The Sejm passed a property restitution bill proposed by the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek which provided that former owners could recover 50% of the property’s value. The bill — requiring Polish citizenship to be eligible, would have precluded virtually all Jewish claimants – was vetoed by President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
The bill submitted to the Sejm by the government of Prime Minister Marek Belka, entitled “on Compensation for Real Estate and Some Other Property Assets Seized by the State (Form No. 133)” [hereafter “on Compensation for Real Estate”], featured the following: no in rem restitution; Warsaw property was not included; vague whether all property seized from September 1939 covered; compensation of 15% of property’s value, paid in four installments, over undisclosed period; burdensome claims process; and no mention of heirless property.
The bill made no legislative progress during the remainder of the Belka administration, nor during the administration of his successor, Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski reissued “on Compensation for Real Estate,” the same bill which made the rounds under Belka. After receiving a “first reading” in the Sejm in September 2006 – bills typically undergo several readings in parliament, during which amendments are offered – it was sent for further evaluation to a Sejm Special Commission.
An amended version of the bill, containing no major changes, was posted in the spring of 2007. The life of the “on Compensation for Real Estate” bill expired with the October 2007 dissolution of the Sejm and national election resulting in a new government coalition led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
In a meeting in Warsaw in June, with Ambassador Ronald Lauder and the WJRO, Prime Minister Tusk promised to enact compensation for property legislation and subsequently pledged that such legislation would be submitted to and voted on by the Sejm in 2008. In October 2008, the Polish Treasury Ministry posted new draft legislation on its website. The draft legislation was, in almost all significant respects, similar to the previous “on Compensation for Real Estate” bill, except that it did not specify the amount of compensation to be paid but, rather, indicated that the compensation would be determined after all claims had been submitted. The Treasury Ministry submitted the draft to the Council (Cabinet) of Ministers in March 2009.
2009 – 2010:
In September 2009, the Treasury Ministry circulated yet another version of the draft legislation – which resembled the October 2008 bill – to relevant ministries for additional comment. In April 2010, a Congressional letter signed, among others, by the Chairmen of the US Helsinki Commission, urged Prime Minister Tusk, in light of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, to take a leadership role and enact the proposed legislation. In July 2010, at a gathering of representatives of European democracies in Krakow, at which Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Secretary of State, Plenipotentiary of the Polish Prime Minister for International Dialogue, stated that Poland needed to do the right thing regarding the restitution of assets seized during the Holocaust, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the urgent need for property restitution in Poland. And, in a December 2010 meeting at the White House, the issue of property restitution was raised and President Bronislaw Komorowski told President Obama that, if the Sejm passed the compensation for property bill, he would sign it.
The proposed legislation, first posted by the Tusk government on the website of the Treasury Ministry in October 2008, and then re-issued and circulated by Treasury in September 2009, was never submitted to the Sejm.
2011 – Present:
Following general elections in October 2011, and in spite of promises given to President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the new Polish government under Prime Minister Tusk and incoming Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski abruptly announced that there was no longer any interest in introducing, let alone enacting legislation for the restitution of, or compensation for, confiscated private property.
Claiming that 2008-09 proposed legislation was superfluous, various Polish officials made it clear that the government would not move forward with the compensation for confiscated property bill. Instead, the government insisted that claimants wrongfully deprived of property should pursue their remedy in Polish courts, never mind the complexities, expense, and time involved for would-be claimants, many of whom are foreign and elderly.
WJRO Co-Chair Stephen Schwager wrote to Tusk on May 29, 2012, expressing disappointment with the decision and asking for an opening of a dialogue between WJRO and Warsaw to discuss the issue. More than four months later, Schwager received a dismissive response from one of Tusk’s advisors.
Subsequently, the Polish Foreign Ministry refused to take part in the November 2012 Immovable Property Review Conference in Prague, which was attended by over 40 countries.
Over 40 countries endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues during the Prague Conference in July 2009, as well as the follow-up “Guidelines and Best Practices for the Restitution and Compensation of Immovable (Real) Property Confiscated or Otherwise Wrongfully Seized by the Nazis, Fascists and Their Collaborators during the Holocaust (Shoah) Era between 1933 – 1945.” Poland chose to withdraw its support for the Guidelines and Best Practices.
These documents provide specific and detailed guidelines to states on restituting or providing fair compensation for such properties. Thus, for example, the Declaration “[a]cknowledg[ed] the immeasurable damage sustained by individuals … as a result of wrongful property seizures during the Holocaust (Shoah)” and urged governments “to address the private property claims of Holocaust (Shoah) victims concerning immovable (real) property of former owners, heirs, successors, by either in rem restitution or compensation … in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner[.] The process of such restitution or compensation should be expeditious, simple, accessible, transparent, and neither burdensome nor costly to the individual claimant[.]”
In light of the principles affirmed in the Terezin Declaration, it is critical that Poland, a member of the community of democratic nations, develops and enacts legislation that takes account of the following:
- All Jewish-owned and non-Jewish-owned property confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators, beginning in September 1939, and/or subsequently nationalized by the Communist regime should be covered.
Prior legislation provided compensation for property seized during the Holocaust era only to the extent such property was subsequently nationalized during the Communist regime.
- Warsaw property must be included.
The government has indicated, for years, that separate legislation (not yet issued) will address the issue of Warsaw property. The most valuable property in Poland was located in Warsaw and a significant portion of Warsaw property was Jewish-owned.
- In rem restitution should be provided, certainly where the government, at any level, possesses the confiscated property.
The government defends its no restitution position with a distorted “equal treatment” argument. It notes that since not all former owners will be able to recover their confiscated property, it would be unfair to return – and, thus, no one should be able to recover – any seized property. The government turns the notion of “equal treatment,” a principle intended to protect the rights of citizens, on its head, using it as a shield, to defend injustice and its inaction, rather than as a vision to try to do what is right.
- The compensation amount should be fair, specified and paid immediately.
The severely limited compensation which was indicated under the draft legislation, to be paid over a prolonged period of time, is unacceptable, especially since former property owners and the heirs of former owners have had to wait for almost seven decades for any justice. In addition, legislation should specify how much an eligible claimant will receive, otherwise claimants have insufficient information concerning whether to submit a claim or pursue other legal means to recover their seized property.
- A simplified, non-bureaucratic and transparent claims process, providing all claimants easy access to the system, without legal obstacles, at no or low cost should be established.
Especially because prior legislation did not envision the return of any real property, offering only symbolic compensation, the claims process should be made as friendly as possible – including with respect to obtaining relevant documentation and establishing the status of being an heir – for potential claimants, many of whom will be elderly and/or live outside of Poland.
- The issue of heirless, formerly Jewish-owned property must be addressed.
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.
November 4, 2013
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