was reviewing the draft legislation after the Standing Committee of the Council of Ministers returned it to the ministry for reconsideration.
The limits of the legislation have also drawn criticism from Israel and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which said it would exclude the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families.
Polish Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki announced in October that the legislative proposals would grant cash compensation to those stripped of their property by the pro-Soviet communist regime that governed Poland following World War II. In many cases, property was initially looted by the Nazis and subsequently seized by the Communists.
The draft legislation requires that claimants currently be citizens of Poland, as well as having been residents of Poland at the time that their property was nationalized by the Communist regime.
A position paper submitted by the World Jewish Restitution Organization to the Justice Ministry explains that these provisions would exclude the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families.
Since the Communist authorities nationalized property between 1944-1962, the requirement of residency at that time bars survivors who left Poland during the Holocaust or at any point before the property was nationalized, the World Jewish Restitution Organization wrote.
Furthermore, because most Holocaust survivors and their families do not currently hold Polish citizenship, even those survivors who were still residents and citizens at the time their property was nationalized are still likely to be excluded based on the requirement of having current citizenship.
In addition, only spouses and direct descendants can stake a claim to assets. Since many Jewish families were killed during the Holocaust, there are no living first-line heirs in many cases that could step forward and make a claim to property, with ineligible siblings, nieces and nephews often being the only remaining heirs.
Of the few who would be considered as eligible to claim properties, they still will not be given their properties back entirely.
Instead, a successful claim would result in them receiving 20% of the value of the property in cash or 25% in government bonds. Claimants have a one-year deadline after which property would be transferred to the Polish Treasury.
“The United States and Poland have a long and deep relationship stemming from the American Revolutionary War and continuing through our NATO partnership today,” wrote the senators in their letter.
“It is in this spirit – coupled with the recognition of the tremendous contributions made by Polish-Americans – that we are writing to express concern about legislation regarding Holocaust-era property restitution that has been proposed by the Polish Ministry of Justice.”
They objected to the legislation on the grounds that it would “eliminate the possibility of the return of actual property, provide only limited compensation, prevent compensation for ownership of companies that were destroyed, and bar claims by foreign citizens who did not benefit from eligible postwar treaties, including the one between Poland and the United States.”
Gideon Taylor, World Jewish Restitution Organization chairman of operations, welcomed the letter, saying that “with fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors alive today, we call on Poland urgently to address this historic wrong. We are grateful to Senators Baldwin and Rubio and all of the 59 senators who are raising their collective voice on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their families.”
Poland is the only major country in Europe that has not passed national legislation for the restitution of property seized by the Nazis or for property nationalized by a Communist regime, the letter notes.