Poland Moves On Property Restitution


For the first time, the city of Warsaw has enacted a Holocaust-era property restitution law — but a prior claim must have already been filed and owners or their heirs have just months to act.

Although the city plans to publish in Polish the list of properties eligible to be claimed, researchers at the World Jewish Restitution Organization have tracked down most of the names of the pre-war owners and posted them on their www.wjro.org.il website.

The Warsaw municipality has released the addresses of 2,613 properties that are eligible to be claimed. Many are within the former Jewish neighborhoods of the city and were presumably owned by Jews. Among the names of the property owners are Landau, Wiener, Bromberg, Ettinger, Glass, Hirszberg, Stern, Eisenberg, Szapiro, Goldstein and Goldberg.

Properties in some of the most important streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw, such as Nalewski Street, are in the database.

According to the municipality’s rules, only those properties for which a claim was already filed in compliance with the Warsaw Decree issued Oct. 26, 1945, may be reclaimed. At the time, Poland was under Communist control and all private property had been nationalized earlier in the year. The Warsaw Decree allowed property owners to file a claim but few if any claims were reviewed and approved.

Two months ago — on Sept. 17 — Warsaw enacted a new law that reactivated the old claims. Gideon Taylor, WJRO’s director of operations, said that to date, Warsaw has released a list of only 2,613 eligible properties but that it may publish more. To date, none of the properties have been published in a Polish newspaper or on the city’s website. Once they are, owners have just six months to file a claim and another three months to prove ownership. Property not reclaimed in time reverts back to the city.

WJRO researchers used mortgage information and the 1930 and 1939-40 homeowners’ directory to match owners to the street addresses. But Taylor stressed that just having a person’s name appear on its database does not guarantee the claim is valid.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II on Sept. 1, 1939, Warsaw had a population of about 394,000 Jews, which represented about one-third of the city’s total. By the time the city was liberated with the help of 6,000 Jews in January 1945, just 2,000 Jewish survivors were found living in underground hideouts and much of the city had been destroyed, according to historians.

Taylor emphasized that the new Warsaw law is designed to terminate all property claims against the city. He noted that Poland remains the only Eastern European country not to enact national legislation to address the issue of Holocaust-era property restitution. The Warsaw law, he said, should be seen as a “call for the government of Poland to address this global issue.”

“There needs to be a claims process for everyone, including those who did not file in 1945,” Taylor said. “The claims were originally filed under a Communist-era law and they then languished for years. What we are doing is trying to recreate history. The database is an opportunity to reconnect people with their past and with their properties, which were at the heart of what was once a dynamic, thriving Jewish community in Warsaw.”

He said he had no idea of the monetary value of the eligible properties but that “it is not just about money or what the property is worth. Every piece of property is a connection to a family’s history, and for many this is about reconnecting with their roots and the past.”