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Wednesday, December 10, 1997 Published at 20:49 GMT

Poland's Jewish survivors may get compensation

Eight countries are to set up a new fund for surviving victims of Nazism, mainly Jews, using proceeds from gold looted by the Nazis and found by the Allies after the Second World War. The agreement emerged from this week's international conference in London on the Nazi gold question. Poland was once home to the biggest Jewish community in the world and its surviving Jewish population may now get some compensation. But most of the assets looted from them are still untraced. As Sanchia Berg, who has just completed three years as our correspondent in Warsaw, reports Poland is constantly preoccupied with how to deal with its Jewish past.

Passover in Poland is an especially poignant time. Every year a Rabbi in Warsaw arranges a free `seder' - a dinner to mark the festival, which celebrates the survival of the Jewish people.

In a second-rate hotel, still decorated in communist style, he serves scores of kosher meals in airline packaging.

Then they come out, the old lonely people, survivors of the holocaust.

Passover is a family occassion but these pensioners are alone. Some look slightly nervous.

They sit in solitude until the visiting Americans fill up their tables. In Polish or halting Hebrew they follow the ceremony marking the passage of the Jews out of slavery in Egypt - as their families did for centuries in Poland.

These are the relics of Europe's largest Jewish community. For decades these old men and women have lived in poverty and fear.

They stayed through the Holocaust, through the post-war pogroms, through the expulsion of most remaining Polish Jews in 1968.

One man in his sixties told me he had hidden his Jewishness. He had married a Catholic woman with rather anti-Semitic views. "She doesn't know I'm here - she doesn't know I'm Jewish," he stammered.

Young people are more confident. Jewish youth clubs round the country attract hundreds of young people - who are sometimes defying their own parents by coming.

One girl told me how, when she was 12, her mother had taken her aside and whispered: "Kasia, you're Jewish, but never tell ANYONE."

But Kasia had decided to live a Jewish life, go to the synagogue, celebrate the festivals - even to try to eat only kosher food.

With a Jewish name and dark hair I was apprehensive when I arrived in Warsaw. Friends in London had warned me about Polish anti-Semitism.

One of the first things I noticed was the anti-Jewish graffiti - the Stars of David on the gallows, the words Jews Out painted on walls in the city.

Someone even drew an amateur Star of David on my private postbox in the courtyard below my flat.

Yet in three years I have never been threatened and only once has anyone made an explicit remark.

Last year at a Roman Catholic fundamentalist demonstration outside parliament thousands of people had come up from the countryside to protest against a liberal abortion law.

I was questioning priests and nuns in the crowd. A woman in her thirties stared at my press card and said: "Ah yes, a Jewess, I thought as much."

It was always in such large crowds I heard anti-Semitic chants and insults - sometimes from angry drunken men carrying bottles and sticks.

I often wondered what would have happened if I had challenged them - but I was never quite that brave.

It was in quieter moments, with more sophisticated people, that I had tried reasoned discussion. In a bar in western Poland a cameraman I often worked with said for westerners the Holocaust blotted out the suffering of other Poles during the war.

Married to a Jewish woman, he said outsiders forgot as many Christians as Jews were killed under Nazi occupation.

I have lost count of the number of times I have said to Polish friends: "But Jews were exterminated BECAUSE they were Jews. It was qualitatively different."

At the highest level there has been a change. Polish government officials have tried to undo their country's reputation for anti-Semitism, fearing it could block their swift membership of NATO.

They have stopped a supermarket being built opposite Auschwitz and have apologised for past pogroms.

The Catholic church has even suspended a priest after he made anti-Jewish remarks. Thanks to foreign money, a few synagogues are being renovated.

But it is all a bit piecemeal. The property and possessions of the three million Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust were grabbed by the Nazis and then taken over by the communist state.

There has been no attempt by officials to trace any of the rightful heirs.

Partly for fear of damaging the slowly improving climate the Jewish community in Poland is not pressing for complete restitution.

Those who remember what happened - like the survivors at the passover dinner - are old and often unwell.

In Poland many records have been destroyed. If nothing is done soon - they - and their testimony - will die.

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