Polish Ultra-Nationalists March on U.S. Embassy to Protest Holocaust Restitution

poland holocaust
Far-right demonstrators protest against the US Senate’s 447 bill, as they march in front of the US Embassy in Warsaw, Saturday. (Alik Keplicz/AFP/Getty Images)

Crowds of ultra-nationalist protesters in Poland touting anti-Semitic slogans marched on the U.S. embassy in Warsaw to voice opposition to efforts towards restoring property lost by families during and after the Holocaust.

Marchers shouted, “No to claims!” and “Poland has no obligation!” while others took on a far more openly anti-Jewish tone line, “This is Poland, not Polin” and “Holocaust hyenas.” One attendee was spotted with a shirt that read, “Death to the enemies of the fatherland,” and another “I will not apologize for Jedwabne,” a massacre carried out by Poles that killed upwards of 1600 Jews in 1941.

The protest, which took place this past Shabbos, comes as a new far right coalition in the country has attempted to use restitution as a mobilizing issue in the weeks leading up to EU parliamentary elections and only a few months before Poles will vote for its next parliament.

Warsaw-based Jewish community activist and journalist Konstanty Gerbert told Hamodia that the size of the march, which was attended by several thousand participants, and the harshness of the rhetoric used, reveals several trends he found disturbing.

“Over the past 10 years there has been a general erosion of the psychological and cultural barriers that had made overt expressions of anti-Semitism difficult and now they have become normalized,” he said. “That is not to say that everyone has become an anti-Semite, but what was once beyond the pale has now become acceptable…A related issue is that fringe groups like these have been desperately looking for an issue that will carry them beyond the electoral threshold and restitution is one that mobilizes the fears of a lot of people.”

Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told Hamodia that the rhetoric of the demonstration represents what he sees as a regrettable trend. While no members of the ruling party were involved in the march, he said that the absence of a viable far-right political party in Poland has left many in the ultra-nationalist camp voting for the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), causing many in the country’s leadership to increasingly pander to the extremes, hence opening the door to more extreme rhetoric in the public square.

“The ruling party’s leaders are not anti-Semites, but what we are seeing is an overwhelming unwillingness on their part to criticize anti-Semitism for fear of losing votes from some fringes that support them,” he said. “It’s a common political game that we see more and more and it’s not something unique to Poland, but the result has been that these fringes feel they can get away with much more now and what went on at this demonstration shows that they clearly know that…The fact that these groups are growing stronger and more numerous is not nearly as serious a problem for Jews in Poland as much as the government’s refusal to condemn them.”

The choice of the U.S. embassy as the protest’s venue is rooted in the marcher’s opposition to a bill signed into law last year that mandates detailed reporting by the State Department on whether relevant nations are adopting policies that aid Holocaust survivors and their heirs to identify and reclaim seized property. It builds on the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-Era Assets and Related Issues, signed by 47 countries, recognizing the restitution of Holocaust-era property to its rightful owners as a basic duty of democratic nations.

The recently enacted law, known as the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act was heavily lobbied for by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and was intended to pressure nations into taking a more aggressive role in the return of property taken from Jews and others in the Holocaust and subsequent communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Poland is the only member of the European Union that has not established a national law mandating restitution to Jews and others dispossessed during the Second World War and were not signatories of the Terezin Declaration, but the JUST act requires reporting on their efforts as well.

Gideon Taylor, WJRO’s Chair of Operations, regretted the extent to which the issue of restitution has become politicized in Poland.

“It is very disappointing when restitution is used in this context and when it brings forth such ugly anti-Semitic comments when ultimately this is a simple and fundamental quest for justice that property that was taken from its owners should be returned to them or their heirs. It’s sad to see that caught in the vortex of political issues,” he said.

While the coalition of fringe nationalist parties that organized the march have no significant representation in mainstream Polish politics, members of PiS have also been cold to questions of restitution. A few weeks ago, the nation’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that Poland would not pay compensation, as Poles themselves were “the most murdered victims” of the Nazis. The ruling party has made many full-throated statements condemning anti-Semitism in the past, and some observers have commented that the Prime Minister’s statements bespoke a response to competition from the new far-right coalition.

Rabbi Schudrich said that part of the breakdown over the issue has become increasingly muddled by conflating payments for damages with the return of property.

“Part of the problem is that many Poles are failing to differentiate between reparations and restitution,” he said. “It’s entirely true that Poland was a victim of Nazi occupation and that Poles suffered terribly; no one is asking Poland to pay for crimes committed by Germany. But, restitution is a whole different process. Property that was stolen by the Nazis and then by the communists should be returned to whoever they rightfully belong, be they Jews, Christians, or anybody else.”

This past Monday, the government’s position on the issue continued to play out in the news as it canceled a previously scheduled meeting with Israeli officials, reportedly over the delegation’s having added restitution to the agenda.

Mr. Taylor said that even free of anti-Semitic rhetoric, until the issue of restitution is addressed, it will continue to be a pall over Poland.

“Today Poland is a democratic country but can never be part of the community of democratic nations in good standing if they cannot address their past,” he said. “We hope that wiser heads will prevail, as this is something that is very much in the interests of Poland.”

Marchers claimed that addressing property restitution claims could amount to $300 million. Poland was home to more than three million Jews before the Second World War and countless properties were taken from non-Jews as well during Nazi occupation and during nearly a half century of Communist rule that followed.

Mr. Taylor said that there is no way to evaluate the dollar value of restitution, but that Poland should look to copy other nations that have taken creative approaches to the matter.

“This was an issue in every former communist country and each found different solutions, some issued bonds, some paid over many years; there are ways to deal with the issue that keep it from becoming a huge financial burden, but to say you’re not going to do anything because it costs too much is simply not right,” he said.

Mr. Gerbert said that while presently being used in an incendiary manner, the restitution issue is legitimately complicated by the scale of property that has illegitimately changed hands in Poland since World War Two.

“The problem is that these low lives have a point, but it’s not the one they’re making,” he said. “Poland has much more property to deal with than any other country; a third of what is now Poland was Germany before the war, so how are you supposed to compensate Jews without opening up the claims of millions of Germans? If I were in parliament, I’m not sure myself what type of compensation bill I would feel I could support…Other issues these parties used, like refugees, no longer carry the weight they once did, but there are 1000s of families in Poland that live in property that once belonged to Jews. It’s a bread and butter issue that also can combine moral outrage and some anti-Semitism at the same time.”

As some official statements and the march have garnered greater attention to U.S.’s attitude to the issue of Polish restitution, the State Department’s Envoy on international anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, was reportedly dispatched to Warsaw to discuss the matter with officials there.

The issue of compensation aside, Mr. Gerbert said that the rising trend of public expressions of anti-Semitism was one that was becoming an increasing concern to some Jews living in Poland.

“There is a growing feeling of unease,” he said. “Older people like my generation [that lived in the communist era] feel that it is nasty, but it will go away, but the younger generation is shocked because they never saw it before.”

Despite his concerns over the government’s silence over the march and other manifestations of open anti-Semitism, Rabbi Schudrich said that life in Warsaw’s small Jewish community was continuing at its normal pace.

“We certainly aren’t suffering in any way,” he said. “This past Shabbos, everybody knew this march was happening, but no one in shul was talking about it; I’m not sure myself why not, but it definitely tells you something.”