The most recent Polish-Israeli diplomatic spat, which centers around Polish legislation limiting the statute of limitations on restitution claims for property confiscated during World War II and subsequently nationalized by the post-war socialist government, is but the latest in a string of contentious and public fracases in what is a very complicated relationship between the two states.
Diplomatic relations have been downgraded, ambassadors have been recalled, and no obvious path forward exists. This all begs the question: how did we get here?
Poland’s property restitution law: Some historical background
Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population numbered around 3.5 million, roughly 10 percent of the total population. Over 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, leaving significant property in the hands of Nazi occupiers, and after the end of the war, state authorities.
Warsaw, a pre-war hub of Poland’s Jewish community, became a defining case study of this situation: in October 1945, the “Bierut Decree” brought all property within Warsaw’s pre-1939 borders under municipal control. Rightful property owners of all identities who survived the war had limited opportunities to claim back their property or even receive compensation.
Across Poland, a vast portion of that property (some 170,000 private dwellings, per one expert study) was nationalized by the post-war socialist government. That same expert study, commissioned by the Israeli government in 2006, estimated that the 1989 value of the privatized property was over €26 billion.
How did we get here?
That the present situation could even arise is because Poland is the only EU member without comprehensive legislation on the books aimed at providing a normative framework for returning property confiscated during the Holocaust to victims.
Along with 46 other countries, Poland signed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues in 2009, which set forth common guidelines for restitution of property lost by Holocaust victims. Yet the document is non-binding and Poland has thus far shown little inclination to implement its guidelines in any legal context; among signatories, only Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina have no “comprehensive private property restitution regime.”
This is a concern for Israel; last June, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid declared it “extremely worrisome and grave” that Poland has generally ignored its Terezin Declaration commitments.
When domestic politics come into play
In 2015, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that there should be a statute of limitations on when claims for stolen property can be made, ostensibly to prevent random and illegal seizures of property.
This was not out of the blue; concerns about collaboration between Warsaw city officials and property developers leading to rapid gentrification and eviction of long-time residents pre-date the 2015 Constitutional Court ruling and, importantly, also existed outside of an exclusively Jewish-Polish context.
In one particularly brutal example from 2011, Jolanta Brzeska, a 64-year-old tenants’ rights activist fighting evictions caused by restitution was found dead in a forest. That her body was found burned raised suspicions about organized crime’s involvement in reprivatization in Warsaw.
Since coming to power in 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has latched on to restitution and the rights of current tenants, elevating the topic to an important place in the country’s national political discussion.
Brzeska herself has been made into something of a martyr by PiS, which seeks to present itself as fighting for the traditional Pole in contrast to the cosmopolitan, supposedly rootless Poles who now live in cities like Warsaw. The government reopened an investigation into her death in 2016, and last February, ahead of the 10-year anniversary of Brzeska’s death, Law and Justice MPs led an effort to pass a resolution in the Sejm in her honor. Just two months ago, PiS city counselors in Warsaw posthumously made her an honorary citizen.
In its coverage of Brzeska commemorations, PiS-friendly media has been quick to draw contrasts between PiS’ support for Brzeska and long-term tenants, and the supposedly anti-Brzeska opposition Civic Platform (PO), running interviews about this with Brzeska’s daughter.
The most recent legislation signed into law by President Duda, PiS claims, does not target restitution claims by any one particular group – it merely tackles the problem of “wild re-privatization” and defends the pensioners and others who face eviction and gentrification without taking ethnicity into account.
This is not an unreasonable concern, particularly in Warsaw, where tenants’ rights groups claim 55,000 people were “impacted” by reprivatization after 1990. An additional 60,000 current residents could face eviction. On the other hand, however, roughly half of the 5,504 claims filed in the past decades throughout all of Poland have never been resolved, and courts’ skepticism about claims is growing. While concerns about “wild re-privatization” may to some extent be valid, they are also most likely overblown.
To other defenders of the law such as Polish Prime Minster Mateusz Morawiecki, Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid’s claim that the legislation is “immoral and antisemitic” is an “aggressive” act that only increases hatred for Poland and Poles in Israel. Morawiecki also declared that Poland “won’t pay for Germany’s crimes,” equating creating a law to deal uniformly with restitution claims with paying for German abuses.
But framing conflict in this manner, or conflating property restitution with the idea that Poland would have to pay “damages” to descendants of Holocaust victims is fairly dishonest. Particularly around the 2020 Polish presidential election, discussions of property restitution in Poland frequently included anti-Semitic dog whistles.
Andrzej Duda, the incumbent PiS-backed candidate, ran against Rafał Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s left-center mayor, and state television openly identified property restitution claims with Jewish aims, asking “Will Trzaskowski fulfill Jewish demands?” Another TVP line claimed that “experts have no doubt [that] the stream of money that currently flows from the state budget into the pockets of Polish families will dry up if Trzaskowski, after his possible victory in the presidential election, will seek to satisfy Jewish demands.” TVP programs on these subjects were accompanied by images ranging from George Soros to a street in Israel to Auschwitz to stacks of cash.
What role for the US?
The debate about the restitution law has opened another chapter in the Biden Administration’s frosty relationship with Poland. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote that the US was “troubled” and “deeply disappointed” by the bill, urging Poland to pass comprehensive legislation on the issue.
Those hoping that US pressure may impact the Polish debate on this subject should not hold their breath. The Trump Administration had few better international friends than PiS-led Poland, but even then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was deemed a “Sales Rep of the Holocaust Industry” by Rafał Ziemkiewicz, a prominent author and right-wing commentator.
Under the JUST Act (signed into law in 2018), the US Department of State is obligated to issue reports to Congress on progress on property restitution legislation. In the long run, sustained US pressure from across the political spectrum could have some effect, but in the short term, it does not seem likely to have much of a dissuading effect.
The debate about Poland’s lack of restitution regime for property nationalized after World War II is not new. However, it has in recent years been instrumentalized and turned into a political weapon for PiS, in which the ruling party can present itself as a defender of everyday Poles victimized by big money developers.
It also has presented the opportunity for not-so-covert anti-Semitism in which being responsive to the concerns of descendants of Holocaust survivors (i.e. pro-Jewish) makes one anti-Polish. And in an ironic twist, pro-Jewish in this context makes one pro-German, due to the Polish nationalist right’s fear that Germany, having purchased innocence in the Holocaust from Israel, leads the international effort to blame Poland for the Holocaust.
Poland and Israel have many shared interests and a history of successful defense cooperation. Poland also remains among Israel’s most vocal supporters in the EU. Although the two have weathered stormy relations in the past, the current trends in this bilateral relationship offer little hope. The question now is whether both parties want to reverse this reality. Given the bitter political divides in both countries, the more important question is likely whether either has the political capital to expend on this issue.
By Nicholas Kulawiak
A Californian born to Irish and Polish parents, Nicholas received his M.A. in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies from Georgetown University, along with a graduate certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. He enjoys hiking, skiing and eating baklava, among other things. He is currently based in Sarajevo.