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U.S. officials are condemning as “discriminatory” a draft bill by Poland’s parliament that would block Holocaust survivors from reclaiming billions of dollars in private property confiscated by the Nazis and Communists 50 years ago.
The proposed legislation by Poland’s Sejm, or lower house of parliament, would restrict property claims to Polish citizens who have lived in the country for the last five years — effectively barring claims from Jewish and non-Jewish Polish survivors, or their heirs, now living in America or elsewhere.
“It is the clear view of the United States government that the Polish legislature should not discriminate against those who are no longer Polish citizens but who were Polish citizens at the time their property was confiscated,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat told The Jewish Week.
Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues, said the Sejm amendments are “a major retreat” from the legislation drafted by Poland’s cabinet last summer, which included those who were Polish citizens when they lost property and their descendants.
Several congressmen who are members of the Helsinki Commission, an independent, bipartisan U.S. agency charged with monitoring human rights issues abroad, also voiced criticism this week.
In a letter to Polish Ambassador Jerzy Kozminski, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the amendments “arbitrary and discriminatory” and “extremely troubling.”
“This issue matters to hundreds if not thousands of people who fled to the United States and other countries because they faced religious, ethnic or political persecution in Poland,” said the Jan. 10 letter.
“It’s a very disturbing turn of events,” Maureen Walsh, the Helsinki Commission’s general consul, told The Jewish Week.
At issue are nearly half a million parcels of Polish land valued as high as $60 billion, which Polish officials fear could bankrupt the nation were all potential claimants to be compensated. Most non-resident claims would come from Jews.
Stanislaw Krajewski of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland said he believes the fear that Jews would return to own a great deal of real estate played a role in the amendments being approved. He acknowledged that Poland cannot afford to compensate everyone, but said the ideological reason being given by legislators — that “only Poles connected to Poland should be receiving property back” — is “strongly motivated by anti-Semitism.”
The Sejm’s action came quietly late last month in the form of amendments to the government’s relatively more liberal restitution bill proposed last summer.
News of the amendments began circulating publicly last week, prompting concern in Poland and among American and Jewish officials.
Eizenstat said he contacted the Kozminski, who “reaffirmed that the government is fighting for the original legislation.” The Treasury official also raised the issue Monday in Washington with Minister Jerzy Widzyk, chief of the Polish prime minister’s chancellery.
“It is critically important that the Polish government continue to support its original legislation and that it prevail in the Polish parliament,” said Eizenstat.
In Poland, the Sejm amendments were called “anti-Jewish” by Kasper Krasicki, a leader of the Polish Union of Former Property Owners, which is lobbying on behalf of non-Jewish Poles for the return of confiscated property.
According to Krasicki, one of the amendments requires property claimants to be Polish citizens when the law takes effect. Another stipulates that these citizens be living in Poland for at least five years.
“These two amendments are directly hurting the Jewish community,” Krasicki said. “Of course the unanimous vote for these amendments consists of proof of the true intentions of the actual Polish political leaders. They want to exclude totally the former Jewish [property] holders from the benefits of the eventual future bill.”
It remained unclear this week whether the amendments would become law.
“Nobody can predict the outcome,” said Kalman Sultanik, who handles Polish issues for the World Jewish Restitution Organization. But he added, “This is nothing good for us.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called the amendments “entirely unacceptable.”
“Former Polish citizens who were property owners who are now residents in America or Israel, Jewish or non-Jews, should be eligible to receive compensation or restitution of their property,” he said.
Krasicki said he believes the amendments are a “shameful response” by the Sejm to a controversial class-action lawsuit against Poland filed in Brooklyn federal court in June on behalf of 11 Jewish Holocaust survivors by New York attorney Mel Urbach.
“It is clear that this move is expressing once more the persisting anti-Jewish feeling in the Polish official circles,” Krasicki said.
Claiming immunity, the government of Poland on Dec. 22 filed a motion to dismiss the case. A hearing is scheduled for April 18 before Judge Edward Korman.
Urbach’s original lawsuit sparked controversy in Poland by using volatile language to accuse the Polish government of a pattern of ethnic cleansing of Jews after World War II. His amended complaint toned down the accusations, and he is now working cooperatively with the non-Jewish union of former property owners.
Urbach called the amendments “cruel and unrealistic.” He said he would raise the “unfairness” of the Sejm’s draft bill with the European Union, which Urbach said could threaten Poland’s bid for membership.
Eizenstat said he didn’t think the Sejm’s amendments should be viewed as anti-Jewish.
“It is broader than that. This is a legal and humanitarian issue in terms of how Polish citizens should be treated in terms of property confiscated by the Nazis and the Communists,” he said.
Eizenstat also credited the Polish government for dealing with a contentious and politically difficult issue that could potentially cost the cash-strapped country billions of dollars.
“I think that the government was genuinely courageous in tackling this issue directly with no discriminatory legislation,” he said. “I would hope that the parliament would support that courageous and morally just position.”
But some Jewish advocates already had been criticizing the government’s original bill, specifically a proposal to compensate former property owners with 50 percent of the value of property, to be paid with Polish government bonds.
“Fifty percent is not enough,” said Sultanik.
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