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The Complexity and History of Property Restitution in Poland

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The Second World War, sparked by Germany and the Soviet Union, saw unprecedented destruction of the wealth and property of Polish citizens, both Jewish and Christian. Much of what remained was confiscated by the occupiers.

  

POLISH-AMERICAN ADVOCACY GROUP
EVENING STAR BUILDING, 7th FLOOR
1101 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, NW
WASHINGTON, DC 20004

 

October 17, 2013

 

To the Members of the Congressional Caucus on Poland:

This is to inform you about the case of property restitution in Poland, including Jewish property. Whereas there has been no comprehensive legislation for property restitution for anyone, Jewish community property has been largely restored to the successor communal organizations following the trailblazing property restitution model pioneered by the Catholic Church.

One of several issues of concern for many Polish-Americans is the accusation, or one may even say – canard, that Poland is allegedly a rabidly anti-Semitic country which refuses to restore Jewish property to its rightful owners. Americans of Polish descent have heard this hurtful and damaging assertion repeated almost as stubbornly and frequently as the slanderous term “Polish death camps.” Numerous complaints and letters from Polish-American voters—not only PAAG members and sympathizers—have prompted us to write this letter to set the record straight.

To avoid any misunderstandings, we would like to emphasize that our organization’s position views private property rights as one of the main pillars of political freedom and decent civilization. Thus, we support property restitution in Poland—regardless of the ethnicity or religious affiliation of her citizens—as an issue of elemental justice. Furthermore, property restitution is a crucial prerequisite for overcoming the residual post-communist pathologies.

Although today Poland is often unjustly associated with anti-Semitism, we should remember that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was dubbed the “Jewish Paradise” by Israelites, who found freedom and tolerance within its borders. It may be true that Polish-Jewish relations in interwar Poland were not always idyllic and free of tension and prejudice. Nevertheless, the Second Polish Republic respected the property of its many Jewish citizens. By contrast, Jews in two neighboring countries—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—were deprived of their possessions even before the two totalitarian regimes sparked the Second World War by jointly invading and partitioning Poland.

Both the Nazis and the Communists confiscated the property of Polish citizens en masse. It is often forgotten that—while targeting the Jews in particular—the Germans also deprived many Polish Christians of their possessions. Many of the despoiled Jewish and Christian owners, including entire families, were exterminated during the war. Large amounts of property were either destroyed or shipped off to Germany or (later) the USSR, negating the spurious claim that Poles somehow profited from the war and the Holocaust.

Once the Soviets pushed out the Germans in 1944-1945, the communist puppet regime (forced upon Poland by the Kremlin) simply took over the vast network of properties previously stolen by the other totalitarian occupiers. After the war, in a public relations ploy, the communists allowed some Polish Jews to reclaim their properties. Many Jews, however, wished to settle in Palestine, or simply to escape communism, rightly suspecting that the Bolsheviks would eventually re-confiscate their property. Thus, they generally sold their properties—real estate in particular—and voted with their feet for freedom. Their fears quickly proved correct, for the communist state soon seized almost the entire Polish economy. The Party elite and their Soviet masters benefited from this mass plunder, but the Polish people as a whole were impoverished.

After the implosion of Communism, Poland made attempts to return the former Jewish properties confiscated by the Nazis and Communists. Admittedly, this process was neither fast nor smooth, but neither was property restitution for Christian Poles. Many of the latter are still awaiting the return of their property. Meanwhile, the successors of the Communist Party, who had appropriated a significant chunk of state property, enjoy their wealth.  The post-communists remain a privileged “new class,” and their vested interests have been a much greater obstacle blocking property restitution than any alleged anti-Jewish sentiments.

Furthermore, several post-war generations of Poles have lived in buildings owned by Polish Jews before the war. In general, these people did not steal the real estate from their Jewish neighbors, but were assigned their apartments by the communist state, which had taken them over from the Germans. Since the shortage of dwellings in Poland was particularly pressing after the war, Poles could not afford to be picky. Since they maintained these apartments for decades, it would seem that they should have a right to them on the basis of the Roman legal principle of usucaption.   

Some have suggested financial compensation instead, but that is problematic as well. Following the destruction of the two occupations during the war and subsequent decades of communist-imposed backwardness, Poland is a relatively poor and underdeveloped country. Thus, Poland could only pay the amount of $60 – 65 billion, a sum the World Jewish Congress requested as compensation for Jewish property, at the price of tremendous economic hardship for the Polish people, which—in turn—would impact the European economy.

We hope that the Congressional Caucus on Poland takes all the above facts and dilemmas into consideration when drafting and promoting legislation on property restitution in Poland. The many misconceptions that have distorted the mainstream perception of this issue are the products of incomplete and inaccurate history. And bad history is the mother of bad politics.    

Sincerely,

 

Paweł Styrna

PAAG VP for Public Relations

 

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.

4 Comments on "The Complexity and History of Property Restitution in Poland"

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  1. Agakor says:

    The matter is that the proprety taken off from Jewish people was taken by the Communists. Also Polish people lost their proprety. The Communists system in Poland wasn`t chosen by the nation. It was imposed to Poland by the Allies and stalin during the Jałta`s Conference. Polish people suffered hard from this regime as Polish soldiers who fought against the nazi in Polish underground and then were killed by the Communists by katynian method. So, why the jewish descendants don`t ask the Allies who gave Poland to the butchers or the ancien Communists now big Capitalists to give them back what they had stolen them long time ago? On the other hand, there are some people just pretending to be Jewish-Polish descendants who “take back” their “proprieties” . It would be good to prouve with real papers that they are really Polish Jews.

  2. Well done PAAG and Paweł Styrna! I hope that the US and world media pick this up.

    Meanwhile, an additional factor complicating Poland’s post-war/post-communist property restitution is the massive shift in borders westwards after the war. Half of inter-war Poland was awarded by the Allies to the USSR – essentially the lands seized by the Soviets in 1939 during their partition of Poland with their Nazi German partners In crime. Tragically, they included two major Polish (and Jewish) centres of culture and learning – Lwów (Lviv) and Wilno (Vilnius).

    As part of the “Big Three’s” bargain, a similarly sized chunk of land was seized to punish Germany and awarded to Poland. Millions of people were displaced – Germans expelled to the remnant of Germany and Poles uprooted from eastern Poland to the lands “reacquired” from Germany (they had been Polish centuries earlier, as the communist government’s propaganda crowed.)

    This meant that millions of Polish citizens were forced out of their properties seized in the east, and put into properties seized from the expelled German citizens in the west. Much of the time this “property swap” was a random and arbitrary process. Moreover, the hundreds of thousands of Poland’s eastern citizens who did not return to Poland after the war, as their former homes and country of birth was now under Soviet control, received no compensation for their seized properties.

    Under post-war “agreements” signed between the USSR and Poland’s new communist government, the responsibility for any eastern property restitution was shifted from the USSR to Poland itself, based on its “reacquired” lands. However, it took 60 years – and a European Court of Justice verdict against Poland in 2005 – for the government to issue a law granting financial compensation to its dispossessed eastern citizens. This was calculated at 20% of the property’s current estimated value. As the properties were now in the Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, the return of the properties themselves was impossible.

    Unfortunately, Poland’s law for compensation for property “lost” outside its current borders was not publicized to its former citizens outside the country. Polish organizations in the West did not advise or assist their constituents. Those people who tried to apply were told by Poland’s government that only citizens who had “returned” to Poland after the war were eligible. Poland’s Supreme Court overturned this exclusion in 2011 as unconstitutional, but this came only after the law’s deadline for lodging applications had past. However the claims process was not reopened for anyone who had not applied prior to the 2008 deadline, whether because of the lack of notification or the active discouragement by the government.

    Meanwhile, the process was stacked against the handful of ex-patriated citizens who had applied despite the odds. Applicants had to provide evidence of:
    - ownership of the property
    - details of the location, size, and buildings for valuation purposes
    - Polish citizenship of the owners
    - residency at the property on 1 September 1939
    - details of all actual and potential inheritances over the past 60 years.

    With the destruction of documents during the war and the passage of time, the requirements for evidence have proved daunting for most dispossessed families in the West.

    The prospects of a just or even symbolic property restitution are remote indeed.

  3. Wieslaw George Helon - Australia says:

    The information in this article is nothing new; what, you have just found these hindrances out? I covered all of these issues and more a few years back [http://www.petitiononline.com/kresy11/petition.html] but no one gave a hoot as they were too busy kissing butt and being politically correct because they didn’t want to upset the Polish Government which was supporting various Kresy rehabilitation projects at the time.

    Well – the sympathatic Polish Government Ministers of the day were murdered with Kaczynski at Smolensk.

    Interestingly funds for ongoing rehabiltation projects dried up and the offices of many Kresy Claimant support were closed due to lack of funding.

    If the butt kisses supported what was being done to highlight the ridiculous problems faced by Kresy Claimants then, now, and in the past, then some of the successful Claimants might have donated funds and other resources to help others.

    Well, the Polish Government should be satisfied, most of the Claimants are dead now!

    Poland may not have money but there are many properties that were vacated by the Soviets when they left Poland in the 1980s. These are empty, abandoned and falling into disrepair.

    Time to cough-up, and not 20% but the full value.

    • Poland has no intention of ever returning anything.They proudly display my mother’swho is 96)
      Birth place and home as one of Polands famous palaces.It makes me sick how a democratic society,that wants to enter into the free world is gnoring any rightful claims made by the past owners.Poland should not be allowed to be a part of the free world as long as it refuses to tackle the problem of lack of privatization .If Poland wishes to advance forward it must address it”‘s past in an honest,and transparent way.Which I do not believe the government of Poland even understands what honesty and transparency really means.
      After many legal,attempts to have my mothers home returned to the family we are no further ahead than we were 50 years ago.Nothing has changed since the fall of communism it is as corrupt ,ruthless,and dishonest government as it was under socialism.The only ones profiting from all of this are the lawyers.

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