UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has just announced he’ll push Poland to settle outstanding property claims of Holocaust survivors. He does so in a letter to Baroness Deech, who wrote on behalf of a number of British Parliamentarians to request his support during UK’s chairmanship of the International Holocaust Alliance.
I’m not surprised by Baroness Deech’s initiative. I grew up in the same Jewish community as her, and know she has strong views about this and related subjects, including based on her personal experiences of visiting Poland. I’m sure her views are nuanced: I once read a very moving article about how she retrieved silver cutlery of her grandparents – who perished in the Holocaust – that had been rescued and kept for an eternity by a Polish centenarian, who wanted to return them to the extended family. He, a non-Jew, risked his life to do this, and clearly Baroness Deech is eternally grateful. But, generally, her views are different to mine in that – as those who have read Polska Dotty will appreciate, I have a different perspective on Polish anti-Semitism. I judge it more from my experiences living in contemporary Poland and dealing with Poles – indeed, being married to a Pole. There’s no right or wrong here, and I’m the last to say there is or was no such thing as Polish anti-Semitism – but there is a difference in emphasis between us.
But where I agree wholeheartedly with Baroness Deech, and have said so before, is on Poland’s apparent reluctance to restore pre-War Jewish – and, by the way, non-Jewish, such as that belonged to the Polish nobility – property ownership. I say “apparent” because, every time I read about initiatives like that of Baroness Deech/William Hague, I see a response from the Polish Government along the lines that restitution laws have been in existence and implemented in Poland for many years.
I’m no expert on such laws, but have to believe, given the chorus of disapproval – including from Poles – that Poland needs to do more. So, for example, President Komorowski has said that “the lack of a bill on restitution is a disgrace for Poland. If such a law is passed, I will not hesitate to sign it.” And the Polish Landowners’ Association is calling for compensation. From what I can gather, there do seem to be laws on the statute book that allow for recovery, but the approach is piecemeal and the process extremely slow. And you know what they say: Slow Justice is No Justice.
What Jewish families like that of Baroness Deech experienced during the Holocaust is, as we know, heartrending. I’ve often reflected that, the moment these things happened – the moment the Nazis enacted a crime of such unimaginable scale – full justice was never going to be. All the culprits would never be caught. And similarly, all the ramifications, such as property disputes, were never going to resolve, as inevitably, life continued in Poland and Poles settled in the vast number of former Jewish homes (3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before the War). No-one sensible would ever expect that. But they might expect a nation, as others in the region have, to make a reasonable effort to restore stolen property.
So, let’s hope this latest move will act as a catalyst, putting back on track reforms halted by Prime Minister Tusk in 2011 due to, in his words, the “global financial crisis”.