No sooner was Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu gone, than his successors have ripped into Poland over a restitution law that was newly passed in Warsaw. And the Biden Administration supports the Israeli moves. What is it all about?
Six years ago, Poland’s Constitutional Court obligated the government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Parliament (Sejm) to pass a law on restitution as recommended by the judiciary. The PiS administration dilly-dallied, also because it wanted to avoid any controversy. Finally, working under the court-imposed deadline, the Sejm voted a statute of limitations to property restitution claims. The draft law holds that they expire after 30 years. The measure applies equally to all plaintiffs, domestic and foreign.
The new Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett and his foreign minister Yair Lapid ripped into Poland. The latter called the restitution law “a disgrace.”
However, even the liberal Israeli paper The Haaretz opined that “In Row Over Holocaust Property Restitution, Poles Have a Point Too” (30 June 2021) (https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-in-the-row-over-holocaust-survivors-property-restitution-the-poles-have-a-point-to-1.9956950). It has been seventy-six years since the end of the Second World War. Too much time has passed to take away the property from the current rentiers or users and return it to various claimants.
But even if you return the properties to all Polish and Jewish claimants, what about the German plaintiffs? Half of Poland used to be Germany. That massive property transfer would reverse the result of the war. This would be a posthumous victory for Hitler.
Replevin law in Poland allows for 25 years of stewardship of a property to claim it as one’s own. Elsewhere, the time lapse is even shorter. For example, New York City has a replevin law that dictates that anyone who pays property taxes for ten years acquires the said property.
Further, as far as Jewish property claims in Poland, there are four categories of cases. First, there is communal religious property: synagogues, ritual baths, and so forth. All have been returned to Jewish religious communities. Second, likewise, all Jewish secular communal properties have been returned: libraries, clubs, etc. Third, there are individual claimants, the heirs to Holocaust survivors, who have been overwhelmingly restored to their properties, provided they presented appropriate proof of ownership before the court of law.
The fourth category is the bone of contention in the recent spat. It concerns the so-called “heirless property.” By Roman law, which applies virtually everywhere on the Old Continent (and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), all property belonging to persons deceased who have no living heirs accrues to the state of their citizenship. According to Roman (and Polish) law, then, Israel is not a party to the dispute. Nor are any international organizations advancing claims to “heirless property.”
Poland so far has refused to yield. The head of the government, Mateusz Morawiecki, responded to the Biden Administration’s threats and Israeli anger as follows: “So long as I am prime minister, Poland will pay not a dollar, euro, or zloty for the German crimes.” His point: Poland is not responsible for the Holocaust. Let the Germans pay reparations.
Some believe that the new Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet and his foreign minister Yair Lapid’s temper tantrum directed at Warsaw was just a ploy to deflect the world’s attention from the recent fighting in Gaza. Israeli critics of the Bennet cabinet also point out the domestic dimension of the bruhaha: the powers that be want to hide the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the Israeli government (https://besacenter.org/the-muslim-brotherhood-inside-the-israeli-government/). The more the spotlight shines on Warsaw, the less light falls on internal issues.
An Israeli authority on property issues is torn. He freely admits to liking Poland and the Poles and sharing their concerns. Yet, he is also confused: “All this moral waffling, I’ll be honest, runs counter to how I was raised, to the tenet I received if not explicitly (but often explicitly) then by osmosis: the Poles were (are) our enemies. The Poles who saved Jews were the exception but your average Pole was—at best—perfectly content to see Jewish neighbors carted off to the ovens. If you want to split hairs you might say the Poles were not the killers (but still sometimes the killers) but the abettors of the killers. My father tells me that my grandparents hated the Poles more than the Germans. That they routinely referred to the country as a country of filth and murder, to its citizens as brutes and scum. … This was a received truth among my relatives.” Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), 78–79.
Obviously, much needs to be worked out in Polish-Israeli relations. A logical step would be to proceed with the current government as with the previous one.
Netanyahu knew that, as soon as they regained freedom, the Poles not only facilitated the escape of tens or hundreds of thousands of Jews from the crumbling Soviet Union (Operation Bridge), but also invariably support Israel on the international forum (unlike almost everyone else – but Hungary – in the European Union). There were private feelers first in America, which eventually facilitated a Polish deal with Bibi and Israel.
Let the dust settle on the current spat, and try again. Both Israel and Poland need friends, including on energy issues. And Joe Biden should help with that, and stay out of other stuff.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, D.C., 2 July 2021
A version of this article was published by Newsmax.