“The return of the Jews to their jobs and workshops is quite out of the question, even if the number of Jews is greatly reduced. The non- Jewish population has filled their places in the towns and cities; in much of Poland this is definitive and final in character. The return of masses of Jews would be perceived not as an act of restitution, but as an invasion against which they would have to defend themselves, even by physical means”
– Roman Kroll, Polish Government in Exile, London 1943
Poland remains the only major country in the European Union that refuses to pass a restitution law compensating individuals for private property stolen during the Holocaust and its Communist aftermath. After the 2009 Holocaust-era assets conference in the Czech Republic concluded with a landmark statement of principles, many restitution advocates had high hopes that a corner had been turned in the struggle for survivor justice in Poland.
Five years later, Poland stands out in its failure to fulfill — or even recognize — its responsibility to the victims.
Before the start of the Second World War, there were roughly 3.3 million Jews in Poland, about 10% of the population. While figures vary, Polish Jews owned roughly 15-20% of all private property in the country. Today over 80% of restitution claimants in Poland are Polish Christians. Yet in spite of this overwhelming majority of ethnic Polish property claims, the Polish media does not always “spin” the story this way. Angora, a popular Polish weekly drew international attention for its April 2011 headline: “They are demanding more than 60 billion dollars. How much do the Jews want from us?”
What would the effect of any restitution law be upon Poles and Polish society? What hardships would arise for ordinary Poles? Polish historian Dariusz Stola believes that Poles are aware that “former Jewish” property did not come into the possession of its new Polish owners by usual means but through terrible and unimaginable crimes. He believes that this surreptitious “appropriation” of stolen wealth can be a source of inner anxiety for Polish society. There are many Poles who legitimately fear that they will be put out on the street should a restitution law ever pass. After a feature film on the subject of Poles murdering Jews for their property was released in 2012, the controversy exploded in the Polish press. Pokłosie or Aftermath tells the story of a contemporary middle aged Pole living in Chicago who upon returning to the family farm discovers that his father was among the local village men who locked their Jewish neighbours in a barn, burned them to death and took over their property. The film dramatized a similar incident which took place in the town of Jedwabne on July 10th, 1941. Maciej Stuhr, the star of the film and one of the Poland’s leading actors faced death threats and headline accusations for having betrayed the nation. In the months following the film’s release, the producer has been subjected to a financial inquisition by the Polish Film Fund that has yet to be resolved.
This documentary project is not about playing the role of judge and jury. “Restitution” is about more than just real estate. It engages in the process of healing the wounds of history by reconciling the victims with those who’ve profited from them and with those who would suffer the consequences if the property were ever restituted. It’s about opening a difficult discussion and speaking about the unspeakable in order to air a traumatic episode in Poland’s past that still haunts the nation today.