US law supports giving property to Jewish WWII victims

Stanisław Rozpędzik

A controversial bill could see thousands of Jewish groups and individuals claiming financial compensation from Poland for loss of property during WWII.The S 447 bill passed by the US Congress on Tuesday April 24 will oblige the US State Department to produce regular reports on “the return of or restitution for wrongfully seized or transferred Holocaust-era assets.”

Known as the JUST Act (Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act of 2017) it was passed by a handful of congressman in a sparsely attended chamber by a ‘voice vote’ in which the volume of voices for or against the motion carries the vote. 

Now the law just needs to be signed by US president Donald Trump, which is considered by observers to be little more than a formality.

The bill applies to countries which signed up to the 2009 Terezin Declaration, including Poland, and commits them to ‘enact transparent, simple and expeditious restitution systems to be conducted in a nondiscriminatory manner.’

Opponents of the JUST Act believe it is intended to put pressure on certain countries, chiefly Poland, to provide restitution to Holocaust victims and their heirs. Central to their objections is article 3, which states that, “in the case of heirless property, the provision of property or compensation to assist needy Holocaust survivors, to support Holocaust education, and for other purposes.” This, they believe, paves the way for Jewish groups to file group claims against Poland which could cost the state an estimated USD 65 billion, or around half the country’s GDP.

But such fears are unfounded, according to many commentators, among them Radosław Wiśniewski a lawyer with the Real Estate, Reprivatisation and Private Client practice at Wardyński & Partners. “Such interpretations are based on a complete lack of understanding of the issues related to the Terezin Declaration and a failure to gain even a basic familiarity with the provisions of the proposed JUST Act,” he wrote in a legal commentary in February. “However, there is no doubt that if the bill becomes law Poland’s reprivatisation issues related to the goals of the Terezin Declaration will fall under close scrutiny of the US Department of State. Unfortunately, Poland’s implementation of its international obligations stemming from its signing of the 2009 Terezin Declaration is far from satisfactory.”    

 And the Terezin Declaration is the crux of the matter. Signed by representatives of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform-Polish People’s Party government in 2009, the declaration is, in Wiśniewski’s words, “general and rather abstract in nature, allowing signatory countries to individually develop the legal instruments to fulfil their obligations.”

According to US affairs expert and journalist Wiktor Młynarz. Commenting on the elements of the declaration that relate to ‘heirless’ property, Młynarz told the Niezalezna.pl website: “The provisions of the Terezin Declaration are very unclear in this aspect, so it is not a fear entirely without basis. But, again, the declaration itself is at fault, not S. 447. Responsibility for all conflicts between Poland and Jewish organisations that might arise from these provisions therefore fall on the government of Donald Tusk and not on the US Congress.”

Indeed, according to a 2015 article for the wPolityce.pl website, journalist Marzena Nykiel cited a US embassy report as claiming that the Tusk government planned to sell off Polish forests and state-owned real estate in order to meet its Jewish restitution commitments.

But whatever the shortcomings of the Terezin Declaration, the JUST Act does not seek to enforce it, merely to report on the progress made by its signatory countries. This obligation initially fell on a specially created body, the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI). However, having provided several country reports and a final report in 2017, the institute was wound up. It was following the dissolution of the ESLI that Jewish groups in the US proposed that the monitoring obligation be overtaken by the US State Department, hence the coming into being of S. 447. According to wPolityce.pl, The State department was chosen because it had already monitored restitution in Central and Eastern Europe for over a decade, the new bill merely added a legal obligation to the reporting.

And yet S 447 continues to be perceived as a threat, not because it has any legal powers to enforce restitution payments by Poland or any other country, but because the reports it ordains might be used to put pressure on Poland by lobbying groups.

Spearheading the campaign to stop the bill was the Polish American Congress (PAC) US-Polish diaspora organization. “Poland is the principal target of the JUST ACT OF 2017, because the largest portion of private property formerly owned by Jews (which amounts to 20% of the total of despoiled and nationalized private property), and now claimed by Jewish individuals and organizations, is located in today’s Poland. This private property on conquered Polish territory, called World War II era private property, was first despoiled by Nazi Germany and then nationalized by the communists. Compensation payments to redress these crimes against private property should be sent to Berlin and Moscow, not Warsaw,” PAC Director of Policy Planning John Czop wrote earlier in the year. 

PAC and other groups opposing the JUST Act consider it a distortion of history. In one YouTube video, the former president of PAC of Southern California, Richard Widerynski, appeals to viewers to “stop blaming the victim,” emphasizing Poland WWII losses, both human and material.

A similar line was taken by Polish presidential aide Krzysztof Łapiński. "We didn't gain anything from the Second World War and it needs to be pointed out that Poland shouldn't be made to pay twice for the destruction that took place during the Second World War," he told a radio broadcaster on April 25, going on to argue for a diplomatic offensive and that, "we need to constantly remind our partners that Poland was a victim of Hitler's Germany, that Poland bore huge material, economic and human losses."

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, meanwhile, downplayed the importance of the bill. "I would not attach too much weight to this bill," the he told a private TV station. "It seems to us that, above all, we should take care to settle these issues fairly, so as not to privilege any group (…). I think that in the form in which it is presented by commentators, that Jewish groups might gain some property, while others (Poles) might not - this would be against the standards applicable in Poland and the standards of justice and law." He was, however, critical of the bill’s potential for divisiveness: "The bill is not good because it wants to put a group of Poles of Jewish heritage, which left the country, before the rest of Poles (living in Poland)," he commented.

The stopacthr1226.org website, set up to oppose the Just Act, was more forceful in its condemnation: “Act S. 447 is based on the Terezin Declaration, a legally non-binding document that openly discriminates against non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, in particular, it discriminates against the ethnic Polish Holocaust Survivors,” the website wrote.

“Today, the rules were ‘suspended’ by Paul Ryan along with fair play, transparency, and decency, and perhaps a little more than three Congressional representatives passed a supposedly ‘non-controversial’ Senate bill, that is to the contrary HIGHLY controversial!  This was indeed a disgrace and an offence to Polish Americans.”