74 years after the Holocaust, many Jewish survivors or their descendants are still trying to reclaim or receive compensation for stolen property. In Poland that campaign was stepped-up after the fall of communism in 1989, including assets that were seized by authoritarian rulers of the East European country.
Successive leaders are viewed as lacking either the resolve or the funds to resolve the issue – which is now increasingly featuring in campaigns for upcoming Polish elections. The current nationalist “Law and Justice” government claims that ‘as a victim in World War Two, Poland should not be saddled with any financial obligations.’ Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently repeated that message at an election rally in the northern town of Mlawa.
Hundreds of far-right protesters gathered in Warsaw on May 11th, to demonstrate against the U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act 447, that requires the State Department to report to Congress on the progress of dozens of countries that signed a declaration in 2009 on the restitution of assets seized during or following World War II. Polish opponents of the law argue it could result in Jewish organizations demanding as much as $300 billion in compensation. Many in the crowd carried placards with slogans including “Holocaust hyenas” and “Poland has no obligations” during the march from the prime minister’s office to the U.S. embassy in central Warsaw. Konfederacja Party Leader Grzegorz Braun said “It’s not about the money, it’s about the hostile takeover of Polish statehood. Please do not have any doubts about it.” Protester Adam Jureczek asserted “There is no such law in the world that would sanction (restitution of heirless property) and the Americans want to force us to pay those damages which are simply illegitimate.”
Poland was home to one of the world’s biggest Jewish communities before it was almost entirely wiped out by Nazi German-occupiers, who set up death camps such as Auschwitz on Polish soil. Several of those at the rally repeated age-old anti-Semitic tropes. After describing himself as an old man with a lot of experience, Jan Kulczycki said “and I know that if we give the little finger to the Jews, in a moment they will take the whole arm.” Th crowd was also heard chanting “”This is Poland, not “Polin” – which is the country’s name in Hebrew.
There has been a growing diplomatic dispute between Warsaw and Jerusalem over allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, which Morawiecki completely denies. That friction was exacerbated this week by the last-minute cancelation of a slated visit by an Israeli delegation to Warsaw, and an attack on Poland’s envoy to Israel on Tuesday.
Ambassador Marek Magierowski filed a police complaint after he said he had been physically and verbally assaulted outside his embassy in Tel Aviv. According to a statement from Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, the assailant opened the door of Magierowski’s car and spat at him.
The envoy took photos of the assailant and his vehicle, and 65-year-old Erik Lederman was arrested 90 minutes later. The suspect told investigators his family survived the Holocaust, and he’d become upset after a Polish embassy employee used an anti-Semitic slur and turned him away when he asked about filing a restitution claim.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon commented that Israel expressed its full sympathy with the Polish ambassador as well as shock at the attack, and that Jerusalem considers its commitment to ensuring the safety and security of the diplomatic community “a top priority.” Magierowski denied that any embassy staff used inappropriate behavior or language, and Warsaw responded by calling Israel’s ambassador Anna Azari to its own foreign ministry to clarify the incident.
Lederman later offered what he called a “sincere apology for what happened,” and said he did not realize the target of his action was the Polish ambassador. He was indicted by the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for assault and criminal threats, and faces up to five years in prison if convicted.