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For Poland, Property Restitution Has Become International Dilemma

June 10, 2005
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The restitution of private Jewish property in Poland has gone from a nagging problem to an international dilemma, as the Polish government is still trying to determine how to handle claims — and survivors or their heirs face long court battles that often lead nowhere. Only about 10 percent of Poland’s approximately 3.5 million-strong Jewish community survived World War II, and many of those survivors fled after the war to Israel, America and other countries. In recent years, restitution for Jewish homes and businesses confiscated by the Nazis, and later nationalized by Poland’s Communist government, has moved to the forefront of survivor concerns.

Representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization recently met with Polish government leaders and drafted a resolution recommending how future claims should be handled.

The issue also has come to light in recent months because of Henryk Pikielny, a Holocaust survivor from Lodz who filed a case against Poland with the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg.

A Polish group, the Organization of Property Owners in Poland, wants similar restitution measures instituted for non-Jews who lost property during the war. That group supports the WJRO and its initiatives.

The Polish Parliament approved a law for the restitution of private property in March 2001, but it limited the right to file a claim to those who had Polish citizenship as of Dec. 31, 1999.

That excluded Polish Jews who had moved from Poland during the intervening 55 years. In 2002, then-Prime Minister Leszek Miller amended the law so that claimants wouldn’t be discriminated against because of citizenship.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski recently visited Israel, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he hoped the issue of Jewish property in Poland would be resolved satisfactorily.

Complicating matters further, some of the politicians who have been discussing the issue may lose their seats in presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.

Kalman Sultanik, chairman of the Federation of Polish Jews of the United States and a JTA board member, led the delegation in February to meet with members of the Polish Parliament on behalf of the WJRO.

The group delivered a letter imploring Poland not to go ahead with a proposed plan under which heirs would receive just 15 percent of a property’s value. The WJRO instead proposes that Poland restitute the original property, provide a comparable property or pay the property’s current monetary value.

While other countries have adopted legislation to return properties to Jewish heirs, Poland does not have such laws. Survivors or heirs who wish to pursue property must subject themselves to intensive scrutiny of documents and endure a long court battle. For many, especially the elderly, the process can be difficult.

Moshe Taitelbaum is a lawyer whose father was from Poland and who has been living here about eight years working with people on restitution cases. He estimates that there are about 20 lawyers working on such cases in Poland today, and thousands of cases in the courts.

“The tempo of the courts is not speedy,” he says.

Taitelbaum told JTA that time is working against claimants: As survivors die, it’s more difficult to prove a family connection and, therefore, rights to a property.

The cost of litigating a property often is greater than the property’s value, he added, noting that properties that have hardly been kept up for 60 years often are in derelict condition, and restoration costs are prohibitive.

Poland also faces restitution issues regarding non-Jewish citizens, many of whom lost property in eastern areas that were part of Poland until the border shifted after World War II.

Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a Polish American who has lived in Poland for nearly 20 years and whose family lost property near Lvov, Ukraine, points out that “any private property restitution in Poland today is unfair to those persons who lost property in what used to be Poland but is today Lithuania, Belarus or Ukraine, from which countries there is [no chance] of getting property or some monetary equivalent.”

In the western part of Poland, she notes, there’s a similar debate about who should get property that formerly belonged to Germans but that has been disputed since that border changed at the end of World War II.

“Some of those citizens would have been SS or Wehrmacht soldiers,” she says, “but others would have been German Jews.”

The building where Taitelbaum’s office is located was the family home of Lili Haber, an Israeli whose parents were born in Krakow. Her mother survived Auschwitz and her father was on Oskar Schindler’s list, working in his factory and avoiding the death camps.

When Haber’s family left Poland to go to Israel, they left their building in the care of a Polish administrator. Over the years, her family “used to send him oranges, Nescafe and other goodies,” she says.

But the family never received any of the rent the administrator collected on the building. In 1987, Haber and her family returned to Krakow for the first time to see the city where her parents grew up, and went to look at the family house.

“From the stories I heard from my father and his brothers, I thought I’d find at least Buckingham Palace,” she says. “I did not.”

When she and several others in her generation tried to get back the house, she says, “it was very messy.” The courts demanded reams of documents and asked questions about her father’s sex life to ascertain that Haber was indeed his daughter.

Finally, the property was returned and has been used by Taitelbaum, Haber’s business partner, as a place to pursue claims for other Jewish survivors and their heirs.

She says she advises clients to sell properties that are returned, rather than fight with family members about what to do with them.

Despite the hardships in reclaiming property that is rightfully theirs, many Polish Jews and their heirs still feel drawn to their home country.

“In a very mysterious way, I feel there as if it were my place,” Haber says of Poland.”Being there is not like being abroad, and I can’t be a tourist there.”

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