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You are NOBODIES: The sadly typical case of the Plebański Family in Poland

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The case of the Plebański Family is sadly typical from the perspective of property restitution in post-communist Poland. The Plebańskis had devoted themselves to serving their country for generations. Both the German Nazi and Soviet Communist occupiers of Poland persecuted and jailed them. Following the “fall” of communism-proper in 1989, they were not only unable to reclaim their property—which had been confiscated by the communist regime—but were further subjected to disrespect, intimidation, and even death threats.

The Plebańskis were an ethnically Ruthenian noble family of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and represented its cultural diversity. At one point in history, the clan split into two lines: one from the western Polish province of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska), and another from the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The latter was half Eastern (Greek) Orthodox and half Uniate (Greek Catholic), until becoming Austrian subjects and converting to Roman Catholicism.

During the nineteenth century, when Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria, and Russia, the Plebańskis participated in the two main uprisings against the Muscovites: the November Uprising of 1830-1831 and the January Uprising of 1863-1864/65. The Tsarist regime penalized them by confiscating their estate in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Following the crushed insurrections, the family decided that education and acquiring skills “pro publico bono” would serve Poland best. In this spirit, many Plebańskis became engineers, believing that, since the uprisings had failed, it was their duty to strengthen their homeland by building up its infrastructure and industry.

Lyczyn

Łyczyn Estate 1938

One scion of the family, Stanisław Plebański (1889-1954), followed this path. In the wake of his studies in France he returned to Poland after the First World War. He participated in his country’s struggles for independence and equitable frontiers (including the Silesian Uprisings) and was possibly involved with the newly independent nation’s intelligence service. After Poland secured her existence, Stanisław Plebański became an entrepreneur in the construction industry. He was also a statics instructor at the Warsaw Politechnical University and the Military Academy. Around 1937, his hard work eventually enabled him to purchase the 379-hectare (937-acre) estate of Łyczyn near the locality of Konstancin (today a district of Konstancin) in the suburbs to the south of Warsaw. The property included a farm and a brickyard. The new owner forwent erecting a new house on the premises and, instead, invested in housing for the farm laborers and agricultural implements.

The Second World War interrupted Plebański’s work. While attempting to leave Poland for the West, the Germans captured and imprisoned him. The Nazis, who made several failed attempts to create a Polish puppet government, tortured him for his refusal to collaborate with them.  He was allowed to return to Poland after an 11-month imprisonment in the Reich only thanks to the intervention of the Italian royal family, which was grateful for the Plebańskis’ contribution to the cause of Italian unification under Giuseppe Garibaldi. Afterwards, the Germans jailed him at the notorious Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, until his family paid a whopping ransom. It is unclear whether the Nazis confiscated or commandeered the Łyczyn estate, but either was certainly very possible. Tadeusz Plebański writes that his great-uncle lived in the city of Warsaw during the remainder of the German occupation.

Once the German Nazi yoke gave way to the Soviet Communist one in 1944-1945, Stanisław Plebański was deprived of all of his property, including the Łyczyn estate and even personal and family memorabilia. For four years, he ran a small construction company that took part in the reconstruction of Warsaw. Early in 1949, the communists arrested Plebański and didn’t even bother to charge him. The communists held him in a prison in Warsaw under the direct supervision of the Soviet secret police, the feared and hated NKVD. The guards subjected him to brutal physical and psychological torture—including the mocking of his Polish identity, hanging by the hands and feet for days, regular beatings, and calcium injections into the spinal cord. At the time of his release in 1953, Plebański was completely insane. He died soon afterwards, in February 1954. For decades thereafter, the Plebańskis were prohibited from even entering the county in which their property happened to be located (Warsaw), a fate shared by other Polish families plundered by the communists.

Lyczyn Estate 2009

Lyczyn Estate 2009

After the implosion of communism-proper, the Plebańskis naturally strove to reclaim their confiscated property. They ran into a wall of resistance on the part of post-communist bureaucrats, however. The property’s real estate register (Polish: księga wieczysta) simply evaporated. Tadeusz Plebański soon learned, however, that the communists simply helped themselves to real estate registers of the properties they had confiscated by transferring them to the state archives and selling them at high profits to cronies. He recalled: “An elderly Jewish man who deals with some reprivatization cases in Konstancin told me about this. I knew that already during the 1970s and 80s the bezpieka [communist secret police] facilitated scams dealing with the usucaption of former Jewish properties, but I could not imagine the scale nor that it continues to this day and that it also pertains to former manor properties.” Thus, local officials also put Łyczyn up for sale.

While attempting to regain their estate, the Plebańskis were denied their human dignity, subjected to insults, and literally told by the local bureaucrats that they were “nobodies.” They were also warned that they would “lose their heads” since “some very important people” were “doing business” on their property. In addition, lawyers hired by the family simply disappeared, along with whatever documentation the Plebańskis provided them. The media also failed to take any interest or show any compassion for the family’s plight. One pundit writing for the influential, left-liberal daily, Gazeta Wyborcza [Electoral Gazette], promised to look into the matter, but soon stopped answering phone calls and seemed to have evaporated from the world of journalism. Clearly, the post-communist good-old-comrade network and its allies are ruthless in preventing legitimate owners of properties confiscated by the communist regime from reclaiming their birthright. The case of the Plebańskis is by no means an isolated one and demonstrates the inevitable pathologies stemming from the lack of thorough decommunization and serious property restitution.                     

To read the full story (in Polish) please visit the Plebański family website.

Posted in: Property Polska
Paweł P. Styrna

About the Author:

Paweł P. Styrna was born in 1983 in Zabrze, Poland. His Masters of Arts thesis analyzed the attitudes of the American, British, Belgian, Polish, and Soviet press vis-à-vis the Polish-Ukrainian Kiev Offensive against the Bolsheviks in 1920. He is working on a biography of Polish industrialist Leopold Wellisz and has written numerous book reviews for Glaukopis, Sarmatian Review and Najwyższy Czas! He co-edited Golden Harvest or Hearts of Gold? Studies on the Fate of Wartime Poles and Jews (2012) and authored the chapter titled "The Tale of Two Hamlets: The Case of Wólka-Okrąglik and Gniewczyna." Mr. Styrna is a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research (SFPPR) and writes the blog Property Polska for the Journal of Property Rights in Transition. Mr. Styrna was educated at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his Bachelor of Arts and his Master of Arts in modern European history, with minor specializations in Polish and Soviet history. He is currently enrolled in the international relations program at The Institute of World Politics and is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies.

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