STOCKHOLM, Sweden — My childhood was full of magical, well-known tales about characters like Tevye the Milkman, as well as tales of love and joy and everyday life in the shtetls of Poland, told with warmth and wit by my grandparents.
There were Moyshe and Sorale and Feygele from the shtetl of Zamosc; people I never met but who were brought to life through my grandparents’ stories. Some of them became my childhood heroes.
As a little boy yet unaware of Auschwitz, I wondered about my grandmother’s sadness: Even when telling funny stories, she seemed to laugh with one eye and cry with the other. I don’t remember when I found out that all the characters, so alive in these vivid stories, were murdered in Auschwitz.
Properties seized by the Nazis and nationalized by the Polish Communist government after World War II is their only legacy.
In recent years I have had several opportunities to visit former Polish shtetls, including the town of Zamosc, where my grandmother’s family lived before the Holocaust. These villages are places where Jewish memory has been turned into history.
On a one-lane street leading to a small house on Ulica Gesia in Zamosc, I found the house where the Zalcman family once lived. It was from this house that my relatives Moshe, Henale and Avrum Zalcman were deported to the death camp of Belzec, just a few dozen kilometers away, in July 1942.
There are no Jews in Zamosc today. No sign of a once-thriving Jewish life is present. The only memories left of Tevye the Milkman, Feter Moyshe and my own family’s legacy — as well as thousands of other Jews — are the seized and nationalized properties.
It is estimated that there are more than 170,000 private properties held in Poland that were wrongfully seized from Jewish victims of the Holocaust and communist terror. The properties have an estimated value of billions of dollars, according to a comprehensive report drawn up by experts from the business sector, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations at the request of the Israeli government.
More than 60 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of the extermination camps, no viable solution has been found to resolve the critical issue of restitution.
Poland was among the main victims of Nazi Germany: Six million of its citizens — half of them Jews — were murdered by the Germans. Since regaining its independence in 1989, joining NATO and entering the European Union, Poland has established itself as a model for free and democratic states in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. The free Polish Republic has also established exceptionally close and constructive diplomatic relations with Israel and the United States.
Poland’s reputation as a force for moral good would be made greater by reaching a just settlement, acceptable to all parties, on the issue of restitution of private property seized from Polish Jews. As stressed by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski at the Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in June 2009, every post-1989 government of independent Poland has discussed the issue of property restitution, but lacked the determination or political will to finalize and pass these legislative efforts.
Shockingly, Poland’s state treasury announced recently that it has suspended work on property restitution legislation. Whereas most Central and Eastern European countries have adopted legislation to provide for the restitution of or compensation for confiscated property, Poland still stands out for its failure and lack of political will to do so.
According to last week’s announcement, Poland won’t move forward on legislation for “financial reasons.” This is an absurd argument given that Poland has experienced one of the strongest economic growths within the European Union during the past years.
The Polish government must revise its immoral and illegal decision and pass comprehensive legislation providing for the complete restitution of assets stolen by the Nazis and the Communist government. The advanced age of remaining Holocaust survivors makes the matter all the more urgent and the need to act all the more pressing.
The international standards are clear. The overriding principle that emerged in the immediate postwar period in Western Europe and was enacted in Allied decrees and legislation that has continued to this day (see the German Property Law 1990) is that property that was taken from Jewish owners and their heirs must be returned, with interest, to their former Jewish owners. A wrong was committed; the wrong must be remedied.
The European Convention of Human Rights (1953), which the Republic of Poland has ratified, states in Article 1, “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” The convention makes it absolutely clear that “no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”
These principles were reinforced in the Terezin Declaration of June 2009, ratified by 46 countries including Poland, which established clear guidelines for the restitution of private and communal assets forcibly seized during the Holocaust. The declaration stresses the utmost importance of resolving ”private property claims of Holocaust victims concerning immovable property of former owners, heirs or successors, by either in rem restitution or compensation, as may be appropriate, in a fair, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory manner consistent with relevant national law and regulations, as well as international agreements.”
The remaining ghosts of the past must be fought and old offenses must be compensated. It is high time that Poland honors the memory of those who were murdered during the Nazi tyranny, and brings justice to the survivors and their heirs by rectifying the wrongful expropriations of property by the Nazi and Communist regimes.
By intensifying our efforts to return the confiscated properties to their rightful owners and by honoring the memory of the past, we safeguard the fundamental principles of tolerance, freedom and democracy — and help ensure that no child in the future will have to learn his childhood heroes were annihilated.
(Daniel Schatz is a doctoral candidate in political science and a member of the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps. He is a visiting fellow this spring at Stanford University.)