A few years ago, Shoshana Greenberg stood outside a building in Lodz, Poland, once owned by her family, with an old photograph in her hands and tears running down her face.
Greenberg, now 74 and living in Tel Aviv, was on a quest to reclaim property lost during the Holocaust. Her father was head of a prominent, wealthy Jewish family in Lodz that owned industrial buildings, residential homes and holiday properties.
When the Nazis came, the property was confiscated along with the family jewellery. They were forced into the Lodz ghetto. Later, Greenberg’s father and his siblings were sent to Auschwitz, and only her father survived. After the war, the new communist government in Poland nationalised property that had been confiscated while destitute Holocaust survivors rebuilt their lives from scratch elsewhere.
Since the fall of communist Europe in 1989, most countries in the former Soviet bloc have taken steps to provide restitution and compensation to their pre-war Jewish citizens. Poland is the only major country that has not implemented such a programme – and now it is on the verge of making recompense even harder.
In the coming weeks, a new law is expected to pass its final stages in the Polish parliament that will set a 30-year time limit on legal challenges over confiscated properties, in effect axing thousands of claims.
The Polish government has said the new regulations are aimed at preventing fraud and “irregularities”. It has also said it is “not responsible for the Holocaust, an atrocity committed by the German [occupiers]”. But many other countries – including the UK, Israel and the US – have sharply criticised the move.
Israel’s foreign ministry said: “This is not a historical debate about responsibility for the Holocaust but a moral debt of Poland to those who were its citizens and whose property was looted during the Holocaust and under the communist regime.”
Last week, the US said the legislation “would cause irreparable harm to both Jews and non-Jews by effectively extinguishing claims for restitution and compensation of property taken during the Holocaust that was subsequently nationalised during the communist period”.
The UK Foreign Office and the British embassy in Warsaw have raised concerns with the Polish government. Eric Pickles, the UK’s special envoy on post-Holocaust issues, tweeted: “Restitution of confiscated Jewish property remains unfinished business. Poland’s many friends urge it to agree a fair and reasonable scheme.”
Gideon Taylor, chair of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, told the Observer that the legislation was a “terrible mistake” that would “basically eliminate any claims”. He added: “The arguments made by the Polish government that there needs to be legal certainty is correct, and a very reasonable position. However, with that comes a necessity to address the underlying issues.”
Other former Soviet bloc countries had “squared up” to the past. “But Poland is trying to ignore the past, and paper over what was a huge injustice.” Some prominent Polish figures had advocated “addressing history openly and transparently but unfortunately there are stronger voices that reject any attempt to look at what happened. The hope is that wiser heads will prevail, but it’s very difficult,” Taylor said.
Three years ago, Poland made it a criminal offence to accuse the country of complicity in Nazi war crimes, with a penalty of up to three years in prison. After an international outcry, particularly from Israel and the US, the Warsaw government backtracked, making it a civil rather than a criminal offence.
Before the second world war, there were more than 3 million Jews living in Poland, the largest community in Europe. About 90% were killed in the Holocaust, many in the Nazi death camps. Now the Jewish population of Poland is about 10,000.
The Polish embassy in London said the legislation “does not discriminate against any person or any particular group, nor is it intended to antagonise any party, including Israel or the Jewish diaspora.”
It added: “Polish law allows all entitled individuals, irrespective of their nationality or origin, to pursue their rights, including in civil proceedings, to obtain compensation for property lost due to postwar nationalisation.
“Poland attaches great importance to commemorating victims of the genocide committed by the German occupiers on its territory during the second world war.”
Greenberg’s father asked her to one day reclaim the family’s property. Finally in 2016, she had her day in a Polish court. “On the witness stand, I was stronger than steel. My father’s voice spoke from my mouth, in the name of my family and all 6 million Jews who died,” she said.
After the court ruled she was the legal heir, she went to her father’s grave. “I told him he had won, that the family’s dignity had been restored.”
But within weeks the Polish land registry office denied her request that the property be registered in her name, citing a “caveat” registered in the 1950s. “I was shocked. I was the heir but not the owner.”
The new law is a further blow to Greenberg and other descendants seeking restitution. “The property does not belong to the Polish government, it belongs to my family. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed,” she said. “I hope the world will not be silent. I don’t forget and I never forgive. Never.”