Restitution Battle Shifts To Stalled Polish Front

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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Peter Koppenheim, 73, has been unsuccessfully pushing the Polish government since 1990 to return his family’s property in the center of Wroclaw, most of which was confiscated by the Germans during World War II and then nationalized under Poland’s Communist government.

Recently, Rudi Pawelka, another former resident of Wroclaw — or Breslau, as the city was formerly known — has launched his own campaign to force Poland to return property confiscated during the war years.

Tired of waiting for the Polish government to pass legislation on the issue, both men lead groups that are planning to turn to the European Union courts this fall. But one major difference separates them: Koppenheim, who lives in England, is Jewish; Pawelka is German.

The common fight of Polish Jews and ethnic Germans represents a striking historical twist in the fight to secure restitution for Holocaust survivors. More broadly, it shines a light on the stark failure of Poland — a country that saw almost all of its 3 million Jews killed — to deal with the issue of private property restitution.

“The Germans took our lives and families, but the Germans didn’t take the buildings with them,” said Jehuda Evron, who leads the Holocaust Restitution Committee, an organization of 3,000 survivors whose families lost property during World War II. He added: “Poland took the buildings, and they have to at least have the minimum decency to give us that back.”

Poland is the only country in Central and Eastern Europe that has not passed any legislation dealing with private property lost during and after World War II. The failure of Poland to enact restitution legislation has sparked a slew of litigation and unlikely alliances. Jewish Holocaust survivors have been strategizing for years with non-Jewish Polish property owners who had their property nationalized during communism. And now leaders of German and Jewish groups are tentatively talking about joining forces to push their case against Warsaw.

These claims have met a great deal of resistance in a country that, during World War II, saw more destruction of life and property than anywhere else in Europe. As a result, today it is among the last and messiest of the Nazi-era restitution battles, as the German, Austrian and Swiss fronts begin to draw to a close.

Efforts at legislation have been tried and have failed before. Now, facing spiraling litigation, the Polish government has introduced a new framework for legislation on private property restitution. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish former property owners have criticized heftily the framework, which was delivered in March to the Treasury Ministry for further work. Instead of returning property, the proposed plan calls for low levels of compensation in the form of bonds that would be redeemable only over the course of 20 years — long after most survivors of World War II will have passed away.

Even this legislation, though, will have a difficult time passing the Polish parliament, or Sejm, according to many people following the negotiations, including a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Reprivatization,” said the spokesman, Krzysztof Kasprzyk, “could easily turn into Pandora’s box of problems and claims and create [a] critical threat to the country’s economy.”

Poland did manage to pass a law dealing with communal Jewish property in 1997. But in 2001, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski vetoed a bill focusing on private property that only allowed claims to be made by current Polish citizens, partly out of fear for the bill’s economic consequences; the government has estimated the current claims could be worth $11 billion.

Political and communal leaders dealing with property restitution have received countless assurances from Polish politicians that legislation regulating nationalized property was right around the corner. This began in 1988 with a letter from Lech Walesa, and continued, most recently, in 2002, when Poland’s prime minister, Leszek Miller, promised Jewish groups and a congressional delegation that Poland would have legislation by 2003.

Given the many times that Polish lands and government changed hands during and after World War II, it is relatively unsurprising the Poland has been the last country in Europe to deal with this issue.

Poland lost a third of its own territory in the East to the Soviet Union after World War II, and many Poles have been quick to point out that it never received any payment for its losses.

“To convince people that we should compensate for anything is almost impossible in a society which was never compensated and restituted for anything,” said journalist Kristof Darevicz, who has covered this issue for the last five years at the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita.

Without any legislation, property owners have been forced to rely on litigation, including the nascent plan to bring cases to the European courts in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. In an American federal court, a group of Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Koppenheim, has been pressing their case against the Polish government since 1998. While that case has struggled to gain traction against Poland’s claims of sovereign immunity, it helped spawn the Holocaust Restitution Committee, of which Koppenheim is the European leader.

Evron’s own wife, Leah, lost her family’s apartment and factory in the town of Zwyiec. When she and her mother emerged from the ghettos, they came home to find a Polish family occupying their apartment.

Because the Nazis took Jewish property the first time around, the Polish government has resisted making any compensation for these acts of confiscation. But almost all Jewish property was confiscated again during the nationalization process after the war, when the Communists came to power.

The postwar expropriations of the Communists also lay the basis for the claims of non-Jewish Polish groups, like the Polish Union of Property Owners and the Polish Landowner’s Association, which began pushing the issue since after the Iron Curtain came down.

The newest group to join the fray is Pawelka’s German group, the Prussian Trust, which Pawelka says was inspired by the success of Jewish groups in winning back property from Germany, where Pawelka lives today.

“It’s about the right to your home,” said Pawelka, who already has gathered about 1,000 German claims. “That is the first idea and the first right.”

The German claims, though, have a very different legal basis than the Polish and Jewish ones. By the time the Poles and Jews had their property nationalized by the Communists, the Germans already had been expelled from their land in what is now western Poland with the acquiescence of the postwar Potsdam Conference. The German government has not supported Pawelka’s group.

There was great hope among all these former property owners that Poland’s accession to NATO and the European Union would provide an opportunity for the diplomatic community to push Poland to resolve the issue. Recent American ambassadors have stressed their commitment to property restitution, but diplomatic observers agree that serious pressure has failed to materialize. “It is really unconscionable,” said StuartEizenstat, who oversaw America’s efforts to secure restitution for Holocaust survivorsduring the Clinton administration, “that the U.S., including Congress, did not make more of an issue of this when Poland was joining NATO and the E.U.”

Even more noticeably absent were the Jewish groups who were so vocal in earlier restitution fights.

“Where we have been very effective in other areas, we have been very ineffective in this area,” said Israel Singer, the chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups that handles restitution and reparations negotiations outside of Germany and Austria.

Singer said the WJRO has drawn together a legal team to consider the current legislation in Poland and work as a “striking force” on the issue.

In the absence of wider international support, though, Jewish and Polish property owners have increasingly come to rely on each other to forward their cause. On August 10, Evron’s Jewish group will be meeting with the Polish Land Owner’s Association to draw up a plan to lobby American officials before the November elections.

But the prospect of working with the German groups has been a more difficult decision.

Pawelka was enthusiastic about the idea, and Evron said: “If they want to collaborate with us, we don’t have a problem.” But he quickly added: “To tell you the truth, I am not so excited to speak with the Germans.”

While Jewish groups expressed skepticism, Polish property owners showed outright animosity.

“We don’t want to have nothing to do with them,” said Joseph Kleszczynski, an American delegate to the Polish Landowner’s Association.

After years as Germany’s neighbor, Poles have an almost inbred fear of the Germans, said Erika Schlager, a lawyer at the Helsinki Commission, which oversees property restitution matters for the United States Congress.

“The Polish public opinion,” said Kasprzyk, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “is concerned by the attempts of radical groupings of resettlers in Germany to press claims against Poland.”

Germans are purposely excluded from making any claims under the current draft of legislation by a clause that locks out people who were not citizens of Poland at the time the property in question was taken. But this provision also works to exclude Jews like Koppenheim, who lived in the disputed regions of western Poland.

This is only one of the complaints that Jewish and Polish groups have raised about the legislation — the foremost being that compensation would be paid, but no actual property would be returned. Diplomatic negotiators have recognized that land now in private hands cannot be returned, but the Polish government still holds the title to much of the property in dispute.

The mansion where Koppenheim was born in Breslau was taken over by the Nazis and then used to house the Gestapo chief. Today it is in private hands, so Koppenheim has focused most of his efforts on a single building that his grandfather owned in downtown Breslau. The Polish government did return this piece of property after the Iron Curtain fell, but it was given to Austrians who bought the property from the Nazis in the 1940s.

Such complicated tales are all too common in Poland, Schlager said.

“There is no other country that had border changes, land transfers and population transfers on the scale that Poland did,” the Helsinki Commission official said. “It makes this very difficult to untangle.”






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