WARSAW - Poland's prime minister has outraged the Jewish community by saying compensation for property seized during World War II would represent a posthumous triumph for Adolf Hitler.
The ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) argues that as a victim of invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany in the 1939-1945 war, Poland should not be saddled with financial obligations in providing restitution payments to Jews.
"If it ever got to this point, to this horrible injustice, if the victim and the executioner switched places, it would be an abuse of all of the basic principles of international law and would also be Hitler's posthumous victory," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday.
Poland was home to one of the world's biggest Jewish communities, before it was almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis who set up notorious death camps such as Auschwitz.
The World Jewish Congress' president, Ronald S. Lauder, called for the prime minister to deny or retract his comments, calling them "alarming in the extreme" and "reprehensible."
The World Jewish Restitution Organization also weighed in. "This statement, if reported correctly, is deeply insensitive to Holocaust survivors and their families," it said.
Jewish former property owners and their descendants have been campaigning since the 1989 fall of communism to be compensated, but Polish administrations have lacked the money or determination to resolve the issue.
"Successive Polish governments have steadfastly refused to recognize the material losses of Polish Jewry and have essentially treated their homes and other property as the spoils of war - and individual Poles and Polish institutions have profiteered from these assets for more than seven decades,"
Lauder added in the statement from his organization.
Morawiecki defended himself on Tuesday, telling reporters critics had taken out of context his comments in a speech at a party convention in the central Polish city of Lodz.
"If they read the full sentence, they wouldn't criticize this speech," said the 50-year-old former banker who in his youth was involved in the underground anti-communist movement.
Polish-Israeli relations have deteriorated in recent months over accusations that Warsaw's nationalist PiS government has failed to counter anti-Semitic incidents strongly enough.
The PiS denies that.
"I don't know what is anti-Semitic about telling the truth - that the Germans attacked Poland and that Poland defended itself ... and many times defended Jews," deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki told state-run TV channel TVP on Tuesday.
Many Poles still refuse to accept research showing thousands participated in the Holocaust in addition to the thousands who risked their lives to help the Jews.