Hungary joined the Axis in November 1940. The Hungarian government under Miklos Horthy obligated Jewish males to serve in labor battalions, which led to the deaths of at least 27,000 Jews in the early 1940s before the Nazis occupied the country in March 1944. In the summer of 1941, Hungarian authorities deported some 20,000 Jews to Kamenets-Podolski in German-occupied Ukraine, where they were killed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen. A few months after the German occupation of Hungary, Hungarian authorities and German security police began the systematic deportation of Hungarian Jews. More than 440,000 were deported, with the majority sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, of the approximately 825,000 Hungarian Jews identified in a 1941 census, only 255,000 survived. Approximately 100,000 Jews currently reside in Hungary, primarily in Budapest, of whom an estimated 4,500 are Holocaust survivors.
The Hungarian government views itself as having completed Holocaust restitution for communal property, immovable private property, and Judaica. However, international experts say concerns remain in the area of immovable private and heirless property and with restitution of looted art.
The 2011 religion law recognized three Jewish communities. The largest is the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), which maintains most of the Jewish institutions. The second is the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH, also called Status Quo Ante), which is affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch. The smallest is the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Religious Community (the Orthodox). There are also two small Reform Jewish communities – Sim Shalom and Bet Orim – that the Hungarian government does not recognize.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, of which Hungary was a party, required heirless and otherwise unclaimed Jewish property to be returned to the Jewish community for “relief and rehabilitation” of Holocaust survivors and to help reinvigorate the Hungarian Jewish community. Partial implementation did not begin until the transition from Communism in 1989-1990. While the treaty specifically required Hungary to return heirless and unclaimed property, under Hungarian law, heirless property belongs to the state, not to the deceased’s community. In 1993, the Constitutional Court directed the Hungarian government to implement the Paris Peace Treaty.
In 1997, the government established the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Public Endowment (Mazsok), which, together with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), distributes Holocaust-related compensation to surviving members of the Hungarian Jewish community within Hungary and abroad. Mazsok also receives Hungarian government compensation for heirless property on behalf of the Jewish community and has a mandate to assist in the revitalization of Jewish cultural heritage and traditions in the country. Mazsok’s board has 17 members, consisting of Hungarian Jews, government officials, and the WJRO. The Hungarian government pays 58 million HUF (approximately $200,000) annually for the operation of Mazsok.
The WJRO negotiated with the Hungarian government in 2007 an interim $21 million payment, as an advance on an expected, subsequent agreement providing more comprehensive compensation for property formerly owned by Jews that was confiscated or nationalized during the Holocaust era and which was heirless or unclaimed. Between 2007 and 2013, the Hungarian government distributed the $21 million it had pledged, transferring the funds to Mazsok to administer. Mazsok distributed one-third to assist survivors currently living in Hungary and transferred two-thirds of the funds to the Claims Conference to fund social welfare services for needy survivors living outside of Hungary.
Since 2013, the WJRO has sought to resume negotiations with the Hungarian government to resolve outstanding Holocaust restitution issues in Hungary. In August 2016, the Hungarian government sent to the WJRO its initial research report on the scope and estimated value of confiscated heirless property in the country. A WJRO-appointed expert reviewed the report and identified substantial areas that required further research. The Hungarian government agreed to fund the remaining research. In April 2019, the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of its second set of research. The next step is for WJRO and the Hungarian government to agree on a roadmap to conclude negotiations; however, the Hungarian government has not yet agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap.
As for religious and communal property, a 1991 law on the settlement of ownership of former real properties of churches provided that religious organizations could claim and use religious properties that had been taken after January 1946. A 1997 amendment gave religious groups the option to apply for government-paid annuities in perpetuity, intended to represent the monetary value of their unrestored communal property. In addition to obtaining the use of a number of buildings pursuant to the 1991 law as amended, Mazsihisz concluded an agreement in 1998 with the Hungarian government under which it waived its right to the remaining formerly Jewish‑owned communal properties confiscated during the Holocaust and/or nationalized after 1948, in exchange for a government annuity. Until the 2011 religion law, Mazsihisz was considered the only representative of Hungarian Jewry and received the entire annuity. In 2012, following the adoption of the religion law, the Hungarian government mediated an agreement among Mazsihisz, the Orthodox Jewish Community, and EMIH (the new law recognized the latter two) to share the annuity. Jewish groups report that they consider communal property restitution complete.
Several laws from 1991 to 1992 dealt with the restitution of private property confiscated during World War II and/or subsequently nationalized by the Communist regime. However, claimants faced numerous procedural challenges, including: the problematic claims process for potential claimants of confiscated private property because no restitution of the items taken was possible; the small percentage of a property’s market value offered as compensation; citizenship and residence requirements that limited compensation to those who were Hungarian citizens at the time the property was seized or on the date of the law was enacted, or foreign nationals with a primary residence in Hungary in December 1990; the narrow definition of “heirs;” limited archival access and privacy laws that made ownership documents difficult to obtain; limited worldwide notification of the claims process; slow processing of claims; and payment delays.
During the private property restitution claims process, the Hungarian government issued compensation notes (vouchers) that claimants could use to buy state property, such as bonds, assets, shares in privatized companies, privatized real estate, and farmland at auction. Claimants also could exchange compensation notes for annuities.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property
Based on a government-sponsored commission report published in 1998, Hungary reports having lost more than 40,000 objects of art, including paintings, decorative art, and other objects, such as medals, during World War II. Much of the artwork taken out of the country was returned between 1945 and 1948, with some of it remaining in Hungary’s cultural institutions and museums. It is likely that some of the remaining art in Hungary’s possession was looted in areas occupied by Hungary during World War II.
Hungary endorsed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art from 1998, which called for a “just and fair solution” to the heirs of looted works now in public collections. Hungary has done research on looted art in its possession, and there is a database held by the National Gallery. However, access to these sources is strictly classified, complicating efforts to return artworks and other cultural property.
The largest unsettled case of stolen art during and after World War II is the Herzog collection. For more than two decades, Martha Nierenberg and her family have sought the return of artwork that belonged to their great-grandfather Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, a wealthy art collector. Baron Herzog died in 1934, but his heirs hid the collection in the basement of a factory they owned. Nazis and Hungarian officials discovered and looted the collection. Some of the works ended up in the private collection of Adolf Eichmann; others were seized by the Soviets. However, a large number of them are in the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, and other state-owned Hungarian museums.
Jewish groups report that the Hungarian government has returned all Judaica that it held. In 2006, Russia returned to Hungary more than 100 antique books looted during and after World War II, including some from the 15th century that had been brought to the Lenin Scientific Library in Nizhny Novgorod from the Sarospatak Calvinist College in eastern Hungary; however, Jewish groups maintain that Russia continues to hold extensive amounts of Hungarian Judaica.
Access to Archival Documents
The Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives is one of Europe’s richest Jewish archival collections, holding materials dating from the founding of local communities at the end of the 18th century through the present, as well as other archival materials about Jewish values and history. It is a public archive and belongs to Mazsihisz. It has a permanent exhibition displaying the history of the Jewish quarter in Budapest, telling a story of more than 80 houses and their inhabitants between 1758 and today. The Archives and the Budapest University of Jewish Studies together receive from the Hungarian government 160 million HUF (approximately $550,000) yearly as part of the support budgeted for cultural institutions. Mazsihisz and EMIH both reported having good access to Hungarian Judaica objects, artifacts, and archival documents.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
In 2011, the Hungarian government changed the public education framework and centralized the textbook market. Critics, including Jewish groups, Holocaust experts, and others, faulted the manner in which textbooks covered Holocaust and Jewish issues. Jewish groups also were concerned that the textbooks would have rehabilitated anti-Semitic writers or other figures from the Horthy era. In 2012, some teachers formed an education roundtable and worked closely with government officials who accommodated some of the teachers’ recommendations on how textbooks could better treat Jewish culture and World War II history. In addition, works by pro‑Horthy writers did not become required reading material. Mazsihisz and EMIH both reported that they were pleased with the corrections.
Hungary has been a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 2002 and twice chaired the organization, most recently in 2015. At that time, Hungary was instrumental in helping IHRA succeed in changing the language of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation to ensure access to archives related to the Holocaust.
The Hungarian government opened the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center (HDKE, often called the Paiva Street Museum) in 2004. The state-governed HDKE contains a permanent exhibit on the Holocaust in Hungary, research facilities, and a memorial site to Hungarian victims. However, its future is unclear due to a low operational budget and the government’s plans to open another Holocaust museum called the House of Fates. The government announced in 2013 that the new museum would open in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the deportations of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps, and that EMIH would own and run it. However, strong opposition by Jewish communities, Jewish organizations, domestic and international scholars, and other governments led the Hungarian government to postpone the expected opening date to 2019. The museum has not yet opened. Those concerned about the new museum stressed the importance of ensuring that it accurately reflects the responsibility of World War II-era Hungarian leaders and some ordinary Hungarians for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. In June 2019, after a request by the Hungarian delegation to the IHRA, the IHRA agreed to appoint a group of experts to provide input or suggestions to the international advisory board of the planned House of Fates museum.
Hungarian authorities in recent years have erected statues and other memorials for Horthy-era figures, although plans for one of these statues were canceled after generating international controversy. The government also erected in 2014 a monument for the “victims of the German occupation,” which gave the impression that Hungarians had no involvement in the Holocaust and other atrocities during the war. Jewish groups created a “living memorial” in front of the monument with photos and other memorabilia of relatives who perished. This collection has been vandalized several times.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
As of mid-2019, there were approximately 4,500 Holocaust survivors in Hungary. On the basis of a 1993 law, the Hungarian government compensates persons who were unlawfully deprived of life and liberty. Eligible persons are those whose relatives lost their lives between 1939 and 1989 due to politically motivated action by Hungarian authorities, those whose relatives died during deportation or Soviet-ordered forced labor, and those forced to perform labor due to racial, religious, or political reasons during World War II. Hungary pays Holocaust survivors a monthly pension supplement on top of the pension they receive from the German government. The Claims Conference also provides funding to assist Holocaust survivors living in Hungary through the Budapest-based Mazs (Hungarian Jewish Social Support Foundation). These payments include stipends for home care, food, medical assistance, transportation, and other emergency services. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee established Mazs in 1991.
World War II began in Europe with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. Between 1939 and mid-1941, Nazi Germany occupied western Poland, while the Soviet Union, by agreement with Nazi Germany, occupied eastern Poland. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, bringing all of Poland under Nazi occupation.
The Nazi occupation of Poland was brutal, costing the lives of millions of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Nazis established at least 700 ghettos and a network of concentration and death camps throughout occupied Poland. Scholars estimate that of Poland’s pre-war population of approximately 35,100,000 inhabitants, between 5.5 and 6 million people lost their lives during World War II (WWII), among them approximately three million Jews. [Note: Numbers vary in part due to lack of pre- and post-war census data, population transfers across borders, and post-war border shifts, as well as Communist-era censorship and restrictions to archival sources.]
The USHMM’s Holocaust Encyclopedia estimates that at least three million Jewish Poles were murdered during the occupation, along with 1.8 to 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens. Polish sources generally give a higher figure for non-Jewish Polish deaths, about three million. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance states that, “before the outbreak of the war, about three million Jews lived in the territory of the Polish state, amounting to about 10 percent of the population of Poland at that time. From that number, only about 300 thousand Jews survived.” A further 1.5 million Poles were deported as forced laborers.
The Polish Government-in-Exile, formed in 1939 and based in London, joined the Allied powers, sponsored resistance to the Nazi occupation, and provided information to the Allies about crimes the Nazis perpetrated in occupied Poland. While some individual Polish citizens participated in the killing of Jews, some others engaged in efforts to save Jews, at great personal risk, given that the Nazis treated such acts as punishable by death. Yad Vashem has identified 6,992 Polish citizens as rescuers – known as Righteous Among the Nations – more than in any other country.
Much of Poland was destroyed during the war, including Warsaw, which the Nazis levelled after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In addition to the devastating human loss, material losses were estimated at more than $48 billion in pre-war dollars and included the destruction of historical antiquities and national treasures. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union annexed about a third of Poland’s pre-war eastern territory, forcing millions of Poles to abandon their property and move west. The post-war Communist regime then nationalized private property and industry and complicated future property restitution efforts by building public infrastructure, public housing, and state-owned industries on wrongfully seized private and communal land.
Polish citizens lost significant property and assets during WWII and the Communist era. The Nazi occupying regime specifically targeted Polish Jews for extermination and expropriation of all of their assets during the Holocaust. While the Polish government maintains that it has implemented wide-ranging legislation, Poland is the only European Union member state with significant Holocaust-era property issues that has not passed a national comprehensive private property restitution law. Holocaust survivors and their descendants who are American citizens report that the processes required to reclaim their private real property through the Polish court system or through settlements with the national or local governments are lengthy, cumbersome, costly, and largely ineffective. Some have expressed frustration that even after the property is restituted, challenges by tenants or others prevent the full utilization of their property.
The government estimates that it has resolved about 45 percent of the approximately 5,500 claims filed for Jewish communal property; about half of the adjudicated cases were rejected. Poland has not passed a law to address heirless Holocaust-era property.
Poland has made a serious commitment to Holocaust commemoration. The government funds historical museums and monuments and eight state memorial museums at former Nazi concentration and death camps.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
In the 1960s, the government signed bilateral agreements in which Poland transferred money to certain foreign governments to cover foreign citizen claims for private property losses sustained after 1939. Among these agreements was the 1960 U.S.-Poland indemnification agreement, based on which Poland transferred $40 million to the U.S. government to cover claimants who were U.S. citizens at the time their property was wrongfully seized. This agreement did not cover those who were Polish citizens at the time their property was seized and only later became naturalized U.S. citizens; it therefore excluded most Polish Holocaust survivors and their families.
In 1999, the Polish government proposed a private property bill that would have provided a percentage of the current fair market value to anyone who had lost property during WWII or the Communist period. The Polish parliament, however, amended the bill to limit its application only to current Polish citizens, and the bill was vetoed in 2001 by then President Kwasniewski as a result. The Polish government reports that as of April 2019, it has paid approximately $2.29 billion in compensation to claimants of various nationalities via an assortment of legal instruments and procedures legislated since 1989, including the physical return of some original or in-kind property. Of this $2.29 billion, according to the government, approximately 4.5 billion zloty ($1.2 billion) went to settlements arising under the 2005 “Bug River” law, and 1.2 billion zloty ($338.7 million) went to settlements under legal provisions specifically governing Warsaw (both are further described below).
[Note: For cases involving private rather than communal property, the government does not generally track the religion of claimants; these figures therefore include restitution to Holocaust victims and other victims of WWII and the Communist period.]
In 2005, in response to a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, Poland enacted the “Bug River” law providing for compensation for private property lost by Polish owners who resided in territory that became part of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, or Ukraine as a result of Poland’s post-WWII border changes. The legislation obligated the government to create a register of all eligible claimants and pay compensation at 20 percent of a property’s value at the time of taking. Eligible claimants were property owners (or heirs) who were Polish citizens on September 1, 1939, who left the affected territory, and who retained their Polish citizenship. Holocaust survivors, their families, and any others who did not retain their Polish citizenship were excluded. By the December 2008 filing deadline, 91,845 claims had been submitted under the law. The Ministry of Interior and Administration reported that by the end of February 2019, the government had paid compensation for 74,058 claims worth approximately 4.5 billion zloty ($1.2 billion).
Poland does not have a separate mechanism or process to address private property claims other than the “Bug River” or Warsaw areas. The World Jewish Restitution Organization estimates that a total of 2.55 billion zloty ($680 million) has been paid to claimants for all property within the current borders of Poland for areas outside of Warsaw. Claimants in Poland may pursue restitution through administrative court proceedings or through settlement agreements with municipal governments or the national treasury. In practice, in order to succeed, claimants must seek nullification of Communist nationalizations by demonstrating that a procedural flaw occurred. Some American citizen claimants have reported that the process is cumbersome, lengthy, costly, and ineffective. They report that the process is particularly difficult for heirs to claims that were made by parents or grandparents who died without receiving compensation for their looted, confiscated, or nationalized property.
In 2016, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal upheld legislation passed in 2015 designed to prevent those publicly owned properties in Warsaw that previously had been privately owned from being returned to their pre-Communist era owners. The law sought to terminate 70-year-old claims that had remained unresolved due to the inability to determine the parties to the proceedings. Some outside observers, as well as American citizen claimants and their lawyers, reported that the administration of the law makes it almost impossible for claimants successfully to reclaim their property. Specifically, some claimants have said that the law did not allow enough time to complete succession (inheritance) proceedings in Polish courts, which the law requires, despite the fact that in other circumstances Polish inheritance law recognizes heirs as determined under U.S. law.
In March 2017, parliament passed a law establishing a government commission to investigate accusations of corruption in private property restitution in Warsaw. The law authorized the commission to: (1) issue a decision confirming a restitution decision; (2) partially or entirely annul a restitution decision and issue a different decision; (3) annul a restitution decision in its entirety and send the case back to the appropriate institution for review; (4) publicly declare that a restitution decision was made in violation of the law if circumstances made it impossible for the commission to reverse a decision they determine was made illegally; and (5) discontinue current restitution cases. In June 2018, the commission reported it had reviewed 593 restitution cases and issued 74 decisions during its first 12 months of operation. The commission chair estimated the commission’s actions returned property valued at approximately 700 million zloty ($184 million) to the City of Warsaw. Administrative and court decisions have slowed as a result of this review process, causing some outside observers – including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs – to argue that the commission had a negative effect on private and communal property restitution cases.
In 2017, the Justice Ministry proposed a new comprehensive, national private property restitution law. The draft law would have: (1) blocked any physical return of remaining properties (whether privately or publicly owned); (2) provided compensation in cash or government bonds of 20 to 25 percent of the property’s value at the time of taking; and (3) set a one-year filing period for claims. The draft law limited claimants to current Polish citizens who had been Polish citizens at the time their property was seized or their direct heirs. Some outside observers expressed concern that the proposed legislation would have effectively excluded foreign claimants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or their heirs. In 2018, the chair of the Standing Committee of the Council of Ministers withdrew the legislation on the grounds that it needed further revision and analysis, including with regard to questions about its potential costs and compliance with national and international law.
Communal and Religious Property
Poland has laws enabling the restitution of certain communal religious property. The process, while incomplete, has allowed for the return of many synagogues.
Four joint commissions oversee communal religious property restitution claims that were submitted by the filing deadlines, one each for the Jewish community, the Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. (A fifth joint commission related to property of the Catholic Church is addressed below.) The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution of property to religious communities nationalized during or after WWII. The law governing such restitution does not, however, address communal properties that the Communist regime sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII. The Ministry of Interior and Administration and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. Although the law provides that decisions by the commission on communal property claims may not be appealed, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. The Department of State is not aware of any reports of parties filing such appeals.
The 1997 Act on the Relations between the State and Jewish Religious Communities in the Republic of Poland regulates the restitution of Jewish communal property. According to the Ministry of Interior and Administration, as of December 2018, the Jewish communal property restitution commission had partially or entirely resolved 2,810 of the 5,554 claims filed by the Jewish community by the 2002 filing deadline. According to the Foreign Ministry, the commission has awarded 88 million zloty ($23 million) in compensation to Jewish religious communities since its establishment. Some Jewish community representatives report that the pace of Jewish communal property restitution is slow, involves considerable legal expense, and often ends without recovery of property or other compensation for claimants.
By comparison, the Catholic Church joint property commission had resolved all but 216 of its 3,063 claims by 2011. According to the Ministry of Interior and Administration, the remaining religious community property commissions resolved 87 communal property claims in 2018, leaving unresolved more than 3,000 of the 7,000 claims filed by other religious groups. At the end of 2018, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved 989 of 1,200 claims by the Lutheran community, 268 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 87 of 170 claims by all other denominations.
The laws on religious communal property restitution do not address the issue of disputed communal properties that are now privately owned, and outside observers argue that the government has left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. For example, a number of buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. Experts on communal property assess that all of the straightforward Jewish communal property cases have been resolved; they note that the Jewish communal property restitution commission is unable to proceed with most of the remaining claims, as the government does not agree that the properties fall under the definition of a religious communal property. Several claims awarded to the Jewish community during the last two years remained unpaid as of mid-2019.
The devastation and human toll of Nazi-perpetrated crimes during the Holocaust left most of Poland’s more than 1,200 Jewish pre-WWII cemeteries with no surviving Jewish population to care for them. The restitution of Jewish cemeteries on land owned by local municipalities or the national treasury falls under the Jewish communal property joint commission. Cemeteries are returned to the local Jewish community if one exists nearby, or to the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland if no local community remains. The Union transfers these burial grounds to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, a partnership of the Union and the World Jewish Restitution Organization. Some Jewish community representatives have argued that Jewish cemeteries are part of Poland’s cultural heritage and that the national government should take over ownership, restoration, and preservation of such sites around the country. In December 2017, the national parliament allocated 100 million zloty ($28.7 million) to the Cultural Heritage Foundation to subsidize an endowment to restore, preserve, and maintain the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
A 1959 law on cemeteries and burials requires that a religious community give permission before its cemetery area can be used for any other purpose. However, conflicts persist over the use of Jewish cemeteries that were nationalized during the Communist era. For example, in 2018, an issue arose regarding the commercial utilization of parts of a historic cemetery in Siemiatycze that was no longer listed as a cemetery in current land records.
In July 2017, the General Inspector of Monuments of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (Culture Ministry) provided official guidelines to all provincial governors and inspectors of monuments for strengthening the protection of Jewish cemeteries. In August 2017, the Act on Stewardship of Historical Monuments was amended to require that provincial inspectors of monuments approve the sale, exchange, donation, or lease of land owned by the national or local governments that encompasses or includes historic cemeteries in order to prevent commercial construction on the sites of former Jewish cemeteries. Also in 2017, the Culture Ministry – in cooperation with the National Heritage Board of Poland, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Jewish Historical Institute, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the Rabbinical Commission for Cemeteries, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland – began the first full inventory and verification of historical boundaries of all Jewish cemeteries in Poland. In 2018, the Culture Ministry instituted a project to place markers designating the boundaries of Jewish cemeteries and to place a memorial stone featuring a plaque declaring the site to be a Jewish cemetery. By February 2019, the Culture Ministry had completed the project for six Jewish cemeteries out of an estimated 1,200 in the country.
Poland has not passed a law to address the significant amount of private property left heirless by the Holocaust. Instead, heirless property is governed by Polish inheritance law, which requires that such property be returned to the local municipality or national treasury. According to the government, Poland began immediately after WWII to reconcile the legal status of property left by owners, including Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, under a series of decrees regulating derelict and abandoned property, as part of the overall nationalization of private property under the post-war Communist regime.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
The Culture Ministry’s Department for Cultural Heritage Abroad and Wartime Losses is responsible for the recovery of Nazi-looted artwork, libraries, and cultural heritage items taken from inside the post-WWII borders of Poland. The Department for Cultural Heritage Abroad maintains a catalogue of some 100,000 such objects and an online “Database of Objects Lost as a Result of World War II” containing more than 60,000 items. The catalogue does not note whether the objects were destroyed, survived, or were looted from Jews. There have been a number of successful restitutions of artworks from abroad to Poland in recent years.
The Culture Ministry is responsible for handling claims by foreign governments for art inside Polish state-owned museums that may have been looted, but it is not clear that this includes Nazi-looted art from other countries or claims by private parties. Such artworks are in Poland as the result of the Nazi art market during the war. The Department of State is not aware of any claims by foreign parties for Nazi-looted art in Polish museums.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
There is no law in place covering the restitution of Jewish-owned cultural and religious movable property. Cultural institutions in Poland generally do not conduct provenance research on their own collections and, in the few cases where they have done so, did not make the findings publicly available. In 2012, the Yearbook Muzealnictwo (Museology) published a set of guidelines outlining how provenance research in regard to looted cultural objects should be carried out. According to art restitution experts, while the guidelines were received by Polish museums, no concrete actions followed. The total amount of confiscated or destroyed Jewish owned cultural property in Nazi-occupied Poland has not been documented and is therefore unknown.
Much of the Judaica that ended up in what is now Polish territory was turned over by the Polish government to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), some artworks and artifacts that originally belonged to foreign Jewish communities are held there. In particular, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, Greece has requested the return of Nazi-looted ritual objects and artifacts. Periodically, the Institute has exhibited certain items, and the Institute includes on its website: “A significant part of the collection of sacred art of the Jewish Historical Institute is the legacy of Greek Jews murdered in the extermination centers at Auschwitz and Majdanek.”
Access to Archival Documents
Poland has an extensive and accessible network of local and national archives. Jewish community representatives reported no issues with free access to archival documents. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reports good cooperation with archives in Poland, including the Head Office of the State Archives, the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oswiecim, Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, and a number of regional and university archives.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Poland has made a serious commitment to Holocaust commemoration; the government funds museums and monuments, including eight state memorial museums at former Nazi German concentration and extermination camps operated in occupied Poland. Poland planned to host a major international commemoration event in January 2020 to observe the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps.
Poland has statutorily mandated Holocaust education requirements for students beginning in the fifth grade and continuing through the end of high school. According to an official at the POLIN Museum, the Ministry of National Education’s Holocaust education requirements specify that students in grades five through eight should be able to do the following: characterize Nazi German policy in occupied Europe; explain the extermination of Jews, Roma, and other ethnic groups; and cite examples of heroism of Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
At the high school level, students should be able to present the ideological background leading to the extermination of Jews and other ethnic and social groups by Nazi Germany; characterize the stages of the extermination of Jews (discrimination, stigmatization, isolation, and annihilation); recognize the main places of extermination, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor; describe the attitude of Jews towards the Holocaust, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and characterize the attitudes of Polish society and the international community towards the Holocaust, including the “Righteous Among the Nations,” by using examples. A report by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides further details on the Holocaust education requirements in public schools.
The Ministry of National Education appointed a Holocaust Education Advisory Council in January 2018. The council is managed by the ministry’s Plenipotentiary for Polish-Jewish Relations and is composed of experts in the field of Holocaust education. The government also organizes and/or funds several Holocaust education programs outside of school, including exchange programs for teachers organized by Yad Vashem and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.
Some outside observers argue that the time allotted for Holocaust education – one to two hours per year per grade – is insufficient for students to understand the Holocaust, its causes, and consequences. Additionally, some argue that the government has inserted a specific historical narrative into the curriculum, such as mandating that teachers only use the examples of Righteous Among the Nations awardees when discussing the actions of Polish citizens during the Holocaust.
Poland’s 1999 Act on the Protection of Former Nazi Death Camps extended legal protection to eight Holocaust memorials in Poland and established state or local museums at each site. These include the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the State Museum at Majdanek, the Museum and Memorial Site in Sobibor, the Museum and Memorial Site at Belzec, the Stutthof Museum, the Gross-Rosen Museum in Rogoznica, the Treblinka Museum, and the Museum of the Former German Kulmhof Death Camp.
The Culture Ministry supervises and finances seven of the eight museums and provides support for the Museum of the Former German Kulmhof Death Camp. Additionally, the Culture Ministry funds several Holocaust memorial-related museums, including the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, which recounts the 1,000-year heritage of Jews in Poland, and the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, located in Markowa. The Culture Ministry is also working on plans for two additional Holocaust memorial museums, including the Warsaw Ghetto Museum and the KL Plaszow Memorial Site at the former KL Plaszow Nazi labor camp, in Krakow. From 2017 to 2018, the Culture Ministry allocated 287 million zloty ($76 million) in grants for projects related to Jewish culture, of which 161 million zloty ($42.3 million) was allocated for Holocaust museums and memorials.
Poland is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2000, then-Prime Minister Buzek announced the establishment of the International Auschwitz Council, which advises the country’s Council of Ministers on the preservation and function of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and other Holocaust memorials. Top national government officials, including the President and the Prime Minister, participate in annual remembrance ceremonies, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 and the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
Poland allocates public funds to support Holocaust survivors. In 2014, Poland enacted a law that provides a monthly pension to Holocaust survivors from the country, wherever they reside, equivalent to the amount the government provides to pensioners in Poland. The 1991 Act on Combatants and Victims of War and Post-war Repression authorized allowances for eligible WWII combatants and victims of repression. As part of that law, survivors who were incarcerated in ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps, and death camps were eligible to receive cash benefits, including pension and disability allowances. The Foreign Ministry reported in mid-2019 that the government had paid 28.4 billion zloty ($7.5 billion) in pensions and disability since the law was enacted. These benefits are also available for qualified survivors who were Polish citizens during the Holocaust and later emigrated, although some lawyers representing eligible U.S. citizens have reported that it is difficult to apply for these benefits. Difficulties include evidentiary requirements for survivors who already have been recognized as survivors by Germany, the Claims Conference, or Israel. The requirement to produce additional documentation is particularly difficult for Holocaust survivors who may have lost their documents during the war. Additionally, certain categories of victims – including people who survived in hiding – are excluded.
Many Polish citizens benefitted from an agreement negotiated by the U.S. government with the German government in July 2000 that included compensation for certain slave and forced laborers. Of the 10 billion DM (worth approximately $5 billion at that time) Germany paid out worldwide under this agreement, the Polish government received 1.812 billion DM (approximately $906 million, using 2000 conversion rates) for payments to surviving former slave and forced laborers still living in Poland as of 2000. According to the final report of Germany’s “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation,” the Polish partner organization implementing the agreement in Poland made payments to 483,902 people. Experts estimate that the vast majority of beneficiaries were likely non-Jewish forced laborers, based on the relatively small number of Jewish slave laborers believed to have survived the war and still be alive and resident in Poland in 2000.
Romania, under pro-Nazi dictator Ion Antonescu, joined the Axis alliance in November 1940 and collaborated in the persecution and extermination of Jews. Quantifying the deadly impact of the Holocaust on Romanian Jews is complicated due to the numerous border and population shifts prior to and during World War II (WWII), with most experts evaluating population totals and deaths by area. For instance, in the summer of 1940, Romania was forced to cede territory to Hungary and the Soviet Union that contained more than half of its approximately 750,000 Jews. Following the June 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Romania seized back the ceded Soviet territories and occupied a larger area in Ukraine, to which it deported well over 100,000 Romanian Jews. Some 250,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died in areas under Romanian control between 1941 and 1944. In 1942, the Romanian regime initially agreed to turn over to Nazi Germany the 300,000 Jews still within Romania, but then refused to do so, resulting in their survival.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) estimates that 220,000 Romanian Jews died in the Holocaust, which includes at least 90,000 Jews deported by Hungary from northern Transylvania. Other Romanian sources, such as the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, estimate a higher number – between 280,000 and 380,000. Of the 25,000 Roma deported to Transnistria, at least 11,000 perished.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) estimates that between 9,300 and 17,000 Jews live in Romania today. In the 2011 census, 3,271 individuals declared themselves to be Jewish. The main organization representing the country’s Jewish community is the Federaţia Comunităţilor Evreieşti Din România (Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania).
In 1997, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) established the Caritatea Foundation, which assumed responsibility for preparing and submitting claims to the National Authority for Property Restitution (ANRP) for confiscated Jewish property. According to the Foundation, however, the process is complicated by ambiguities in Romania’s restitution laws, a general preference for courts to settle cases, short deadlines for documents, and overly bureaucratic procedures. Claimants may be directed to government-managed archives to obtain required documents, but the archives generally require long processing times that often result in missed submission deadlines.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
Private property seized during the Holocaust included farmland, forests, food processing plants, mills, distilleries, homes, apartments and buildings. Romania passed laws to reverse the confiscation of Jewish and Roma property soon after the fascist regime was deposed in August 1944. Legislation included Law No. 641/1944 (regarding the abolition of anti-Semitic measures) and Law No. 607/1945 (regarding the annulment of certain contracts that transferred property during exceptional circumstances). Since the country’s 1989 revolution, some claimants have pursued court cases to seek restitution of private property under Law 641/1944, which entitles Jews to seek restitution of certain properties confiscated during the Holocaust. There is no known statistical data covering restitution cases filed under Law 641/1944, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the courts have granted restitution or compensation in only a small percentage of these cases.
Claims by some foreign citizens relating to war damage and nationalization were settled through bilateral agreements with foreign governments (e.g., United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom). Restitution began to take place after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, although post-Communist restitution laws effectively often excluded Holocaust-era confiscations. Laws enacted in the 1990s for private and communal property restitution sometimes overlapped or conflicted and were not well enforced.
In the last decade, Romania has passed several broad laws on private property restitution. Following a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, Romania passed Law No. 165/2013 to rectify systemic problems with its restitution program for private property confiscated by the Communist regime. In 2016, subsequent legislation prioritized the processing of private property claims made by Holocaust survivors and resolved technical issues that had been delaying the return of certain Jewish communal properties.
The 2016 legislation was adopted during the tenure of then-Prime Minister Cioloș. Proposals that could help unblock or expedite the processing of remaining private and communal property claims, as well as proposals to make the application for a pension program less burdensome to Holocaust survivors who no longer have Romanian citizenship, are under review in discussions with the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and the WJRO.
During the Holocaust, the regime seized cemeteries, synagogues, schools, hospitals, and other types of Jewish communal or religious property. Under Romanian law, the Jewish community is entitled to receive compensation for buildings and land confiscated or nationalized between September 6, 1940, and December 22, 1989. The Caritatea Foundation has obtained restitution or compensation for 40 percent of the communal properties it identified. Lack of access to archival documents and the destruction of some archival collections limited the Foundation’s ability to file claims for all the identified communal properties before the 2006 deadline. Romania’s National Authority for Property Restitution reports a much higher percentage of successful claims (up to 90 percent).
Legislation passed in 2016 clarifies the Caritatea Foundation’s rights to 55 Jewish communal properties, such as schools and burial societies that were incorporated separately from properties owned by the country’s pre-Holocaust central Jewish communities. This 2016 legislation also resolved a technical issue that had delayed 40 of the Caritatea Foundation’s claims for properties that the Jewish communities were compelled to “donate” to the state during the Communist era.
Romanian law established a point system for compensation in private and communal property cases where restitution was not possible. Religious groups can use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation. The Commission validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission within the National Authority for Property Restitution, which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities. As is done with private property, these laws establish a 240-day period during which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases when requested by the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim. If a claimant cannot meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case. The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimant can prove he/she made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence (usually in the possession of other state authorities), although was unable to do so.
The 1947 Treaty of Paris requires Romania to return heirless and unclaimed property to the Jewish community. Romania enacted legislation in 1948 (Law No. 113) designed to implement the Treaty by transferring property belonging to victims of racial or religious persecution to organizations that would benefit remaining members of the community. According to a 2016 report by the European Shoah Legacy Institute, the law “was never fully or meaningfully implemented.”
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
During the Holocaust, government officials, including representatives of the National Bank of Romania, were responsible for the confiscation of artwork, jewels, foreign currency, bank accounts, and share certificates, as well as for the forced conversion of Romanian currency and forced sale of precious metals at lower exchange rates or prices. Law 641/1944 allowed for the restitution of movable property confiscated during the Holocaust. However, historians and representatives of the Jewish community report that the government has not implemented these provisions. These sources assert that valuable objects were either withheld by corrupt officials or transferred to the National Bank of Romania. The Jewish community has raised this issue, but the Bank asserts that no records are available. Historians speculate the evidence was likely destroyed. Experts from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany assert that Romanian cultural institutions do not conduct provenance research on their art collections.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
The Department is not aware of any outstanding issues with Judaica and Jewish cultural property. Some ceremonial objects and Torah scrolls that were preserved are currently located in the Jewish Museum in Bucharest.
Access to Archival Documents
The Caritatea Foundation has reported that lack of access to archival documents makes supporting restitution claims particularly challenging. In many cases, the Foundation was not able to obtain required documentation from the National Archives demonstrating proof of ownership in time to meet the deadlines imposed by restitution laws.
In February 2019, Romania’s parliament adopted a bill declassifying documents related to the Jewish community that are in the custody of the National Archives and the archives of the general secretariat of the government for the period 1938-1989. As of mid-2019, resources were not yet in place to identify and select relevant documents for declassification.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Romania joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2004 and held the chairmanship in 2016-2017. A key achievement during its chairmanship was the adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism in May 2016, followed by Romania’s national adoption of the definition in May 2017. The IHRA website (www.holocaustremembrance.com) provides details about post-Terezin Declaration developments in Romania, including the preservation of killing sites and the acknowledgement of the Romanian role in the Holocaust.
The government commemorates National Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 9, marking the day in 1941 when the Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria. Schools and some public institutions also commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In May 2019, government representatives participated in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland. Plaques are present at train stations located in areas from where Jews were deported during the Holocaust. Memorial sites relevant to the country’s Holocaust history are also present in several cities.
The Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, located in Bucharest, has carried out research on the Holocaust since 2005. The Institute implements a range of commemorative and educational projects, including training for teachers and educational resources for schools and exhibitions. The Ministry of Education organizes a national student contest every two years dedicated to the memory and history of the Holocaust.
Not all textbooks include accurate information about the Holocaust in Romania, and teaching Holocaust history is mandated only in the seventh grade. The high school course “History of the Jews – The Holocaust” is optional, and few students choose to take it. In March 2019, the Ministry of Education, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Wiesel Institute agreed on an arrangement that lays the groundwork for introducing high quality, historically accurate lessons on the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish people in Romania into the public school curriculum. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Wiesel Institute also hold regular trainings on the country’s Holocaust history for police officers.
In June 2019, the Wiesel Institute requested that the Romanian government approve the transfer of a lot adjacent to the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History in Bucharest to build a museum dedicated to the Holocaust. This request was not approved, but in September 2019, Romania’s parliament passed a bill transferring a building in downtown Bucharest to the Wiesel Institute for use as a museum.
The Wiesel Institute has reported cases of local authorities who allowed streets, organizations, schools, and libraries to be named after persons convicted of Holocaust-related war crimes or crimes against humanity. Most public history museums do not include information on the country’s Holocaust history in their permanent exhibitions, and exhibitions at some of these museums praise Ion Antonescu, the pro-Nazi dictator who governed Romania from 1940 to 1944 and, after the war, was convicted of war crimes and executed.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
Romanian and foreign citizens who were persecuted based on ethnic or religious criteria between 1940 and 1945 are entitled to a monthly pension. The amount of the pension varies, depending on the type and length of persecution endured. A law that went into effect in July 2019 allows Holocaust survivors who reside in foreign countries and are eligible for compensation in Romania to prove that they were victims of racial and ethnic persecution based on official documents released by institutions of the country of residence. The law also exempts Holocaust survivors residing in foreign countries from physically submitting their applications for compensation at the pension offices in Romania and allows them to use other means of communication in order to apply. For survivors who left at a young age and do not speak Romanian, submission of the application and additional documents in Romanian creates barriers. Roma survivors have also experienced challenges. Historians and Roma civil activists reported that a significant proportion of the remaining Roma survivors who applied for pensions were denied because of administrative barriers and requirements.