September 22, 2021
Current Issues Restitutions/Reparations

Polish Restitution Law – A Letter to Senator James Lankford

 

The Honorable James Lankford                                                                                                       July 22, 2021

United States Senate

316 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

RE: Polish Restitution Law

 

Dear Senator Lankford,

I am writing in response to your 19 July letter to the President of the Republic of Poland in which you and your colleagues ask President Duda to advocate the withdrawal of a bill (druki nr 1090 I 1210) or veto it if passed. Unfortunately, you fail to consider the facts. As you’ll see below, Polish Ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, presents the requisite facts and context that validate the need for the bill. Ambassador Magierowski stated the following in a series of instructive Tweets:

“Imagine a house in Warsaw. Burnt out and abandoned in 1945. Before the German occupation six families had lived in this place. One of them was Jewish. Some tenants perished, some were deported to concentration camps, some others fled the persecution.

Shortly after the war the house was nationalized by communists. Two new families moved in. Then three more. Some of them had lost their own property in eastern Poland, now part of the Soviet Union. And never received compensation.

Births, weddings, funerals. Precarious lives under communist dictatorship. Generation after generation.

Then comes freedom. In 1990 local authorities offer the remaining occupants a deal: you can purchase your flats, at a reasonable price. Most eagerly agree. New sewage system is installed. Roof mended, windows replaced, furniture updated.

Then comes a surprise. In 2005 a law firm representing prewar proprietors suddenly pops up. They demand for the premises to be vacated and returned to the legitimate owners.

Lots of similar claims – predominantly in Warsaw. Some of them straightforward and transparent. But many others dubious, to say the least. Some ownership certificates are missing, some documents are forged. Fertile ground for egregious real estate scams.

The so-called “wild reprivatization” leads to utter chaos. Mafia-like entities control large part of the real estate market. Organized white-collar crime thrives.

After 45 years of communist rule, and more than 30 years since democratic transition, people who had never had anything to do with the war and the Holocaust, now face eviction from the properties they had legally acquired and invested in.

They live in fear and insecurity. Hundreds of pending cases and hundreds of families who do not know whether the apartment or the house they live in is actually theirs.

In 2015 the Polish Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling which basically put an end to these predatory practices. Now it is being implemented in the Polish Code of Administrative Procedure. A 30-year, non-discriminatory statute of limitations has been imposed… the longest possible according to Polish legal system. The administrative procedures will be terminated. Nevertheless, all interested parties will still be entitled to file civil suits and obtain compensation, in a fair procedure before the court of law.”

 

As Ambassador Magierowski’s explanation above confirms, this bill is clearly necessary.

 

In your letter to President Duda, you also claim the bill would “increase existing hurdles” for Jews who pursue claims for property taken by Germany or the Communist-era government. This is incorrect. The last sentence in Ambassador Magierowski’s Tweet confirms that Jewish survivors can continue to file civil suits through the courts, which has always been the case.

 

You also state that the bill will “tell” Jewish survivors that there is a time limit on filing claims. This is correct. The last segment of Ambassador Magierowski’s Tweet explains that it was mandated by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, is intended to end the predatory practices of “wild reprivatization”, and the 30-year statute of limitations is “the longest possible according to Polish legal system”. Note also that the measure applies equally to all plaintiffs, domestic and foreign. Moreover, the amended provisions only apply to administrative proceedings and will not affect civil proceedings. Curiously, you fail to explain why you believe a 30-year statute of limitations is unreasonable, especially when it only applies to administrative decisions. If you can, please inform me of an instance in which the U.S. allows ownership claims in perpetuity.

 

In the second-to-last paragraph of your letter, you claim that, by advocating against the bill or vetoing it, President Duda will enable “Poland to honor its obligations under the 2009 Terezin Declaration.” Unsurprisingly, you fail to identify these “obligations”. As you’ve been informed many times, the Terezin Declaration is a non-binding declaration, is neither a treaty nor legally binding international agreement, and has no legal power. Despite the fact that in nearly every Western country, including Poland, heirless property reverts to the state, and despite the fact that claims can continue to be submitted through the courts, the Declaration instead wants signatories to create new legislation requiring them to pay Israel and the World Jewish Restitution Organization for heirless Jewish properties. This is nonsense, as neither Israel nor any international organizations are parties to such claims in Poland.

 

In view of the above, you would be naïve to believe that President Duda will accept your request as one that was submitted in good faith and should be taken seriously. You would be further naïve to believe that the Polish people regard the JUST Act, which visibly tries to impose the absurdity of the Terezin Declaration on Poland, as legislation that was enacted in good faith. You are a strong conservative and I support you 100 percent; however, as the son of a Pole who survived the Gross-Rosen, Dachau, Natzweiler Struthof, and Neuengamme concentration camps, I find your disregard of the facts disturbing and disappointing. To avoid signing on to what deceptively appears to be an opportune endeavor, I respectfully request that you make an effort to understand the facts and context beforehand.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Gene Sokolowski, PhD

Polish Media Issues Group

 

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