Nationalist Poles protest restitution of Jewish property
Warsaw – Hundreds of far-right supporters marched in Warsaw on Saturday to protest a U.S. law on the restitution of Jewish property seized during or after World War Two, an issue that has increasingly featured in campaigns for upcoming Polish elections.
Shouting “No to claims!” and “This is Poland, not Polin,” using the Hebrew word for Poland, demonstrators marched from the prime minister’s office to the U.S. Embassy in central Warsaw.
Rafal Pankowski, a sociologist who heads the anti-extremist group Never Again, called the march “probably the biggest openly anti-Jewish street demonstration in Europe in recent years.”
One couple at the protest wore matching T-shirts reading “Death to the enemies of the fatherland,” while another man wore a shirt that read: “I will not apologize for Jedwabne” — a 1941 massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors under the German occupation.
The protest took place amid a dramatic rise in antisemitic hate speech in public life in Poland and it appeared to be one of the largest anti-Jewish street demonstrations in recent times. It also comes as far-right groups are gaining in popularity, pressuring the conservative government to move further to the right.
Protesters said the United States has no right to interfere in Polish affairs and that the U.S. government is putting “Jewish interests” over the interests of Poland.
Poland was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities before over 3 million of the country’s 3.2 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Former property owners and their descendants have been campaigning since the fall of communism in 1989 to be compensated for lost property, which was seized by Poland’s authoritarian rulers but successive Polish administrations have lacked the money or determination to resolve the issue.
The nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government has said that as a victim in World War II, Poland should not be saddled with any financial obligations.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki repeated that message at an election rally in the northern town of Mlawa on Saturday, state-run news agency PAP reported.
“We will not allow any damages to be paid to anyone because it is us who should get damages,” PAP quoted him as saying.
Poland will hold European parliament elections on May 26. Elections for its own parliament will take place in the autumn.
The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, or Act 447, requires the U.S. State Department to provide a report to Congress on the progress of dozens of countries that signed the 2009 Terezin Declaration on the restitution of assets seized during or following World War II.
The declaration also includes provisions to ensure formerly Jewish-owned property with no living heirs are given to Holocaust survivors in need of financial help or go to support education on the subject.
“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,” said Adam Jureczek, a driver from the south-western region of Silesia.
Polish far-right supporters have said that the law could result in Jewish organizations demanding as much as $300 billion in compensation, which would ruin Poland’s economy.
Many Poles to this day have a feeling that their suffering has not been adequately acknowledged by the world, while that of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust has, creating what has often been called a “competition of victimhood.”
Those protesting say it is not fair to ask Poland to compensate Jewish victims when Poland has never received adequate compensation from Germany.
Many of the properties of both Jews and non-Jews were destroyed during the war or were looted and later nationalized by the communist regime that followed.
“Why should we have to pay money today when nobody gives us anything?” said 22-year-old Kamil Wencwel. “Americans only think about Jewish and not Polish interests.”
Among those far-right politicians who led the march were Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun, who have joined forces in a far-right coalition standing in the elections to the European Parliament later this month. Stopping Jewish restitution claims has been one of their key priorities, along with fighting what they call pro-LGBT “propaganda.” The movement is polling well with young Polish men.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki echoed the feelings of the protesters at a campaign rally Saturday, saying that it is Poles who deserve compensation.
But Jewish organizations, particularly the World Jewish Restitution Organization, have been seeking compensation for Holocaust survivors and their families, considering compensation a matter of justice for a population that was subjected to genocide.
Poland is the only European Union country that hasn’t passed laws regulating the compensation of looted or national property, and the head of the WJRO, Gideon Taylor, noted Saturday that such property “continues to benefit the Polish economy.”
With pressure building on this issue, the U.S. State Department’s new envoy on antisemitism, Elan Carr, was in Warsaw this past week, telling leaders and media that the U.S. is only urging Poland to fulfill a nonbinding commitment it made in 2009 to act on the issue. He also said the U.S. recognizes that Poland was a victim of the war and is not dictating how Warsaw regulates compensation.
The PiS party, which has been ahead in most polls for the European elections, has succeeded in building a broad coalition of conservative-minded voters, but critics have accused it of turning a blind eye to far-right extremism.
Prior to Saturday’s march, two anti-fascist activists wrote to Warsaw’s local government warning of possible antisemitic hate speech at the protest, daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported.