Interview: Poland Pressed On Restitution Of Jewish Assets

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European Jewish Congress head raises issue with President Call for “reasonable compromise” over Jewish Assets

The head of the European Jewish Congress urged Poland on Tuesday to tackle the restitution of assets to relatives of Polish Jews killed in World War Two.

After 20 years of democracy, Poland is still struggling to regulate ownership of properties seized from Polish citizens, including Jews, by the Nazis and later by the communists.

Poland was home to some 3.5 million Jews before the war, believed to represent about third of the world’s entire Jewish population at the time. The vast majority perished in the Holocaust, at the hands of the occupying German forces.

“We need a very systematic approach (to restitution)… it is a very complicated and multi-dimensional process,” said Moshe Kantor, whose Paris-based organization represents Jewish communities across Europe, totaling some 2.5 million people.

In settling cases, Poland should be guided by the values and principals enriched in European Union laws and conventions to which it is signatory, he said.

“We expect some reasonable compromise…. respect for private ownership is one of the basic principals of our civilization,” said Kantor, who is Russian-born and now lives in Geneva.

He declined to comment on the scale of cases involving descendants of Polish Jews, only noted that the large Jewish population of pre-war Poland.

Successive Polish governments and courts since 1989 have handled restitution cases, including of non-Jewish citizens, on an ad hoc basis, producing a complex and often contradictory tangle of rules and regulations.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centre-right government is expected soon to discuss a bill on partial compensation for former owners of property confiscated by the communist regime which took power after World War Two.

Kantor said he raised the restitution issue in talks with Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Tuesday and hoped to resume the discussions at a planned meeting later in the year.

Antisemitism

Today, Poland’s Jews are believed to number just 20,000 but growing numbers if Jews from Israel, the United States and Western Europe visit the country to trace their family roots.

Kantor expressed alarm about what he called rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Far right parties won seats in last month’s European Parliament elections in countries from Britain to Hungary although not in Poland.

“Politicians want to forget the lessons of history,” Kantor said, drawing parallels with the 1930s when the global economy was, as now, in deep recession.

In some ways, the situation is even more dangerous today because Iran, whose president denies the reality of the Holocaust, is close to acquiring nuclear weapons, he said.

Iran insists its atomic program is for entirely peaceful purposes and denies it wants to build nuclear weapons.

NATO member Poland has agreed to host element of a US missile shield system aimed at protecting the United States and its allies from possible attack by Oran.

“We need full solidarity of big and small counties (in confronting Iran),“ Kantor said. “I want equal security; we must also show equal solidarity.”