Case highlights need to resolve Holocaust-era restitution in Poland
NEW YORK, July 27 – The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) expressed disappointment with the decision today by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal to affirm the constitutionality of a law passed by the Polish Parliament that limits the rights of claimants to restitution for private property in Warsaw.
Poland is the only country in the European Union that has failed to establish a comprehensive program to address the issue of confiscated Holocaust- or Communist-era private property.
Instead of establishing a comprehensive program, Parliament passed a law on June 25, 2015, to forestall a limited opportunity for former owners to pursue justice under a 1945 decree for Warsaw properties. The law harms rightful former owners and their families:
“We are very disappointed that the court upheld an unjust law that ends the rights of many claimants to their property in Warsaw,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations. “This decision highlights the need for Poland, at long last, to do what all other countries in the former Soviet bloc have done: establish a national program to provide all Jewish and non-Jewish former owners, and their families, the opportunity to claim restitution or compensation for their property confiscated during the Holocaust or by the Communist authorities. As the last survivors get older, now is the time for Poland to act.”
In October 1945, soon after the end of World War II, the Polish Communist authorities issued the Decree on Ownership and Usufruct of Land in Warsaw (the Warsaw Decree, or the Bierut Decree, named after President of the Popular Council Boleslaw Bierut), which transferred ownership of properties within the prewar boundaries of Warsaw to the Warsaw municipality.
The decree allowed former owners of these properties to apply for temporary ownership rights of the property, but the Communist government rejected or failed to review most claims, and thousands of cases remain open today. Additionally, as a result of the December 1988 deadline of the Warsaw Decree, rightful owners of expropriated properties who did not file claims during the Communist period were excluded from filing claims.
Former Polish President Bronisław Komorowski referred the legislation to the Constitutional Tribunal last year, on the basis that it violates the rule of law and right to property.
The Constitutional Tribunal formally agreed to review an amicus curiae brief submitted by WJRO, and invited WJRO to present at the Court’s hearing on July 19. The brief highlighted the legislation’s violation of the rule of law and right to property, and particularly the harm to Holocaust survivors and other former owners, and their families, currently living outside of Poland.
Poland joined 46 other countries in endorsing the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which calls for countries to address private property claims of Holocaust victims “in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner”. Most recently, governments across North America and Europe have urged Poland to pass a law to meet the standards of the Terezin Declaration, including letters from the United States Congress and financial officers, European Parliament, British Parliament and Canadian Government.
“Survivors are running out of time for Poland to meet its obligations to return property,” said Jehuda Evron, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee, a New York-based group of Polish survivors. “We are losing survivors by the day, and we must do everything we can to ensure they spend the last few years of their life in dignity.”
Before World War II, 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, comprising about 30 percent of the city’s population. Ninety percent of Poland’s prewar Jewish population of approximately 3,300,000 people was murdered during the Holocaust.
WJRO is grateful to Stefan Jacyno and Radosław Wiśniewski of Wardyński & Partners for ably representing WJRO on a pro bono basis.
Court materials can be found at the website of the Constitutional Tribunal.