The years have not dimmed memories of when the Nazis entered the homes of our relatives in Poland. After being liberated from the death camps following the end of the Holocaust, they made their way back to their former towns and shtetels of Zamosc, Krakow and Lublin to find out that their properties had been taken over by their Polish neighbors.
It is estimated that there are currently over 170,000 private properties held in Poland that were wrongfully seized from Jewish victims of the Holocaust and appropriated by the Polish communist government following the Second World War. These properties have an estimated value of billions of dollars, according to a comprehensive report drawn up by experts from the business sector, non-profit and non-governmental organizations at the request of the Israeli government.
Poland was one of the main victims of Nazi Germany, and six million of its citizens – half of them Jews – were murdered by the Germans. Since regaining its independence in 1989, joining NATO and entering the European Union, Poland has established itself as a model for free and democratic states in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. The trauma of human loss during the Second World War was so great that no discussion of the material loss took place for decades. Today, 70 years after the end of the war and the liberation of the extermination camps, and more than two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the issue of restitution still constitutes a blot on Poland's democratic record.
Poland's reputation as a force for moral good would be enhanced by reaching a just settlement, acceptable to all parties, on the issue of restitution of private property seized from Polish Jews. Countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary have recently taken some legislative steps to do justice, leaving Poland isolated in an international and European context.
Over the last 20 years, more than 12 draft laws providing for restitution have been prepared in Poland but never enacted. This year draft restitution legislation was again dropped, on the ground that the country could not afford compensation. This argument bears little relevance given that Poland's economy is a European success story, with consistent economic growth. Poland is one of few EU Member States which have avoided the current European recession with a 4.3% GDP growth last year. According to the National Bank of Poland, the inflow of foreign direct investment between January and October 2011 amounted to more than 9 billion euros, 34% more than in the whole of 2010, and more than enough to pay its historical dues to the dispossessed if financial resources had been directed their way.
By its failure to pass legislation, Poland has been telling elderly Holocaust survivors – who in their twilight years need the means to cope with the problems of poverty and old age – that they have no foreseeable hope of a small measure of justice for the assets that were seized from them. While the Polish government is procrastinating over this issue, claimants die or give up.
The case of Holocaust survivor Henryk Pikielny, whose grandfather, Mojzesz, founded a small textile factory on Jaracza Street in the city of Lodz, appropriated by the Nazis, is a case in this respect. Henryk fled Lodz in 1939, aged 11, while his grandfather who stayed behind died in the Warsaw ghetto and mother was murdered in the Stutthof concentration camp. He survived, together with his brother and father, Maks. Following the fall of communism, he made numerous efforts to reclaim his property, including filing a petition to the European Court on Human Rights, after finding himself listed as a property owner in the city land records. The Polish government continuously refused to return his property. Henryk has now died, like many other survivors, without justice.
The US Congress passed Resolution 371 in 2008, supported by the US Senate, calling on the government of Poland to enact legislation to address the issue of private property and “ensure that such restitution and compensation legislation establishes an unbureaucratic, simple, transparent and timely process so that it results in a real benefit to those many persons who suffered from the unjust such confiscation of their property, many of whom are well into 80s or older.” The US administration, European Union and Israel must take an active political role in ensuring that Poland lives up to its international obligations.
The international standards are clear. The overriding principle that emerged in the immediate post-war period in Western Europe and was enacted in allied decrees and legislation that has continued to this day (see the recent German Property Law 1990) is that property that was taken from owners and heirs must be returned, with interest, to their former owners. A wrong was committed. The wrong must be remedied.
The European Convention on Human Rights (1953), which the Republic of Poland has ratified, states that "Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions" (Protocol 1). The convention makes it absolutely clear that "no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has consistently advocated that its member states deal with restitution of property stolen by the Nazis in a comprehensive and non-discriminatory way. During its 10th Parliamentary Session in 2001, the OSCE adopted a resolution urging member states “to ensure that they have implemented appropriate legislation to secure the restitution and/or compensation for property loss by victims of Nazi persecution…to Nazi victims or their heir(s) irrespective of their current citizenship or place of residence.”
The Terezin Declaration of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference (2009), signed by 47 states, called for the enactment of restitution property laws. Poland must be urged by the international community to attend the follow-up conference which takes place in Prague in November.
A country that has not addressed its past is not free to move into the future. The remaining ghosts of the past must hence be fought and old offenses must be compensated. We are facing one of our last chances to honor the memory of those who were murdered during the Nazi tyranny, and bring justice to the survivors and their heirs by rectifying the wrongful expropriations of property by the Nazi and communist regimes. A failure to return the confiscated properties to their rightful owners constitutes nothing less than a betrayal of these principles.
Daniel Schatz is a political scientist and visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies
Baroness Ruth Deech is a member of the House of Lords of the United Kingdom