WASHINGTON -- The United States is ramping up pressure on Poland in hopes of stopping legislation that would prevent families from receiving restitution for property seized during the Holocaust and communist era.
The U.S. said Wednesday that Poland is the only country in Europe to have regressed over the past year in meeting commitments to return seized property or provide compensation for Holocaust victims and their families. The public admonishment is likely to anger Polish authorities, who have rejected previous criticism on the matter.
The issue is one of several points of friction that have arisen or gotten worse between Washington and Warsaw since the Biden administration has been in office. Others include differences over the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline and a proposed restrictive media law.
The proposed compensation law, which may be enacted in August, has already been denounced by Israel, Jewish groups and the U.S. The new U.S. criticism comes just before the one-year anniversary of the release of a congressionally mandated report tracking European progress in adjudicating Holocaust claims. That report called out several nations but was particularly critical of Poland.
On the eve of the anniversary, Cherrie Daniels, the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, said the Polish legislation “would cause irreparable harm to both Jews and non-Jews by effectively extinguishing claims for restitution and compensation of property taken during the Holocaust that was subsequently nationalized during the communist period.”
If adopted, the law would prevent property ownership and other administrative decisions from being declared void after 30 years, which would mean that pending proceedings involving communist-era property confiscations would be discontinued and dismissed. It affects Polish, Jewish and other property that are subject to contested previous determinations.
Poland says it's a response to fraud and irregularities that have emerged in the restitution process, leading to evictions or giving real estate to property dealers. Authorities insist restitution claims will still be possible through courts, regardless of the claimants' nationality or place of residence.
But those explanations have been rejected by both the U.S. and Israel, which has said adoption of the law would cause grave damage to Polish-Israeli relations.
“We are disappointed that the Polish government and the opposition seems too often to purposely conflate property restitution or compensation with (WWII) reparations," Daniels said. “We would like to see the Polish government, at a minimum, amend the legislation so that claimants with pending claims can continue to pursue them through the existing administrative process.”
Daniels, Israeli officials and others like the World Jewish Restitution Organization and World Jewish Congress have called for Poland to enact a comprehensive law or establish a procedure that deals with the compensation issue, which becomes more urgent with each passing year due to the death of aging Holocaust survivors.
The State Department has identified six countries where significant compensation concerns have still not been addressed, but of those, only Poland has regressed, according to Daniels. The others are Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania.
Before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of some 3.5 million people. Most were killed in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany’s occupation and their property was confiscated. Poland’s postwar communist authorities seized those properties, along with the property of non-Jewish owners in Warsaw and other cities. The end of communism in 1989 opened the door to restitution claims, most of which would be coming from Poles.
Poland is the only European country that has not offered any compensation for private property seized by the state in its recent history. Only the remaining communal Jewish property, like some synagogues, prayer houses and cemeteries, mostly in disrepair, have been returned where possible or compensated for.
The still unresolved matter has been a constant source of bitterness and political tension between Poland and Israel as well as the United States, which has pressed the Poles to address it through successive administrations and called them out publicly for a lack of progress.
The year-old report was mandated by Congress in a law known as the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today, or JUST, Act, which was signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 with the support of many lawmakers from both political parties and Jewish groups.
Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, have made combatting anti-Semitism a priority. Last month, Blinken and his German counterpart signed an agreement to begin a formal U.S.-Germany Holocaust Dialogue to ensure that the lessons of the Nazi era are not forgotten as the number of survivors dwindle.
The matter unexpectedly surfaced again at the State Department this week when a swastika carved into an elevator was discovered on Monday at the agency's main headquarters in Washington. Blinken, the stepson of a Holocaust survivor who was raised in the Jewish tradition, condemned the vandalism and said it was a sign that the fight against anti-Semitism must be "relentless."