Polish PM adamant: 'Poland will not pay for Nazi crimes'

Unimpressed by Israeli warning following law blocking restitution claims, Poland calls for Israeli FM Lapid to be "condemned."

Y Rabinovitz ,

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki
Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki

Following the passage of a draft bill that is likely to severely limit the ability of Polish Jews and their descendants from reclaiming property lost during the Holocaust, Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has confirmed that his intention is to ensure that “Poland does not pay for Nazi crimes.”

In 2009, Poland was among the signatories of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, a non-binding agreement to address “economic injustice” suffered by victims of the Nazis. While many other countries have passed property restitution laws related to the Holocaust era, Poland has yet to do so, despite criticism from the United States and others. Now, it appears, the country is doubling down on its refusal to accept culpability for the loss of property incurred by the around three million Jews who once resided in Poland, and refuses also to be cowed by international pressure. The draft bill just passed by Poland’s lower house of Parliament (with 309 votes in favor, none against, and 120 abstentions) will limit to 30 years the time period during which it is permissible to challenge administrative decisions regarding lost property, counted from 1989, when Communist rule ended in Poland – and therefore effectively ending any possibility of new claims.

At a press conference on Friday, PM Morawiecki confirmed that this was his intention.

“I can only say that as long as I am the Prime Minister, Poland will not pay for Nazi crimes – not in zlotys, not in euros, and not in dollars,” he said.

He added that Poland has no intention of barring the draft law’s passage to the upper house of Parliament.

Morawiecki’s words were partially a response to a statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who condemned the Polish Parliament’s decision in a sharp-worded attack.

“Poland’s draft law will in effect prevent the restitution of Jewish property or the provision of compensation to Holocaust survivors and their heirs,” Lapid said last week. “This is a horrific injustice and disgrace … an incomprehensible action … a disgrace that will not erase the horrors or the memory of the Holocaust.”

Lapid also warned that, “This immoral law will seriously damage relations between the countries,” and asserted that, “Poland, on whose soil millions of Jews were murdered, knows what is the right thing to do.”

In his remarks, the Polish Prime Minister did not even refer to Lapid by name, but Poland’s deputy Foreign Minister attacked Lapid’s statement directly.

“These remarks indicate ignorance and a fundamental lack of understanding of the facts and of Polish law,” he said. “Poland is in no way responsible for the Holocaust, an atrocity committed by the German occupier also on Polish citizens of Jewish descent. Lapid’s statement should be unequivocally condemned.”

Lapid was not the only voice of protest against the Polish draft legislation. Also responding to the passage of the bill was the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, who said in a statement:

“This law is a slap in the face to what remains of Polish Jewry and survivors of Nazi brutality everywhere. It also sets a terrible precedent throughout Europe as survivors and descendants continue to seek justice.

“I have been an unwavering advocate of Poland in Washington and elsewhere ever since that country rejected the Communist system in favor of democracy. I was inspired by Poland's fight for freedom and its national rebirth even when I disagreed with some of Warsaw's policies. But this flagrant and entirely gratuitous act by the Polish Parliament leaves me questioning my own commitment and the future of U.S.-Polish relations. It pains me to say this, but I think that the time has come for the international Jewish community to reevaluate our relationship with a government that is behaving with unimaginable callousness and is emulating the worst traditions in Polish history rather than the best and most uplifting ones.

“Since moral persuasion clearly has not been effective, perhaps the time has come to treat Poland with the same consideration it accords to Polish Jews and their descendants seeking justice.”

The issue has long been contentious in Poland, a country which is determined to see itself as a victim of rather than complicit with the Nazis. The question of compensation also featured in last year’s presidential campaign, with the liberal contender for the position coming under attack for saying that payment of restitution was “open to discussion.”

“Only someone without a Polish soul, a Polish heart, and a Polish mind could say something like that,” accused Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the current deputy Prime Minister.