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For Poland, a time for justice

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Poland suffered greatly during the Second World War and its aftermath. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it is estimated that the Nazis killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians and at least three million Polish Jews. The systematic destruction of Polish Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators and the looting of virtually all their possessions were integral aspects of the Holocaust. A vibrant center of Jewish life for centuries – the most robust in Europe – was decimated.

The White House visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda is a fitting moment to recall this tragedy and to highlight the importance of restituting Jewish assets looted during the Holocaust and its aftermath.

{mosads}The United States and Poland have a long and deep relationship stemming from the American Revolutionary War and continuing through our NATO partnership today. This friendship is rooted in our shared democratic ideals, including a respect for the rule of law and its ability to ensure justice for victims, and a recognition of the tremendous contributions made by Polish-Americans. It is in this spirit that President Duda’s visit is a critical opportunity for Poland to commit to do what is right.

Poland’s failure to return formerly Jewish-owned property wrongfully taken during the Holocaust and nationalized in the communist era continues to cause a gross injustice. For more than a quarter century, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, democratic Poland has neglected to address this issue.

A decade ago, 47 countries affirmed the Terezin Declaration for Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. The Declaration, which both the United States and Poland endorsed, recognizes “the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations made during the Holocaust era between 1933-45.” 

Poland is the only European Union country that does not have a national restitution or compensation program.

In the past year, with the encouragement of the United States and other countries of good faith, there have been signs that Poland might address this issue. In October 2017, the Polish Ministry of Justice, acknowledging that Poland was “the last state of the former Eastern bloc, which has not carried out reprivatisation,” proposed legislation to provide limited compensation for nationalized property. The draft legislation, however, included troubling and unacceptable provisions. It would have excluded the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their families.

In March 2018, I authored a bipartisan letter signed by 58 of my Senate colleagues expressing concern about Poland’s draft legislation and encouraging Warsaw to quickly pass a restitution law that does not discriminate against Jewish Holocaust survivors. The letter stated that “Members of the U.S. Senate on both sides of the aisle stand united in seeking justice for victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.”

The Polish Ministry of Justice is now reviewing its proposed legislation.

Two months later, in May 2018, President Trump signed The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act into law. The JUST Act, which I introduced with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), along with Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), requires the U.S. State Department to investigate and submit a report to Congress on the extent to which endorsees of the Terezin Declaration are meeting their pledge to adopt national laws and policies to help Holocaust survivors identify and reclaim their properties.

The restoration of property wrongfully taken is not just about the material benefits that would accrue to Holocaust survivors and their families, as important as that would be given the many survivors mired in poverty, including here in the United States. For many Holocaust survivors and their families, such restitution would reconnect them to the proud thousand-year history of Jewish life in Poland. Indeed, restitution might catalyze a dynamic relationship between Poland and its Jewish Diaspora, a large portion of which includes American Jewry.

The time is now for Poland to commit to passing legislation that will bring justice to those whose property was wrongfully taken by Nazis and then nationalized by the communists. Doing so would not only provide a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors and their families, but also strengthen the great bond our two nations share.

Baldwin is the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Tags Chris Smith Donald Trump Marco Rubio Nazi Poland

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