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Polish Jewish Holocaust Victims: Stolen Property

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of progress made at the International Terezin Declaration Conference in November 2022 towards securing from the government of Poland (1) restitution, (2) compensation, or (3) commemoration, of property stolen from Polish Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

My Lords, it is this Government’s assessment that there has been no progress on these important issues in Poland itself following legislation passed in 2020 which closed the door to any restitution or compensation claims. However, we continue to urge the Polish Government to take steps to ensure that claims are addressed. My noble friend Lord Pickles, the UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, raised this in a meeting with the Polish ambassador on 3 August. He will raise it again during his visit to Poland this week.

Continuing the theme of breaches of human rights, Poland is the only modern European country not to fulfil its moral and legal duty in relation to property. I have been asking this question for 14 years: asking the Government to take action on behalf of thousands of dispossessed victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and Poland has responded by putting more and more obstacles in the way of claims by legislating against them and even making it an offence to discuss Poland’s involvement—if it was—in the Holocaust. New Prime Minister Tusk promises to restore the rule of law and take Poland forward to liberal democracy, so, rather than just attending conferences with supporters, will the Government reopen direct negotiations with Prime Minister Tusk and raise at the Council of Europe Poland’s human rights failure to honour the obligation to restore property? It is a stain on Poland’s record.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will also recognise, as I did when I was preparing for this particular Question, exactly how her sentiments were similar to my sentiments, in that I have had to respond on a number of occasions in different ministerial portfolios on this question. The new Government are being formed. Obviously, the results are still being taken forward and different parties and alliances are coming together. The clear indication is very much that Mr Tusk may well emerge in forming the new Government. We will of course continue to prioritise it.

I would say to the noble Baroness that it is not just about attending meetings or conferences. The noble Baroness will know of the direct leadership of my noble friend on this issue. We take a strong stand on the issue of property restitution, in line with our unwavering commitment to supporting Holocaust survivors and families, and we will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.

My Lords, three years ago, the noble Baroness raised the question of the US legislation, and the Minister gave a sort of equivocal reply then. Clearly, this is something that should be reported on a regular basis. I ask the Minister to examine what the US was able to do in 2017, five years ago, and ensure that this Parliament can take up its responsibilities. We should not forget that the declaration requires us to do something; it is not simply a matter left to Poland.

My Lords, equally, the noble Lord will recognise, first of all, that I agree with his sentiments, but the Terezin Declaration was signed by 47 countries. It puts obligations on each country, including us, and I have given assurance again today about the importance of restitution and the United Kingdom Government’s position on this. We will also have a moment of focus next year when we take on the presidency of the IHRA, which will allow us again to prioritise this particular issue. Of course, we look at countries and the legislation they have proposed. Let us not forget also that Poland has signed this declaration. It is of course non-binding: nevertheless, I assure the noble Lord that we are looking at all avenues to see how we can make the case most effectively. One hopes that the new Government in Poland will reflect on their responsibilities again.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the persistence of the noble Baroness. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, whose work I commend, has been lobbying very hard for the implementation of the legal agreements that have been made. There has been European Union legislation, which Poland should be held to account to implement. What mechanisms are there when it comes to the United Kingdom, not only for public collections to make sure that they are properly audited, but also the private sector trade, sometimes far too regrettable, in looted goods? What mechanisms are there within the TCA with the European Union that we negotiated that will ensure that there are full audit trails for any goods? When we are negotiating bilateral trade agreements going forward, I have not yet seen any mechanisms in place through which this will be able to be reported on. I am very happy to discuss this separately with trade Ministers, but this surely is an area where there should be no loopholes.

I agree with the noble Lord about identifying where we can strengthen our legislation and legislative approach. Also, when it comes to issues of agreements, I will follow that up with our colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade. The noble Lord makes a more general point about how we can hold countries also to their responsibilities. One does hope for this. As I said, it is a non-binding declaration: nevertheless, the countries that have signed up have taken action. When it has come to issues of culture and books—there was a particular issue with the Library—we ourselves as a Government have ensured that those artefacts are fully protected and sustained, and indeed, where we can find true ownership, are returned.

My Lords, after years and years of pressing Polish Administrations to move on this issue, as Poland is the only country that has not in Europe, out of those discussions the Government must have some idea of what objections the Poles have got to acceding to their obligations. I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten the House and tell us what the arguments are that Poland is putting forward and has done over past decades as to why it refuses to accept its obligations.

My Lords, many agreements were signed after the Second World War. Often, different Governments in Poland have sought to point to these issues having been settled. This declaration makes sure that the legacy that remains is kept at the forefront of Governments’ minds; as I said in my Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, Poland passed legislation to the contrary in 2020. Of course, it remains at the behest of the Polish Government to look at legislation once again. There is a new Government in place and we will certainly once again make the case to them directly.