Mixed Record On Return Of Property


Lublin, Poland — On the first two nights of Passover, the ground floor of a former medical academy near Lublin’s historic Old City was crowded by early evening with members of the Jewish community. Children played for hours in the hallways while senior citizens schmoozed in a small office. After sundown, joined by other members of the community and a Jewish choir from Warsaw, they filed into a social hall for the seders; afterward, they stayed to play and shmooze some more.

The venue, founded as Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin in 1930, is both a landmark in 20th-century Jewish history and a symbol of revived Jewish life in contemporary Eastern Europe.

The block-long, five-story, yellow-brick building was dedicated in 1930 under the leadership of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, founder of the Daf Yomi Talmud study program. Vandalized by the Nazis during World War II and occupied by a medical school during the communist administration after the war, the building was returned to the Jewish community by the national government in 2002, and rededicated a year ago in a lavish ceremony attended by government officials and prominent Jewish leaders.

The yeshiva — believed to be the largest yeshiva building in prewar Europe — is arguably the most prestigious Jewish site yet returned to Jewish hands as part of a restitution effort across the onetime Iron Curtain countries. Its return is a symbol of the benefits Jewish communities may reap, and of the problems they may face, as thousands of other buildings or pieces of property await return to Jewish ownership.

Poland’s Jewish community — with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and other Jewish organizations — has filed claims for about 5,500 pieces of Jewish-owned communal property since the government adopted a restitution law in 1997. So far, nearly 1,300 cases have been settled, and 600 pieces of property have been returned. The resultant sale or rental of the property brings millions of dollars into communal coffers, fueling the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland and in similarly once-destitute Jewish communities in the region.

Poland is the only major country in the former Soviet bloc that has no laws about the restitution of private property, but Prime Minister Donald Tusk, during a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York in March, pledged that such legislation will be passed this year.
“A successful property restitution program is an indicator of the effectiveness of the rule of law in a democratic country,” the U.S. State Department declared last year in a report on “Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe.”

Lublin’s yeshiva has emerged as the center of social and educational activities for the city’s tiny Jewish community. The city, which has a prized place in Polish Jewish history and which had a Jewish population of 40,000 on the eve of the Holocaust, now has an affiliated Jewish population of 26. In the months since the rededication, members of the Jewish community come for more-frequent programs.
Pride created by the building has caused a few unaffiliated Lublin Jews to openly affiliate, says Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland. “We certainly have more people saying they’re Jews, because it’s something to be proud of. When you have a place to go to, it gives a certain credibility.”

Rabbi Schudrich says Lublin’s Jewish community, a branch of the Warsaw Jewish Community, remains small and relatively inert, despite the yeshiva. “Nothing happens overnight. It’s typical of a small community.”

Renovations on the yeshiva’s first two floors have cost about $500,000. Plans for the basement and the top two floors include a mikveh and a hotel.
Though the yeshiva has emerged as a magnet for overseas Jewish tourists who visit the nearby Majdanek death camp, the graves of prominent rabbis in Lublin’s Jewish cemetery and the interfaith Brama Grodzka theater-educational center in the Old City, the Jewish community’s financial picture has not improved much.

“We expected much more involvement from the outside,” from overseas Jewish organizations and philanthropists, says Piotr Rytka-Zandberg, the Warsaw Jewish Community’s director for restitution and property management.
The return of property, even a landmark like the yeshiva, is not a panacea, leaders of Polish Jewry say.
And sometimes challenges to Jewish ownership come up unexpectedly.

The municipality of Lublin recently informed Rytka-Zandberg that it had found in its archives a 48-year-old document showing that a now-defunct, Detroit-based successor organization to the yeshiva had sold the property to the city.

Lublin is challenging the Jewish community’s ownership claim; the Ministry of Finance is considering the city’s claim.
“Absolutely, we are worried,” Rytka-Zandberg says. “The Jewish community members are very upset by the city.”
Until the Finance Ministry issues a decision, renovations on the yeshiva are proceeding, he says. “We don’t want to lose time. We believe we are the owners.

So far, Lublin’s challenge appears to be the only alternative claim to title brought against a major piece of communal property returned to Jewish ownership in the region. “I hope,” Rytka-Zandberg says, “this is only an exception."

Steve Lipman’s visit to Poland was sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.