Poland Cancels Israeli Visit Amid Property Restitution Dispute

(Bloomberg) -- Poland abruptly canceled a visit by Israeli officials amid concern that talks would focus on the unsettled issue of Jewish property restitution.

The escalation comes amid thorny relations between Poland and Israel about historic issues, mainly the role that Poles played during the Holocaust. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki scrapped a trip to Jerusalem in February after his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said the Polish nation cooperated with German Nazi occupiers during World War II.

The latest cancellation comes on the heels of a weekend march by thousands of Polish nationalists who demanded Poland pay no compensation to Jews or anyone else whose properties were confiscated by the Nazis and later by the Communists. Poland is the only ex-communist nation without comprehensive legislation addressing property claims.

“Poland decided to cancel the visit of Israeli officials after the Israeli side made last-minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday.

Avi Cohen-Scali, the director general of the Israeli Social Equality Ministry, was supposed to head the Israeli delegation, it said. Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

‘Not Polin’

Poland’s ruling Law & Justice Party ignited outrage last year with a law criminalizing any suggestion that the country was responsible for the mass murder of Jews during World War II. The legislation -- which was eventually watered-down -- had angered Israel, which saw it as an “attempt to challenge the historical truth” and muzzle elderly Jews who survived the Shoah from sharing their stories.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization has repeatedly called on Poland to address property claims by U.S.-citizen Holocaust survivors and their families. U.S. Congress obliged the State Department last year to monitor progress in restitution laws.

After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Poland to move forward with property restitution laws in February, the issue became a lightning rod for far-right groups, who are campaigning ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections.

To prevent the radical right from wooing away the ruling party’s conservative electorate, Morawiecki vowed on Saturday that Poland will reject compensation demands as its citizens were victims of atrocities from German occupants and “cannot bear any responsibility.”

At Saturday’s nationalist march, activist Robert Bakiewicz said that about $300 billion worth of real estate, whose owners died in the war, may be at stake. Protesters gathered in the Polish capital, a city razed to the ground by the Nazis during World War II, chanting “No to claims!” and “This is Poland, not Polin!” in reference to the Hebrew word for the country.

Case Closed?

Poland is keen to avoid a battle over restitution with Washington as it seeks to boost the U.S. military presence on its soil as a deterrent against potential threats from Russia. The government has said that potential claims are void after the country’s communist authorities paid the U.S. $40 million to provide indemnity to claims by U.S. citizens for property seized in Poland.

“The 1960 treaty addressed only people who were citizens of the United States at the time of the taking of their property by Poland, therefore, it did not cover most American Holocaust survivors from Poland,” said Lisa Sherman-Cohen from the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “Nor would that agreement have affected claims from Polish Holocaust survivors or their families who live today in Israel or other countries.”

Warsaw is among more than 40 cities that signed the 2009 Terezin declaration that urged efforts to address claims of Holocaust victims and their heirs, or use property whose past owners can’t be established to fund education about the Shoah.

While U.S. legislation doesn’t oblige Poland to do anything regarding the property lost in the Holocaust, all countries that signed Terezin declaration undertook to give victims a vehicle to address restitution, Elen Carr, a special U.S. envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism told reporters in Warsaw last week.

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