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World & Nation

Poland cancels Israeli officials’ visit over Holocaust restitution conflict

Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the U.S. Embassy, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, May 11, 201
Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on Saturday, protesting that the U.S. is putting pressure on Poland, through a U.S. law known as Act 447, to compensate Jews whose families lost property during or after the Holocaust.
(Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press)

Poland abruptly canceled the visit of an official Israeli delegation en route to Warsaw on Monday over concerns that talks would focus on restitution of seized Jewish property.

The diplomatic conflict comes amid an escalating dispute over Poland’s role in the Holocaust and two days after Polish nationalists marched on the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw to demand there be no restitution of Jewish assets seized during or following World War II.

The Polish Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that it had “decided to cancel the visit of Israeli officials after the Israeli side made last minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution.” The delegation, headed by a top official from Israel’s Ministry for Social Equality, had already left for Warsaw.

The decision followed the revelation that the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s unit for property restitution was joining the delegation.

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Restitution for Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, only to see their property confiscated by the postwar Communist government, has become a hot-button issue in Poland, magnified by European Parliament elections later this month, and national elections in November.

Far-right activists claim Jews, backed by the United States, are trying to bankrupt Poland with demands for up to $300 billion in compensation.

Israel’s Netanyahu and his foreign minister enrage Poland with Holocaust finger-pointing; summit collapses »

On Saturday, thousands of nationalist protesters marched from the prime minister’s office to the U.S. Embassy in central Warsaw carrying signs with slogans including “Poland has no obligations” and “Holocaust hyenas.”

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They were demonstrating against the United States’ Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, signed by President Trump last year. The law, also known as Act 447, requires the State Department to report to Congress on the compliance of 47 countries, including Poland, regarding the restitution of Jewish assets.

28th ‘March of the Living’, Oswiecim, Poland - 02 May 2019
Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg participates in the “March of the Living” at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I in Oswiecim, Poland, on May 2.
(Andrezej Grygiel / EPA-EFE/REX)

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, visiting Poland in February, urged the nation “to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.”

Pompeo’s remarks, on the heels of the JUST Act passage, “caused huge concern in Poland,” said Gideon Taylor, who heads the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

“Poland correctly sees these as powerful statements of support by the administration regarding restitution,” Taylor said in an interview with The Times.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a Saturday campaign rally echoed the slogans of nationalist protesters, saying that Poles, who suffered during World War II under Nazi occupation, are those who deserve compensation.

Morawiecki had canceled a trip to Jerusalem in February after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Poles had cooperated with Nazis. A 2018 Polish law criminalizes assertions of collaboration during World War II with sentences of up to three years in jail.

“It is correct that Poland was a victim country,” Taylor said. “The Nazi occupation brought terrible devastation, with mass killing of Jews and non-Jews. But we are talking about buildings taken by the Polish government from survivors.”

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Poland is the only former Soviet member of the European Union that has not passed comprehensive legislation regarding private property confiscated by the Nazis or successive regimes.

The latest conflict between Poland and Israel was sparked by comments made by Israel’s social equality minister, Gila Gamliel. In anticipation of the meeting, she applauded “the Polish government for its steadfastness in the face of anti-Semitic protests.”

Before World War II, Poland was home to more than 3 million Jews, most of whom were killed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

In Poland, there are growing calls for reparations from Germany for the destruction caused during the Nazi era.

In October, President Andrzej Duda told the German newspaper Bild that “the damage caused during the war was never compensated for.”

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.


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