WJRO Poland Operations
Timeline: Private Property Restitution in Poland / Meeting the Principles of the Terezin Declaration / Restitution in Poland: Profiles / Polish Benefits for Holocaust Victims of Polish Origin Property Restitution in Warsaw
Poland is the only major country in the former Soviet bloc that has taken no action to return private property confiscated by the Nazis or nationalized by the Communist regime. About 3,300,000 Jews lived in Poland prior to the war; about 10,000 currently reside there.
Relevant Materials – Private Property
- Letter from U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues to Nowy Dziennik-Polish Daily News
- Letter from New York Comptrollers and California Treasurer to Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz
- Letter from 46 Members of the United States Congress to Secretary of State John F. Kerry
- Letter from 50 British Parliamentarians to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk
Relevant Materials – Warsaw
- Letter from WJRO to Polish President Andrzej Duda
- Letter from WJRO to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski
- Property Restitution in Warsaw
Of the approximately 3,300,000 Jews who lived in Poland prior to the Second World War, about 90% were killed in the Holocaust.
More than 75 years after the Holocaust and over a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Polish survivors and their families – as well as non-Jewish property owners from Poland – continue to wait for Poland to return or provide compensation for property plundered by the Germans and their collaborators during the Holocaust and then subsequently nationalized by the Communist regime.
While numerous other Central and Eastern European nations have adopted a special approach or enacted specific legislation to provide restitution of, or compensation for, confiscated assets, the Polish government has not addressed the concerns of dispossessed Holocaust survivors and their heirs, as well as non-Jewish Poles whose property was taken.
Since becoming a democracy in 1989, a number of bills have been proposed in Poland to address the restitution of, or compensation for, private property seized by the Nazis and/or later nationalized by the Communist regime – none became law. For instance, in October 2017, the Ministry of Justice announced proposed legislation to provide limited compensation for private property nationalized by the Communist government, however this was never adopted into law. Poland stands alone as the only member state of the European Union without such a law.
In September 2021 a Polish law amending the Administrative Procedure Code took effect, which prevents claimants from challenging administrative decisions older than 30 years, including decisions issued without legal basis or issued in gross violation of the law. In practice, it will become virtually impossible for all former Polish property owners – including Holocaust survivors and their descendants, many of whom have had claims pending for years – to secure redress under the current Polish law for property illegally stolen during the Communist era and which remains in Poland to this day. These recent developments illustrate the need for Poland to once and for all settle the issue of private property by adopting comprehensive national restitution legislation.
The Law on the Relationship Between the State and Jewish Communities (1997) (“Jewish Communities Law”) governs the restitution of Jewish communal properties. The properties covered – including cemeteries, synagogues and buildings serving religious, educational, cultural and social purposes – belonged to Jewish religious groups and were seized beginning September 1, 1939, by German occupying forces.
Poland also passed legislation establishing five regulatory commissions to address the restitution claims of various religious communities. The Polish Government Commission on the Restitution of Jewish Property consists of an equal number of members from the Polish State Treasury and the Union of Jewish Communities and is responsible for processing the communal property restitution claims for the Jewish communities.
In 2000, the Jewish communities of Poland (represented by the Union of Religious Jewish Communities – “JRCP”), together with the WJRO, established the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage. By agreement, Poland was divided into a number of jurisdictions in which formerly Jewish-owned communal property had been confiscated. In each of the jurisdictions, the Foundation or one of nine designated Jewish communities was given the responsibility for the restitution process and Jewish heritage preservation. In the period 1997 – 2000, the JRCP and the nine Jewish communities submitted claims for the confiscated, formerly Jewish, communal property in their jurisdictions.
Over fifteen years after the claim filing deadline, a majority of claims has still not been resolved and most of the resolved claims have not led to restitution or compensation. The Foundation is responsible for approximately 3,500 claims (including 600 for cemeteries) submitted by the claims deadline, while the other Jewish communities submitted another 2,000 claims (including several hundred for cemeteries). As of December 31, 2015, of the total of 5,504 authorized claims filed by all Jewish communities, the pertinent Regulatory Commission had adjudicated (entirely or partially) only 2,645 claims. Further, of the claims that have been adjudicated (in full or in part), fewer than half were positive decisions or settled by agreement, which led to the return of the contested property or related compensation.
Once properties are returned, Polish law imposes significant burdens on the Jewish communities. A substantial portion of the Regulatory Commission’s positive decisions, resulting in the return of actual property, has consisted of cemeteries and synagogues. Generally speaking, these represent the less valuable properties claimed and are almost always in serious disrepair when transferred. Moreover, decisions involving the return of such properties have placed the recipient Jewish community in “Catch 22” dilemmas. Polish law requires a property owner – under threat of penalty – to maintain and preserve the property. The cemeteries and synagogues restituted to the Jewish communities almost always require extensive and expensive work, because they were not maintained over the years, were permitted to deteriorate, and often were desecrated while in the possession of the government or other parties. Nonetheless, the government, after returning such dilapidated, untended properties, requires the Foundation or communities immediately to repair the property and bear the onerous costs of improvement and upkeep.
Poland has no law for the restitution of confiscated, heirless property.
The Terezin Declaration notes that “heirless property could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust (Shoah) survivors.” In light of the destruction of the Polish Jewish community during the Second World War, many families were entirely destroyed, leaving no heirs. The property formerly owned by such Jewish families should be used, in part, to meet the growing and urgent needs of the living victims of the Holocaust.
Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland
For more information about the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, click here.
Relevant Press Releases and News
Gideon Taylor, Chair of Operation, WJRO spoke with i24 host, Derricke Dennis, following US Secretary of State Pompeo’s public call for Poland to pass legislation for property restitution for property owners, including Holocaust survivors and their families, i24 News, February 20, 2019
Another Fight Over Holocaust Memory Threatens Warming Ties Between Israel and Poland, JTA, February 18, 2019
If Not Now, When?, Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2019
In Warsaw, Pompeo urges Poland to pass Holocaust restitution law, Times of Israel, February 14, 2019
Lily Widner, 97, survived the Holocaust and much more. Why does Poland say she’s dead?, JTA, January 25, 2019
The Hunt for the Nazi Loot Still Sitting on Library Shelves, The New York Times, January 14, 2019
Jewish cemeteries desecrated in Poland, JTA, November 21, 2018
In Poland, ‘a Narrow Window to Do Justice’ for Those Robbed by Nazis, The New York Times, June 10, 2018
Transcript- Israeli President in Birkenau: we do not expect justice In Europe, The Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2018
US Senators appeal to Poland over property restitution bill, The New York Times, March 27, 2018
In Poland, adding insult to injury, Jewish Week, October 25, 2017
Why Holocaust survivors still need help in the fight for justice, NewsWeek, January 4, 2017
Holocaust survivors who lost property in Warsaw have 6 months to reclaim it, NPR, December 10, 2016
WJRO helps Holocaust survivors reclaim lost Warsaw property, December 6, 2016
Polish court limits World War II-era restitution claims in Warsaw, The New York Times, July 27, 2016