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Diplomacy in Action

Polish Media Roundtable on the Issue of Confiscated Private Property in Poland Between 1939 and 1989

Stuart E. Eizenstat
Special Advisor for Holocaust Issues 
Washington, DC
March 16, 2011


AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: My name is Stuart Eizenstat. I’m a Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on Holocaust-era issues. During the Clinton administration, I was Ambassador to the European Union, Under Secretary of Commerce, Under Secretary of State, and Deputy Treasury Secretary. During that period of time, I was a Special Advisor to President Clinton on Holocaust-era issues and negotiated communal property agreements and Swiss Bank and German and Austrian slave labor agreements. Now I’m serving in this capacity with the Secretary.

The United States is deeply disappointed at the announcement that the Government of Poland has suspended plans to submit for parliamentary consideration draft legislation to provide compensation for people whose private property was confiscated between 1939 and 1989.

The United States takes note of Prime Minister Tusk’s subsequent statement that he would reconsider this decision when Poland’s financial situation improves.

Polish officials have stated on several occasions that property restitution and compensation would be addressed during the tenure of the current government, and may I say having been involved in this issue now for some 15 years, that previous prime ministers and presidents, going back to President Kwaö´┐Żniewski have likewise committed themselves to resolve this issue.

As Polish officials have themselves noted, Holocaust survivors form only a small part of the beneficiaries. Polish former owners of land and property would benefit to a far greater degree. We believe this is a matter of justice for both groups.

Most European member states where this issue is relevant have already adopted some type of law to provide for either restitution of or compensation for property confiscated during the Nazi and Communist eras.

I would like to stress if I may, please, that we have always supported providing the same protections for those filing for forced nationalizations during the Communist era as for those whose property was confiscated during the Nazi era and never returned. We think as a matter of justice both absolutely should be treated.

In addition, the United States has long encouraged the Government of Poland to recognize that this is not only a matter of justice for those who lost their property during the Communist and Nazi eras, but it is in Poland’s own best interest because it would remove clouds over the title of property that now exist because of potential claims. Clouds which make it more difficult to insure property in Poland and more expensive to do so than it otherwise would be.

We’ve also emphasized that we would welcome any kind of reasonable phase-in of payments. We realize that there are cost implications and that those can be dealt with in an appropriate way while still doing justice by phasing in benefits over a period of time and dealing with a percentage of fair market value.

I’d like to also perhaps mention two other things and then I’ll be glad to take your questions.

The first is that in the Terezin Declaration which followed the five-day Holocaust Assets Conference in Prague on June 30, 2009, of which the Government of Poland was a very vital participant, they were in the what we called “friends of the chair” group and they were signatories, or their names are assigned to this and they agreed to it. One of the centerpieces of the Terezin Declaration is the call for either restituting or compensating both communal and individual immovable property belonging to victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi persecution. It says, and I quote, “The participating states urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property for part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.”

There is also a whole section on immovable real property urging the effective address for those states which haven’t done so of the private property claims of victims of the Shoah and other victims of Nazi persecution, either by in rem restitution or compensation as may be appropriate in a fair, comprehensive, and non-discriminatory manner.

We also recognize that people are living in many of these properties that were confiscated during both the Communist and Holocaust eras and had no part of the confiscation. They are there, most of them, in good faith, and good faith purchases. We have never suggested, quite the contrary, that the solution to this issue of private immovable property is to displace current property holders. We’re talking about something that the state, the Government of Poland would enter into to try to set up a fair process for some type of reasonable compensation program or other programs unless that property is actually in state hands.

One last point, and that is I mentioned the Terezin Declaration. It called for the development of more specific guidelines and best practices for restitution and compensation of immovable real property, and that was done on June 9, 2010. Again, the Government of Poland was a participant in all of our work and the working groups. They more recently sent a letter saying that their name had been put on by mistake, but they participated in all of this, never objected. And in any event, this is simply a more detailed elucidation of what they clearly agreed to in the Terezin Declaration.

So for all of those reasons we hope that Poland will for both its own best interests in clearing up property claims and title, and for justice for both those whose property was confiscated during the Nazi and Communist eras, that they will in fact reconsider their decision as the Prime Minister indicated and do so as promptly as feasible.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Does the United States administration recognize the Polish government’s argument that it just can’t enforce the restitution at this time or compensation because it leads to an excessive budget deficit not allowed under European Union rules?

AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: First, Poland, because of very good financial management and fiscal management for which it deserves great credit is actually in much better fiscal shape than many of the other states. We are sensitive to the financial implications of this, of course we are. That’s why we think this can be done over a period of years in amounts which are not excessive and which could be affordable by Poland.

I would also like to say that on communal property restitution, which I was involved with going back to the mid 1990s with Poland, that is the return of religious and communally owned property, Poland has done a very commendable job and deserves credit for very hard work in identifying properties and returning hundreds and hundreds of these properties. So we would hope the same would be done here but in a way that would both balance the justice that’s been long denied and recognizing the fiscal constraints that governments all over the world are facing.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, is the U.S. government going to take any other steps except for other than expressing disappointment?

AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: We have, as I mentioned, with the leadership of the U.S. and with the full cooperation and indeed may I say leadership of the Polish government, we entered into this Terezin Declaration on June 30th of 2009. It called for the creation of a European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin. That Institute is now up and running. And if I may quote, “The Institute will serve as a voluntary forum for countries, organizations representing Holocaust Shoah survivors and other Nazi victims and NGOs to note and promote developments in the areas covered by the conference in this Declaration, and to develop and share best practices and guidelines in these areas”, and as indicated in Paragraph 4 of Immovable Real Property.” which I’ve mentioned.

So the U.S. has already taken the lead here. We took the lead in the guidelines and best practices.

We have an excellent relationship with Poland. Poland is a very very critical ally of the United States and we have a very close, deep bilateral relationship. We will hopefully use those close ties of friendship and cooperation with our excellent ambassador, Ambassador Feinstein, to try to diplomatically deal with this and to encourage the Polish government to recognize that even with the financial situation they have, this can be done in an affordable way over a period of time in ways that will help Poland remove this cloud over title, make it easier and cheaper to get insurance, and will deal with both those who lost property in the Nazi and Communist eras.

So I think that the very deep relationship we have where we listen to each other, we respect each other’s opinions, but we try to reach accords whenever we can, and we usually do find ways to do it, that that would apply in this area as well.

QUESTION: Is the administration in contact with Congress or some Members of Congress on this issue? And if Congress is preparing some action on this?

AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: We have not been in contact with Congress. At this point we would like to handle this on a bilateral diplomatic basis. Given the fact that a number of Holocaust-related organizations have put out rather sharp criticisms, it would not be a surprise if Members of Congress did become engaged, but we certainly have not done so nor have we encouraged them to do so.

Again, because of the very strong bilateral relationship we have with Poland on so many areas of critical importance, we want to handle this in an appropriate and diplomatic way while at the same time we do want, after 15 years of urging and of many statements by the heads of state and heads of government by Poland, do hope to see progress made. But again, we have not been in contact with any Members of Congress on this.

May I just say one last thing? This seems to be calling for a pause rather than an end to the process, and again our efforts will be to hope that that pause will be as short as possible and that the government will continue to do what it’s pledged to do so many times, and that is move forward in a way that is financially affordable, is fair to the Polish people and to those Polish citizens and those of Polish ancestry who lost property in both the Communist and Nazi eras, and we look forward to continuing to work cooperatively toward this end with the Polish government.

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