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.