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Around the Jewish World Communal Restitution Drags on in Poland, to Jewish Groups’ Chagrin

May 16, 2006
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Monika Krawczyk has been haggling for several years with the municipal government of Brzeziny in central Poland. The town council, she says, includes several members who grew up next to a synagogue that they now pretend never existed. “They tell me to show them more papers that the synagogue was there, even though as children they played right next to it,” said Krawczyk, a lawyer and CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. She has been trying to wrest the synagogue plot from Brzeziny on the foundation’s behalf.

The case of Brzeziny, about 12 miles east of Lodz, illustrates how difficult it is to reclaim properties that belonged to the communal organizations that oversaw Jewish life in Poland before World War II.

More than half the population of the nearly 12,000-person town was Jewish in 1939. Brzeziny’s Jews were nearly all exterminated by the Nazis, but — as in other Polish cities and towns — there is land there, if not actual buildings, that once belonged to the Jewish community.

“It’s a complex matter of ownership rights. The disputed plot is owned by someone else now,” Iwona Urban, a lawyer for the municipality, told JTA. “We tried to agree on a compensation package with the foundation but it didn’t work, so the court will decide.”

Years could pass before a decision is handed down.

Krawczyk’s struggle — fruitless meetings with resentful municipal officials, bottomless paperwork and even encounters with anti-Semitic graffiti — is part of a wider attempt to deal with some 5,000 claims that have been filed since 1997, when the Polish government agreed to a process that would allow for the restitution of Jewish communal property.

Most claims are for former synagogue plots, hospitals and even orphanages that are now parking lots, police stations, parks and apartment buildings in small towns across Poland.

Only 16 percent of the 5,000 claims have been reviewed so far by the government panel on Jewish communal restitution. Of those, 456 were judged to have merit, in which case restitution must be made or compensation must be paid based on the value of the property right after World War II.

“At the rate things are going, the claims will not be solved for 30 years,” Krawczyk said.

The slow pace could have a devastating effect on restoration of the country’s monuments and 1,300 cemeteries, she added, since that is how the foundation, which has jurisdiction over restitution on 60 percent of Polish territory, uses the restitution money.

The Union of Religious Jewish Communities and its local branches oversee restituted property in the other 40 percent of the country.

Rough estimates have put the current value of communal Jewish property at $30 million to $50 million, according to Andrzej Zozula, the union’s executive director.

“I think that everyone had hoped the restitution process would move faster,” Herbert Block, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a member of the board of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told JTA earlier this year.

Faster may be just what the government has in mind as well.

At an April meeting with the Interior Ministry, government officials agreed that the pace of return was unacceptable. They decided to replace the six-member commission responsible for judging restitution claims and said the easiest cases should be given priority.

The government’s stance is a sea change from previous administrations, according to many Polish Jews.

Krawczyk said both changes should greatly increase the speed at which cases are decided. But she said municipal authorities remain reluctant to return Jewish property.

“It’s really hard to understand the mentality of a place like this,” she said of Brzeziny, where the synagogue was destroyed by the Communist regime in 1957.

“There were no Jews left, so the Communists also took the sand from the Jewish cemetery and made a sand mine, and then used the sand, mixed in with bones, to build pre-fabricated housing for the town’s residents,” she claimed.

In the wake of this history, Krawczyk said she found it depressing that town authorities keep asking her for additional documents for the synagogue — which is mentioned in the town’s Web site — even though she says she has found evidence of its registration in the relevant property office.

Last October, a plaque commemorating the rabbi’s house, across from the former synagogue, was destroyed. Anti-Semitic graffiti, which the city still hasn’t cleaned up, was scrawled in its place.

Krawczyk said she’s running out of patience.

“I worry that when we finally do get properties back and can make money off of them, it will be too late, because the buildings or headstones are falling apart in front of our eyes,” she said.

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