Thank you Mr. Chairman.
I sincerely appreciate the opportunity that you have afforded me to testify on the important issue of Polish restitution. I also salute your tremendous leadership in this area.
I am the President of the Holocaust Restitution Committee, an umbrella organization in the forefront of fighting for the cause of Polish restitution for holocaust survivors and their heirs.
The process of holocaust property restitution has been critically important to my family for the past twenty years. My wife lost every member of her family in the carnage of Poland during World War II.
All that is left from my wife's family are some memories and her home.
The individuals our organizations represent are well into their 80's. Even their heirs are in their sixties. They seek the return of their homes in an environment of fairness and equity.
These homes were seized by the nazis during World War II during what has come to be known as the holocaust or the shoah. This property has been expropriated by successive communist regimes pursuant to a series of decrees. All of these decrees are still in effect today in Poland. Indeed, Poland is still using these laws to seize property in 2002. A list of these decrees is part of my written statement.
We expected that a nation like Poland that suffered so much during the Nazi and Communist eras, would understand the suffering of other people. There are no words to describe the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. We don't understand why Poland is creating additional suffering by denying us our right to our homes?
I have reviewed the transcript of your hearing on March 25, 1999 where Congressman Smith indicated that: "the Helsinki Commission has monitored the property restitution and compensation efforts being made by post-communist countries, and I have had to conclude that the efforts to return property to former owners have been uneven and often unsuccessful or, worse, discriminatory."
I am here today, over three years later to tell you that Polish restitution is indeed uneven, has been unsuccessful and is discriminatory.
Members of our organization drew the same conclusion as chairman Smith did and decided to file a class action in Federal District Court only three months after your last hearing, on June 25, 1999. As you know, that case is now on appeal to the Second Circuit. But even a favorable resolution of that case may take years to achieve.
Ladies and gentlemen, time is something holocaust survivors do not have very much of. We need closure now.
Polish Efforts on Property Restitution
The Polish effort to provide property restitution has so far failed. Every single year brings with it news reports that Poland is preparing comprehensive legislation to deal with the property restitution issue. However, no legislation has been passed to date. Furthermore, Poland has failed and refused to negotiate a resolution of the property restitution issues with any survivor group. The passage of 13 years since Poland has achieved democracy without addressing the basic human right of (private property) ownership is inexcusable.
These legislative initiatives have failed to garner any support either inside or outside of Poland. Our analysis of the statute that failed in 2001 was, at best, a useless piece of legislation and at worst, a virtual sham. Let me explain why - the reasons are many.
(i) Poland offered to issue bonds which would be useless as currency for at least the next ten years - a lifetime for the survivors and their heirs.
(ii) Only 50% of the value of the property would be restituted in the form of bonds.
(iii) The inheritance process that is currently unworkable would be imported into this legislative process.
(iv) Most importantly, any restitution was conditioned upon citizenship and a two year residency requirement. This automatically rendered the statute discriminatory against U.S. citizens.
For all the above reasons and many more, it is critical that the HRC and its constituent survivor organizations involved in restitution be included in the dialogue with Poland to resolve the restitution crisis.
Bureaucratic and Legal
Obstacles Facing Claimants
Who Seek Restitution
Let me give you several case studies relating to current obstacles in Poland in recovering property.
Arran: One of our members had owned three properties in the town of Suvalk, Poland. They were small commercial/residential properties the downtown. Mr. Arran had his citizenship papers, proof of ownership, and ancestral lineage organized in a systematic fashion. The paperwork was so good that even a Polish court had to agree with him. Therefore, on July 4, 2001, Mr. Arran received a decision permitting the return of on of his properties to him. The government of Poland appealed the decision and lost. The government of Poland didn't give up. On December 15, 2001 they continued to pursue Mr. Arran and filed a new action against him. This new lawsuit was brought by the Polish locality and it attempts to re-confiscate the property in 2002.
This is not 1939, this is not 1948, this is not 1956. This is 2002. This is democratic Poland re-seizing properties that its own court system refuses to allow it to keep. This is a violation of the Helsinki accords. The Commission must not allow such confiscation to continue.
Pictures of these properties appear throughout the Commission Hearing room. Copies of the title reports evidencing the title ownership are part of your written package as well. Such cases cry out for justice.
Ratner: Marc and Cesia Ratner are among the original members of the Holocaust Restitution Committee. They are attempting to secure the return of their property for over twenty years. Poland has succeeded in fending off every attempt of theirs to secure the return of their property. The Ratners have expended an enormous amount of time, energy and money over the past twenty years in a fruitless search to recover property from the Republic of Poland.
Koppenheim: Peter Koppenheim was one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action. He had property in the town square of Breslau. After the fall of communism and over his numerous written objections, the Polish government sold the property to Thyssen-Krup. Poland sold this property even though it had prior notice of the actual, direct Jewish ownership of the property.
These three cases are only a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of cases where Poland continues to sell property on the world market that should be restituted.
Poland continues to sell, manage and rent thousands upon thousands of properties that it knows belong to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. When the claims are made by the rightful heirs the claimants are stonewalled until they either die or give up. That is undemocratic. That is unacceptable. That's why the chief judge of the Eastern District of New York of the United States District Court, Judge Edward Korman, said that "the dismissal places on the Republic of Poland the obligation to resolve equitably the claims raised here."
Once again, the only way to craft a fair and equitable program is for Poland to join with the Holocaust Survivor organizations to negotiate a fair solution to the restitution crises. The resolution, to quote Mr. Eisenstat from the 1999 hearing, should provide for
"the establishment of equitable, transparent and non-discriminatory procedures to evaluate all specific claims".
Poland claims that if the survivors and their heirs would simply go into the Polish court system they would be able to secure a return of their property. That is simply untrue. Out of thousands of active members, not a single one has yet been able to secure a return of the property.
Our gentile friends with property claims in Poland have faced the same difficulty in the return of their property. We have many members of the Holocaust Restitution Committee who are not Jewish, who have suffered the same fate at the hands of Poland over the past fifty years.
We are joined here today by Antoni Feldon, Chairman of the Polish Union of Former Property Owners and by Dr. Edward Walata, a leading Polish intellectual from Boston, Massachusetts. These people represent the non-Jewish universe of property claimants.
How Can the United States Government, The
Helsinki Commission and Congress Assist the Cause of Property Restitution in Poland
I would like now to quote a section of President Bush statement in his State of the Union Address from January 29, 2002:
"America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits of power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."
What can the Commission On Security and Cooperation in Europe do for the survivor population and their heirs in the field of property restitution!
First and foremost the Commission should request the Republic of Poland to enter into discussions with the Holocaust Restitution Committee and its world wide coalition of survivor groups. The time has come to finally resolve this intractable
problem. The Helsinki Commission is the most appropriate body to request the powers that be in Poland to resolve this problem once and for all. This should be done immediately due to the age of the survivor population, both Jew and Gentile. "Justice delayed is justice denied".
The United States Government as represented by the Executive Branch and the State Department, can and should raise the issue of property restitution with Poland at every opportunity. President Bush is meeting with the Polish president tomorrow and Thursday. Senator Charles Schumer has sent a letter to both the President and the State Department asking that restitution be raised at the highest level. Similar letters should be sent by each of the members of this Commission and other interested Senators and Representatives. Copies of this letter are available in this hearing room.
Congressional representatives must raise the issue with its Polish equals at every opportunity. Whenever there are joint meetings held with members of the Eastern European delegation, restitution should be on the agenda and must be addressed.
I hope that these measured steps will result in an appropriate solution to the problem of property restitution. I have also called this a crises because it is indeed a crises for Poland. As long as Poland refuses to write the wrongs of the past era, there will always be a cloud on Polish property. Indeed, Polish democracy will continue to suffer.
One final note. The Holocaust Restitution Committee respectfully suggests that the Helsinki Commission conduct another hearing one year from today to evaluate the success of these various initiatives.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Commission, the restitution of property in Poland and elsewhere is an integral part of the need to obtain a measure of justice for the victims of Europe's major twin disasters in World War II - fascism and communism, as Mr. Eisenstat so eloquently concluded in this chair three years ago.
Thank you very much.