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Poland-Israel row escalates over Polish property law affecting Holocaust survivors

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By Euronews with AP
A 2016 photo of Prozna Street, in the heart of what was Warsaw's Jewish quarter before World War II
A 2016 photo of Prozna Street, in the heart of what was Warsaw's Jewish quarter before World War II   -   Copyright  Czarek Sokolowski/AP
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The diplomatic row between Israel and Poland escalated on Monday after strongly criticised a new Polish law that restricts the rights of Holocaust survivors to reclaim property seized by the country’s former communist regime.

Poland’s nationalist conservative government said Monday that its ambassador to Israel will remain in Poland until further notice after Israel's new government downgraded diplomatic ties with Warsaw.

Meanwhile, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended the new legislation, which affects non-Jews and Jews alike, saying that it will end a period of criminal abuse in his country.

The spat erupted after Poland’s president’s signed the new law on Saturday despite heavy pressure not to by the United States government and warnings from Israel that it would harm ties.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid denounced it as “an immoral, anti-Semitic law” as he recalled his nation’s top diplomat from Poland only hours after it was signed by President Andrzej Duda. Israel also suggested that the Polish ambassador, who was on vacation in Poland, not return to Israel.

After years of close ties under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new government, which includes top officials who are the children of Holocaust survivors, has taken a far more confrontational approach.

What Poland's law says

Polish President Andrzej Duda earlier in the day signed the law, which addresses appropriations done by the communist government that ruled Poland from the end of World War II until 1989.

The law itself says nothing about the Holocaust or World War II. Instead it establishes that any administrative decision issued 30 years ago or more can no longer be challenged, meaning that property owners who had their homes or businesses seized in the communist era can no longer get compensation.

It is expected to cut off for all time the hopes of some families — both Jewish and non-Jewish — of reclaiming property seized during that era.

Both the US and Israeli governments had strongly urged Poland not to pass the law and Israel had warned it would harm ties.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Duda's signing of the law “a shameful decision and disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust” and said “Poland has chosen to continue harming those who have lost everything.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that he had instructed Israel's charges d'affaires in Warsaw to return home immediately and that the new Israeli ambassador to Poland, who was scheduled to leave for Warsaw, will remain in Israel.

The Israel Foreign Ministry also said it was recommending that the Polish ambassador, who is back home on holiday, not return to Israel.

“Poland today approved — not for the first time — an immoral, anti-Semitic law,” said Lapid, whose late father was a Holocaust survivor.

Defense Minister Defense Minister Benny Gantz, noting that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, said he was “deeply disturbed."

“Property restitution is a small yet significant part of the process to fulfill the rights of those who have survived and to acknowledge those who have perished in one of the world’s biggest genocides,” Gantz said.

Duda said Saturday that he had analysed the matter carefully and decided to sign the law to end legal uncertainty and fraud linked to properties whose ownership remains in doubt decades after their seizure.

The law does not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish claimants, and Duda said he strongly objected to anyone suggesting that the law was directed specifically against Jews who survived the Holocaust.

“I unequivocally reject this rhetoric and say it with all my strength," Duda said. “Linking this act with the Holocaust raises my firm objection.”

Property seized after Jews forced to flee Poland

Before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of nearly 3.5 million people. Most were killed in the Holocaust and their properties confiscated by the Nazis.

Some of the small numbers of Polish Jews who survived faced violence and persecution at Polish hands after the war, driving many to emigrate to countries including the United States and Israel, which today is home to tens of thousands of aging Holocaust survivors.

Poland’s post-war communist authorities seized many of those properties, along with the property of many non-Jewish owners in Warsaw and other cities.

When communism fell in 1989, it opened up the possibility for claimants to try to regain family properties.

Some cases have been resolved in courts, but Poland has never passed a comprehensive law that would regulate restituting or compensating seized properties.

Complicating the matter, some criminal groups in past years have falsely claimed to represent rightful owners, obtaining valuable properties through fraud, and later evicting tenants from the properties.

“I am convinced that with my signature the era of legal chaos ends — the era of re-privatisation mafias, the uncertainty of millions of Poles and the lack of respect for the basic rights of citizens of our country. I believe in a state that protects its citizens against injustice,” Duda said.

The legislation was widely supported across the political spectrum in Poland.

The last major diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland erupted in 2018 when Warsaw introduced a law that many in Israel viewed as an attempt to suppress discussion of crimes that Poles committed against Jews during the German occupation of World War II.

The law was eventually watered down and has not been applied.