Ms. Livni, Remember the Recovered Territories

There is an historical precedent for a workable solution.

Tags: Poland
Rabbi Eric Hammer


It was a very new nation which was also quite ancient. A short time after re-achieving independence, the nascent state was invaded by several of her neighbors who were determined to carve up her land among themselves. A long and bloody war ensued in which her population was terrorized.

We all know the rest of the history, or at least we think we do – a short time after this war, the country came into possession of additional parts of her ancient homeland, parts which were now home to a significant number of enemy civilians.

As I said, we all know the history. Or at least, we think we know the history because the natural assumption is that the above refers to Israel.

However, the state I am referring to is Poland.

Most people who have even a passing knowledge of history remember that World War II officially broke out when Nazi Germany invaded Poland together with its new ally, the Soviet Union. The two nations had signed a secret non-aggression pact and agreed to carve Poland up between them.

What many people don’t remember however is that this all happened just 21 years after the Republic of Poland was recreated.

Poland had disappeared from the map of Europe for more a century after she was conquered by various empires. It was one of the several nations recreated or created following World War I (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania were the others in Europe).

Even fewer people realize that President Roosevelt himself made a promise to the Polish government in exile that they would be compensated for the German aggression following the war. That compensation came in the form of the ‘Recovered Territories’ in western Poland. This area had been part of the German Republic since its founding and before that had been part of the Prussian Empire.

However, the Recovered Territories had once been Polish lands, lost to various Germanic empires some 6-8 centuries prior to World War II.

The compensation did come at a price though – the Soviet Union retained the eastern half of Poland for itself (today those areas are part of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania) and the Poles there were forced from their homes.

They in turn engaged in forced migration (sometimes called ethnic cleansing though that term generally refers as well to mass murder and not simply a forced migration) of the Germans from the Recovered Territories, forcing some 90% of them (around 3 million people) from their homes.

An additional 4-5 million ethnic Germans fled from their homes in the area together with retreating German forces and were not allowed back once the war was over.

Poles who had been forced out of eastern Poland were told to settle in the now abandoned German homes in the newly ‘Recovered Territories’ of western Poland.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. During Israel’s War of Independence, some 700,000 Arabs fled their homes. In a handful of cases, they were forced out due to exigencies of war, although the majority fled because they feared for their lives when the Jews captured their towns and villages.

As a result of the war, Jews who had lived for centuries in Arab countries were forced from their homes and the nascent Israeli government initially housed these people in abandoned Arab homes.

There are however two very important differences between the two narratives.

First, almost nobody denies today that the Poles engaged in forced migration of the Germans from their newly acquired lands (a handful of far right Poles, while acknowledging what was done, downplay it by saying it was recompense for Nazi atrocities committed during the war). Pick up any guide book on Lower Silesia (a large chunk of the ‘Recovered Territories’) and it’s mentioned as an historical footnote.

Second, unlike the Arabs, who have insisted on Israel giving away all the land she captured in 1967, the Germans have made peace with the fact that they lost land following a war they themselves started and today are one of Poland’s strongest allies.

One must ask however: why was it acceptable for the Poles to engage in forced migration of Germans from the Recovered Territories but it is not acceptable for Israel to use empty, state owned land for Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria?

One possible explanation is that there are religious differences. The Islamic religion considers it an affront for land that was once ruled by Islam to be ruled by anyone other than Muslims. Thus Israel is more than just an affront to Arab nationalism. It is an affront to the religious beliefs of every Muslim.

Another possible explanation is the question of defeat. Following World War II, Germany was a thoroughly defeated country. Historic photographs of Breslau (the largest city in the Recovered Territories, now the beautifully rebuilt Polish city of Wroclaw in Lower Silesia) show bombed out buildings for kilometers in all directions.  Nearby Dresden was reduced to rubble following the firebombing of that city. Even Berlin sustained extremely heavy damage, so much so that cleanup crews worked for several years to pick up all the rubble from the city streets.

By comparison, following the Six Day War, Israel immediately handed the keys to the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf and allowed the Palestinian Arabs of Judea, Samaria and Gaza to travel freely into and out of Israel proper (restrictions on travel were imposed only after the breakout of the first intifada in 1987).

Of course, all this is nothing but theory about historical events. The fact remains that whatever the reason, today, Israel is faced with a large Palestinian Arab population in Judea and Samaria which she does not want to rule over - and a significant number of Israelis who have made the area their home.

Negotiations are currently taking place in Washington DC between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to hammer out a final status agreement which will end the conflict between us once and for all.

The Palestinian Arabs are likely to make demands of Israel that the refugees of 1948 and their descendants be allowed to resettle in Israel itself. In addition, demands will be made for Israel to give up 100% of the land she captured in 1967, perhaps with some minor land swaps.

Our Justice Minister would do well to remember the Polish/German example.

While I do not advocate the forced migration of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria as occurred in Western Poland following World War II, I would suggest to Ms. Livni and our Prime Minister to remind Mr. Abbas that Germany has never demanded compensation for losing the Recovered Territories, nor has she demanded the return of the refugees from those lands to their former homes.  

The author wishes to extend his gratitude to Jan and Maciej Kirschenbaum, who graciously helped him with his research on the Recovered Territories.