The Polish authorities are preparing to redress the damages suffered by people who, as a result of the anti-Semitic hunt started by the communists in 1968, were forced to leave Poland. Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz made this promise during his recent visit to Israel.
The 1968 anti-Semitic hunt was part of a political war inside the communist party. At that time, many Jews who were Polish citizens decided to emigrate. If they declared Israel as their destination, they wouldn't receive a passport, but a travel pass, and only after they had applied for a change of citizenship. Having crossed the border, the emigrants ceased to be Polish citizens. As early as 1958, individual applications were not being considered; rather the State Council (the collective president) gave all Jews emigrating to Israel mass permission to renounce their Polish citizenship.
There is no official data on how many Jews lost their citizenship. Neither the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration (which stores the communist Interior Ministry files), the Ministry of Foreign (which monitors the problems of Polish emigrants) nor the President's Chancellery, which took over the State Council's archives, has such numbers.
"Estimates speak of around 11,000 people," says Paweł Dobrowolski, Ministry of Foreign Affairs press spokesman. According to Jan Węgrzyn, deputy director of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration's Citizenship Department, the problem applies to others besides the 1968 emigrants. "This was the most spectacular event, but the biggest emigration wave heading for Israel was recorded in the 1950s. Besides, Polish Germans were treated in a similar manner," Węgrzyn told the Voice.
By filing a suit against the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the Supreme Administrative Court, Jerzy W. had hoped to regain his Polish citizenship. He emigrated from Poland in 1957. In 1994, he asked the Cracow provincial governor to provide him with a citizenship certificate. When the governor refused, Jerzy W. appealed to the Minister of Internal Affairs Andrzej Milczanowski. In February 1995, Milczanowski sustained the governor's denial. Jerzy W. then submitted his case to the Supreme Administrative Court.
"We were hoping the court would decide whether the State Council's 1958 decision was legal," says Węgrzyn. However, instead of making a ruling, in January the court repealed the ministry's decision and ordered it to look into Jerzy W.'s case once again. The court decided that the State Council's verdict had not affected the defendant, who had left the country before the act was enforced. The court only objected to the ministry's proceedings.
Even though Jerzy W.'s case didn't set a precedent, former Poles can still hope to regain their citizenship. "The  act refers only to people who were granted permanent residence in Israel. So even if someone had declared Israel as their destination, if they never received the right to stay permanently, they haven't legally lost their Polish citizenship," claims Węgrzyn. Paweł Piotrkowicz, from the Legal and Political Bureau in the President's Chancellery, confirms this. "Under those circumstances, the note on the travel pass saying that its owner is not a Polish citizen is not legally valid," says Piotrkowicz.
Other emigrants stand equal chances of regaining their citizenship. Today, it's the president who makes that decision. He can give citizenship rights to a person who once lived consistently in Poland for five years or "for other important reasons." Applicants have to submit a written request with the President's Chancellery or at a Polish embassy anywhere in the world. The president may, but does not have to, grant the request.
Piotrkowicz says that the President's Chancellery has been receiving applications since 1990, and many of them have received positive replies (see box). "The largest number was submitted when the parliament was debating on the reprivatization bill (still awaiting passage) which would return property appropriated by the communist government only to Polish citizens," claims Piotrkowicz.
Applicants have to wait from six months to a year for their requests to be considered. "Sometimes courier mail fails, and the decision letter reaches the applicant after a three-month delay," says Piotrkowicz.
According to Stanisław Krajewski, co-chairman of the Committee for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, who represents Jewish interests, the problem of reinstating Polish citizenship should be solved in a single legislative move. In his opinion, it would be a good way to apologize to all Polish Jews, even those who did not emigrate. "It would be really wonderful. Perhaps my cousins could become Poles again," says a young Pole of Jewish origin who requested to remain anonymous.
Krajewski claims that it does not matter how those who were forced to emigrate regain their citizenship. "The government might decide that those people had never lost their citizenship, or it can reinstate those rights," he says. Krajewski thinks that Polish authorities should rule that the Jews who had left as the result of the 1968 program never lost their citizenship. "It would redress the humiliation they were subjected to," he explains.
He admits that most emigrants won't take advantage of the opportunity created by the Polish authorities. "They have adjusted to their new situation, but the decision to reinstate their citizenship would improve Poland's image in the international arena," says Krajewski.
According to Piotrkowicz, the government can't automatically reinstate citizenship to all 1968 emigrants. "How do we know whether someone was actually forced to emigrate?" he asks. He stresses that the final decision will be made by the president.
Krzysztof Śliwiński, the foreign minister's representative for matters involving the Jewish Diaspora, says the problem preferably should be solved in the Supreme Administrative Court. "Citizenship can't be reinstated automatically, though. Not everyone would be happy with that. All those interested should submit their individual applications," explains Śliwiński.
In 1996, the president granted Polish citizenship to 677 people, and refused it to 624. He allowed six people to change their citizenship but did not give his consent to a citizenship change in five cases. He also issued 165 promises to grant citizenship if the people applying renounced their present citizenship. No statistics are available to show the proportion of the applications concerning Jews.
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