WARSAW (Oct. 7)
The recent suicide of a prominent Jewish community leader in Poland has drawn unwelcome publicity to alleged fraud in the restitution of prewar Jewish property.
Feliks Lipman, an Auschwitz survivor who was chairman of the Jewish community in the southern city of Katowice and a vice chairman of the Union of Polish Jewish Religious Communities, shot himself in the head at the end of August. He was in his 80s.
“We knew he had many debts and there was talk of mismanagement, but we did not know details,” said Jerzy Kichler, chairman of the union.
An article late last month in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita implicated Lipman in real estate fraud involving restituted buildings. The report described alleged shady dealings related to the restitution of prewar Jewish communal and private property.
The Katowice Jewish community has put in restitution claims for about 100 communal properties.
Lipman apparently was using Jewish community money — including part of $400,000 received in the process of communal restitution — for his private business, planning to pay it back when the business brought income, said a Jewish community source in Warsaw, who did not want to be quoted by name.
“Apparently he lost money and began nervous borrowing, signing IOUs, etc.,” the source said. “Probably he was faced with threats that his other transactions would be brought to light.”
According to media reports and Jewish sources, police are investigating several restitution cases in which Lipman was involved.
One of these, according to Rzeczpospolita, is that of a certain Chana Goldfeld from Israel, who apparently gave power of attorney to a lawyer from Katowice in 1997.
A house was returned to Goldfeld and then sold, but it turns out that Goldfeld died before she allegedly signed the power of attorney.
In a suicide note, Lipman reportedly said certain failed deals forced him to take his life.
One case he reportedly mentioned was that of a Solomon Szelewik from Israel, who in July took back from Lipman the right to manage the building restituted to him.
“The fact is that neither his colleagues nor his family knew what was happening,” the Warsaw source said of Lipman. “He ruled the kehillah,” or Jewish community, “single-handedly, and, because of the autonomy of the kehillah, we in Warsaw had no way to intervene,” he said.
Though still unproven, the allegations have shocked, saddened and disturbed local Jewish leaders — and are sure to cast a long shadow.
“We struggle to maintain the highest level of integrity, as our responsibility to the past requires of us,” Michael Schudrich, the American-born rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, told JTA. “What is more important than the fact that scandals occur is how we react to them. There must be full disclosure and no tolerance or accepting of such acts or people, even though it is painful and embarrassing. We owe it to those who came before us to clean house.”
Restitution of prewar communal property is regulated by a 1997 law, but no specific legislation regulates private property restitution.
“Private property is a contentious issue, not just for Jews but for all Poles,” Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski recently told a group of visiting foreign reporters. “Part of the problem is the fact that borders shifted so much after the war.”
For example, in addition to Jewish private property that was seized or reoccupied, millions of ethnic Germans abandoned private property when they were forced to leave Silesia after that region became part of Poland in the postwar years.
Despite the lack of cohesive legislation, many individuals have begun to obtain their former property or their ancestors’ property through existing legal mechanisms.
The allegations about Lipman came in the wake of earlier accusations involving fraud connected with these private restitution requests.
According to media reports and Jewish sources, a “considerable” number of claims have turned out to be fraudulent.
“There are serious indications that in Katowice crooks have benefited from the lack of regulations concerning post-Jewish property,” Rzeczpospolita said. “This is a reminder of the need of a comprehensive legal solution.”
News articles have detailed how several buildings in Krakow, in particular, were restituted and later sold on the basis of falsified wills or through proxies.
Krakow prosecutors say organized networks of swindlers are carrying out such scams. The prosecutors have turned to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw to help trace the legal heirs of properties.
“Krakow prosecutors have been investigating the scandal for more than a year,” said a source at the institute. “We are cooperating in helping find out if the claimants are real.”
The Lipman case is believed to be the first time that a Jewish community, rather than individual thieves or a gang of swindlers, has been implicated in restitution fraud. There is concern that the revelations will impact the progress of communal property restitution.
“I’m afraid it will have an effect,” said Eve Anderson, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which was set up to administer restituted communal property. “I’m afraid it will affect the psyche of Polish officials.”
The 1997 restitution law named Poland’s Jewish communities as the legal entities entitled to submit restitution claims for communal property. It set a May 11, 2002 deadline for filing such claims.
The foundation was formed as a partnership between the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.
Though there do not appear to have been other accusations of fraud, some Jewish community sources have raised questions about a lack of transparency in how individual Jewish communities are handling claims.