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Last month, the Czech Republic’s lower house of parliament approved a plan to return billions of dollars worth of communal property confiscated from Jews and Christians by previous communist governments. If the bill passes, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities is set to receive $500,000 a year over 30 years.
The worst restitution record, conference goers said, belongs to Poland.
In 2010, Terezin Declaration signatories approved a set of nonbinding best practices, such as suggesting solutions to the problem of heirless property and making the claims process more transparent and affordable. After initially agreeing to the document, Poland made an abrupt about-face and withdrew its support. To add salt to an already festering diplomatic wound, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in 2011 went on Polish radio to complain of U.S. pressure on restitution issues.
“If the United States would have wanted to help Polish Jews, a good moment for that would have been 1943-44, when the majority of them were still alive,” Sikorski quipped.
At last week’s conference, Poland was the only signatory to the 2009 Terezin Declaration that did not send a delegate.
“It says a lot that they refuse to even engage,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which is responsible for Holocaust restitution from Germany and Austria.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy treasury secretary who served as special representative of the U.S. president and secretary of state for Holocaust issues during the Clinton administration, told JTA that he was disappointed in Poland but insisted the country was not a lost cause.
“When I began going hat in hand to these Eastern European governments in the 1990s, no one would have ever imagined we could have gotten all the agreements that are in place for the return of property,” Eizenstat said. “In Poland, you have a process for the return of religious communal property, and that’s thanks to the pressure of conferences like these.”
A counselor at the Polish Embassy in Prague, Isabella Wollejko-Chwastowicz, told JTA that a compensation law was “so complicated” that it was just taking a long time for the government to review. The explanation contradicts the most recent public Polish government position that Jewish groups simply are demanding too much.