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Polish Holocaust Survivors Press on with Restitution Claims

Holocaust survivors who recently attended meetings at the European Parliament are hopeful they will regain former family properties in Poland before they die.

Members of the delegation who attended the March 19 meeting in Brussels say they will keep the pressure on, with hearings every few months in various venues and Europe and the United States, until Poland returns the properties.

At issue are an estimated 180,000 properties confiscated from private owners by the Nazis in occupied Poland or by the Communist Polish government after World War II. Many were sold to private individuals by the Polish government after the fall of communism.

The survivor groups hope to use Poland’s desire for E.U. membership as leverage. A domestic referendum on E.U. membership is scheduled in Poland for this spring, and formal acceptance is foreseen for 2004.

The survivor groups expect to bring their message to the next meeting of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Washington in the spring.

The Helsinki Committee and the European Parliament can “give a strong message that if Poland wants to be in the European Union, they have to not violate human rights and they can’t take private property,” Jehuda Evron, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee in the United States, said in a phone interview from Brussels.

Evron, 70, came to Brussels from New York for the meetings, which were organized by Gary Titley, a British member of the E.U. Parliament. They were attended by Jewish and non-Jewish representatives of property owners, as well as lawyers and E.U. legislators.

Other survivor representatives at the meetings included Serge Cwajgenbaum, general secretary of the European Jewish Congress, and Peter Koppenheim, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee in Europe.

Miroslaw Szpowsky and Antoni Feldon of the Organization of Restitution of Polish Properties also participated.

Maciej Popowski, minister of Poland’s mission to the European Union, said the government is working on a restitution law that won’t discriminate between current Polish citizens and noncitizens, Evron said after the hearings. But the Polish government will offer just 20 percent to 50 percent of the value, he added.

Evron’s father-in-law, Sigmund Balitzer, owned a factory and a house in Zycwiez until he was murdered by the Nazis. The only one left from the family of 60 people was Evron’s wife, Lea, and her mother.

Evron’s story is one among many.

Survivors and descendants of the original owners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been pleading with the Polish government for years to return their properties. Accused of trying to ruin the Polish economy, they point out that they do not want money, only their property. And a bad economy would be bad for the survivors, too, Evron noted.

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller promised, during his visit in New York in November 2001, “to solve this tragic problem,” Evron said. “But a few days later he announced that there would be no restitution this year and probably not even next year.”

Piotr Ogrodzinski, director of the North American Department of Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told journalists that the government was “in touch with American Jewish groups regarding issues on private and communal property, including cemeteries and synagogues that are no longer cared for because there are no longer any Jews to care for them.”

He said that the government wanted Polish survivors abroad to be treated fairly regarding restitution, and that Poland is concerned about maintaining good relations with the United States.

“The Polish government takes this very seriously,” Ogrodzinski said, adding that the support of groups such as the American Jewish Committee had helped in Poland’s successful bid to join NATO.

Survivor groups say they are angry about their long wait for justice.

“Poland is the only country in Europe which hasn’t given anything back to survivors who can fully document their claims,” said Peter Koppenheim, president of the Holocaust Restitution Committee in Europe, who flew in from England for the hearings and spoke by phone from Brussels.

“I am in my early 70s, but there are people who are aged 80 and 90 and plus,” he said. “Why should they not have the benefit in old age of something to which they are entitled?”

According to Evron, some 35,000 Jews are believed to have legitimate claims. No dollar amount for the total property value was available.

Several major organizations are lending their support to the effort, including the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the American Jewish Committee.

“Restitution or full compensation is the only right thing to do. Stolen property must be returned,” said Israel Singer, chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress, prior to the hearings. “At a time when other nations in Western and Eastern Europe are facing up to their responsibilities, it is particularly important that Poland deal appropriately with this issue.”

“Polish Jewish victims of the Holocaust have waited far too long for the return of their family property, ” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “Justice demands that they receive restitution as soon as possible.”

Koppenheim’s parents had properties in the center of what was Breslau, Germany and now is Wroclaw, Poland.

“They were confiscated and sold by the Nazis in 1939,” and after the war were nationalized, Koppenheim said. “In the 1990s they were given back by the Polish government to the grandchildren of the Nazi sympathizers who bought them from the Nazis.”

They in turn sold the properties it to the international corporation Thyssen Krupp.

“There is no question it was once ours,” Koppenheim said. “Everything is fully documented and fulfills the requirements for an American court proceeding.”

Koppenheim is one of ten claimants who have filed a class action suit claiming that Poland’s reprivatization laws are ineffective, and discriminate against those who fled Poland and abandoned their property.

The claimants, represented by attorneys Ed Klein and Mel Urbach of New York, recently gained access to Polish documents that confirm their ownership claims.

Property seized by the Nazis and their allies from Polish citizens was classified as “abandoned” by the Communists who took over Poland after the war. the attorneys explained. After 1989, it was declared state property under the control of Poland’s democratic government.

Instead of seeking the former owners, as Germany did in 1992 with properties in the former East Germany, post-Communist Polish governments either have sold the properties or transferred ownership to local authorities.

“This is an injustice that must be investigated and resolved as Poland’s inclusion in the European Union draws closer,” Urbach said in a press statement. “We are not trying to punish Poland, but neither should thousands of survivors of the war who deserve to recover their property in Poland continue to be punished.”

If Poland doesn’t enact a law providing for property restitution to former owners — wherever they now live — survivor groups may pressure Poland to create a fund to help the survivors, Evron said.

“Thirty percent of them are very poor,” living on reparations payments of a few hundred dollars per month, he said.

Pressure from survivor groups and eastern European governments, strengthened by the threat of class action lawsuits in the United States, led German industry and the German government to create a $5 billion fund for surviving Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.

One-time payments have been made to survivors — a large percentage of whom are non-Jewish Poles — since the spring of 2001.

For the Evrons, however, money is not the issue. A while back, they visited the former family property in Zycwiez.

“We were walking on the street and looking at the factory and someone asked who we were,” Evron said. “My wife said, ‘This was my father’s factory.’ He said, ‘Oh, Mr. Balitzer, he was such a nice man.’

“She started to cry. And he said, ‘I don’t understand why they don’t give it to you,’ ” Evron said.

“The people on the street understand that it is a terrible injustice,” said Evron, who plans to return to the site “with my entire family, 15 people including my grandchildren” — but only when they can say it is theirs again.

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