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Prague — Baroness Ruth Deech, a property expert and member of Britain’s House of Lords, said Poland’s position is infuriating.
“Looking at it from the outside, we read that 60 percent of Poles oppose private restitution and that the Jewish community in Poland today is fearful that pressing for justice will give rise to anti-Semitism,” she told an audience at the Prague conference.
Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, countered that Poles’ aversion toward restitution is economic, not anti-Semitic.
But failing to come to agreement on a restitution bill could be more costly for Poland, restitution advocates note. Jews could press private property claims in court, and the lack of clarity on land ownership in Poland hinders economic development. In Warsaw, for example, one-third of the city’s real estate was in Jewish hands before World War II, according to Eizenstat, who is still involved in restitution negotiations and works as a pro bono consultant to the Claims Conference.
Eizenstat said he hopes economic arguments will convince Polish officials to move ahead with restitution.
“A restitution law would also help Poland deal with the expensive issue of unclear land ownership that already harms its economic interests,“ he said.
Such appeals to the pocketbook are significant, since the West can no longer hold out admission or rejection into the European Union or NATO as an incentive, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a longtime restitution negotiator. Eastern European countries already have won admittance to these international bodies.
If you cannot prove economic self interest, then you need to convince governments to provide restitution by continuing to appeal to the leaders’ moral conscience, Baker suggested.
For his part, Evron continues to press his wife’s case with Poland. But he doesn’t have high hopes.
He bemoaned Poland’s tactic of forcing claimants to spend years and thousands of dollars pressing their cases in Polish courts, where they are frequently asked to produce evidence destroyed during World War II. Even when victory is achieved, like a positive decision recently granted for his wife’s residential building claim, cases are turned over to the Finance Ministry for review, Evron said.
“I asked my lawyer how long the review would take. He answered, could be a year, could be forever,” Evron said. “I have now spent more money on this case than the building is worth and my son asks why bother? My answer: It’s the principle that matters. You take something, you give it back.”