Poland is blocking restitution to Holocaust victims

After Germany was defeated and the Soviet Union occupied eastern Europe, the communists nationalized Jewish-owned property seized by the Nazis.

After communism fell most former Soviet-bloc countries made efforts “to provide restitution and compensation to their pre-war Jewish citizens.”

Poland did not, and now is “on the verge of making recompense even harder” by adopting a law imposing a statute of limitations that would effectively eliminate claims by Holocaust victims and their survivors. Read story here.

The governments of Israel, the U.S., and Britain are harshly critical. Israel said Poland has a “moral debt” to its citizens “whose property was looted” by the Nazis and communists. The U.S. said the law would cause “irreparable harm.” Britain called restitution “unfinished business.”

It’s part and parcel of Polish officialdom’s willful ignorance of the country’s role in the Holocaust. Poland is where Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps were located. Poles participated in the atrocities. But you can’t talk about it in Poland, or you might end up in jail (see story here).

Holocaust survivors and their descendants have often faced uphill battles in trying to retrieve Nazi-looted property. Many of the more publicized cases involve artworks, which are portable and can be very valuable. Some of those looted art pieces have made their way to the U.S., thereby landing restitution claims in American courts.

This law review article discusses the state of U.S. law on the subject. The U.S. is a party to an international treaty on the issue, described in that article, but federal courts have treated it as guidance rather than binding. And,

“Unlike in many European countries, there is no restitution commission or committee that has been established by the US government for evaluating claims to artworks that were lost during the Nazi era. In part, this is due to the federal government’s limited involvement in the operation of museums; the vast majority of US museums are privately owned or are owned by state and municipal authorities. Thus, restitution claims, whether against an individual or a museum, are decided under state law, which at times can vary widely from state to state.”

There is no statute of limitations on Nazi crimes. Their perpetrators are still being hunted and prosecuted, although today very few remain alive. Likewise, there should be no time limit on setting aright the wrongs they committed by making whole, where possible, the victims of their property thefts.

A basic principle of American property law is that legal title to property can’t be obtained by theft or conversion. The victim of the theft remains the owner, and even an innocent purchaser of stolen property can’t claim ownership at the victim’s expense. That makes sense, and should be a universal principle, all the more so with respect to property looted in the course of a genocide.

Poland is a different animal when it comes to the Holocaust. Its record is mixed (see Atlantic article here). It was a large country and Poles were heroes, villains, and victims. Before the war, Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population, and was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. During the war, all Poles suffered, but while some resisted the Nazis, others collaborated with them: Polish railway workers assisted the Nazis with transporting Jews to the camps, and Polish police guarded the ghettoes. Poland, however unwillingly, found itself at the center of the Holocaust, and can’t escape this history.

That’s in the past. What we can say today is that Polish legislation with respect to the Holocaust is trending in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to sweep the dark aspects of its history under the rug, the Polish government should be doing everything it can to mitigate the Nazi past and do right by its victims. In this respect, Poland’s leaders are falling short.

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