SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Holocaust survivors who lost property in Warsaw now have six months to reclaim it. But a new Polish law says that people who don't come forward by that deadline will not receive any compensation. The city will assume permanent ownership of their property. The World Jewish Restitution Organization has put together a database to help people track down their property. Gideon Taylor is the chair of operations for the organization. And he joins us now from New York. Mr. Taylor, thanks for being with us.
GIDEON TAYLOR: Thank you.
SIMON: And what kind of property is listed?
TAYLOR: So it's a mixture of buildings and empty plots. Warsaw was a thriving Jewish community. It was actually the second-largest Jewish community after New York before the Holocaust. And so there's a range of buildings and assets that were - originally belonged to Jews in what was a thriving, bustling Jewish community.
SIMON: And mostly Jews? Or we're talking about a number of different people?
TAYLOR: No. So this list of assets is properties that were claimed under a decree that was actually enacted in 1945 right after the war. It was possible for people at that time to make claims. But the communists basically just froze all the claims. And they were made by Jews and non-Jews. What this list that was published and that we've created into this database is people who filed claims under that 1945 decree. You had to have filed a claim, or somebody of the family had to have filed a claim at that time in order for you to have a claim today.
SIMON: Over the years, various Polish communist governments have said, look. Look, it wasn't us. It was the Nazis. Why should we be held responsible?
TAYLOR: I think the goal for us - for the WJRO - for the Jewish community - is not to say that Poland's responsible or not responsible. It's simply to return property that belonged to a family, to somebody. It was a home, a place, a business - something that belonged to a family. And Poland alone is the only country that doesn't have a national program to pay - either to return property or, at least, to provide compensation for it.
SIMON: And after all this time, why a deadline of six months?
TAYLOR: We argued that six months was way, way too short. You're talking about trying to go into archives, documents, find materials. Unfortunately, this was what was included in the legislation. And we've urged the Polish government to open that deadline - indeed, to open the program to people who never filed claims or for whom no claim - buildings for which no claims were filed.
SIMON: But the Polish government didn't agree.
TAYLOR: Unfortunately not. We're hoping that the Polish government will look again at this issue and make this process easier not only in terms of the deadline but also what documentation is required. Make sure that archives are open and material is accessible because if you have a right and legislation but not the means to enforce it - and particularly for many of the Holocaust survivors and their families, virtually all of whom live outside of Poland, it's very difficult. They don't speak the language. They don't live in the country. To address even the administrative issues is extremely difficult.
SIMON: And what makes this important, so many years after the terrible events we're talking about - after the crimes we're talking about?
TAYLOR: We're facing a situation where, in the next few years, we will be living in a world where there won't be Holocaust survivors. It's a population, obviously, that's very elderly, very sick and passing away very rapidly. So we think it's a matter of justice and morality to address and to conclude this issue before that last of that generation disappears.
SIMON: Gideon Taylor of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, thanks so much for being with us.
TAYLOR: Thank you very much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.