Polish bill on second world war restitution sparks row with Israel

Poland and Israel are embroiled in an escalating row over Polish legislation that critics say will make it more difficult for Jews to recover property lost during and after the second world war.

Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled in 2015 that time limits should be imposed on the period during which flawed administrative decisions — often the target of restitution claims — can be challenged.

On Thursday evening, Poland’s lower house of parliament approved a bill imposing limits of between 10 and 30 years to some challenges, drawing a furious response from Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid.

Lapid branded the proposed changes a “direct and painful violation of the rights of Holocaust survivors and their descendants”, and said Poland was making a “serious mistake”.

“No law will change history. The new Polish law is a disgrace and will seriously damage relations between the two countries,” he wrote on Twitter. “Israel will stand as a defensive wall protecting the memory of the Holocaust and the honour of Holocaust survivors and their property.”

Poland’s deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski hit back, saying Lapid’s statement should be “unequivocally denounced”, featured “ill will and — most of all — profound lack of knowledge”.

“Poles and Jews alike were victims of German atrocities during [the second world war]. [The] law adopted in the Sejm parliament protects the victims and their heirs from fraud and abuse and implements the Constitutional Tribunal judgment of 2015,” he wrote on Twitter.

Poland’s Jewish community was once the largest in the world, and numbered more than 3m on the eve of the second world war. But it was all but annihilated by the Nazis after Germany invaded and occupied Poland in 1939.

Restitution claims were effectively blocked during the postwar communist era, but since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, families who lost their property have sought restitution or compensation.

However, unlike other countries in central Europe, Poland has not passed a comprehensive law on restitution, despite various attempts to do so, and property claims often take years to resolve.

As well as the angry backlash from Israel, the proposed changes, which still need to be approved by Poland’s Senate and signed off by the president, have also drawn criticism from the US.

Earlier this week, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish newspaper, published an excerpt from a letter sent by Bix Aliu, the US chargé d’affaires in Warsaw, to the Speaker of Poland’s lower house of parliament, in which he expressed “the United States’ deep concern” about the bill.

“If passed, [it] would cause irreparable harm to Poland’s Holocaust survivors and their families,” he wrote.

The US embassy in Warsaw declined to confirm or deny the contents of the letter.

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