In 1956, a year after Auschwitz survivor Michael Taffet became an American citizen, the government of Poland nationalized his family’s property in Debica. The seizure was based on a decree issued in 1946 that permitted the government to take property still considered “abandoned” 10 years after the end of World War II.
Polish Jews like Taffet clearly had not abandoned their houses, farms and businesses voluntarily. They had been routed from their homes, or had fled to escape the Nazis. And those who survived the Holocaust often found themselves stateless, alone and menaced when they tried to return home.
The decree, however, did not allow for such distinctions. And despite the passing of a half-century and the collapse of communism, the Polish government has done nothing to rectify the injustice.
Today, Poland still lacks a law on the restitution of private property that was confiscated or nationalized by previous regimes. More than a dozen attempts since the collapse of communism to pass such legislation all have failed, stymied by popular resistance to “reprivatization” measures on both economic and social grounds.
The absence of such a law has made the only recourse for private property claims the Polish courts — where, to judge by the available anecdotal evidence, American citizens such as Taffet have been at a severe disadvantage. Although American policy has long been that Nazi victims are entitled to recover confiscated properties, claimants are haunted by the terms of a 1960 treaty that the United States signed with Poland to resolve property claims.
Such treaties are not unusual. After wars, countries often negotiate bilateral agreements under which one government seeks payments to cover war claims on behalf of its corporations and citizens. Under the 1960 American-Polish agreement, Warsaw agreed to pay $40 million over 20 years to cover Americans’ commercial and personal claims for nationalized properties in Poland.
Given the losses, $40 million didn’t go very far. Two years after the treaty, the American government had received 10,169 claims. It certified awards for 5,022 of the claims, with an assessed value of $151.8 million.
Taffet was among those who submitted a claim to the United States Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, the quasi-judicial agency that assesses the legitimacy and value of Americans’ claims against foreign governments. Taffet’s father, Efroim, had owned numerous properties in Debica, about 65 miles east of Krakow.
The Taffet heirs sought $40,000 for the properties, which included two brick and three wooden houses. The commission determined that, at the time of the taking, the Taffet properties were worth $19,500. But there was not enough in the Polish pot to satisfy all the claims. In the end, successful claimants received an average of one-third of the commission’s assessed value of their claim.
It may have been a raw deal for claimants, but it was the only deal available. The Cold War was at its height, and no one could have predicted the communists’ downfall. Nor, for that matter, could anyone have expected that the American government would make a concerted effort decades later to push European nations to restitute properties that had been confiscated during the Nazi era or nationalized under communist regimes.
Yet despite these historical developments, Poland continues to treat as settled the cases of those who received compensation under the 1960 treaty. That was the case for Michael Taffet, who died last year. The small award he got from the United States Foreign Claims Settlement Commission nearly a half-century ago defeated his restitution claim at century’s end in the Polish courts.
Sadly, Taffet is not alone. Survivors and their heirs are still being defeated in Polish courts by claims made decades earlier, claims that were victims’ only option at the time. And as if that weren’t enough, some claimants have been accused of “double-dipping,” or attempting to collect compensation twice for the same property. It is long past time that the Polish government passed a property-restitution law.
To be fair, any such law should include a provision that stipulates that victims must be prepared to return any prior compensation received in order to recover properties. Indeed, there is precedent elsewhere in Europe for such a provision.
During the Cold War, West Germany paid compensation to those who had lost properties in what became East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government passed measures to enable people to claim properties in the former communist region. Those measures, too, were extremely unpopular in the east, where residents feared they would be driven from their homes. Nonetheless, restitution proceeded. Those who successfully recovered properties in the former East Germany were obliged to return any prior compensation.
The State Department, in prodding Warsaw for a property-restitution law, should insist that Poland’s measure be at least as liberal as the German law. Anything less would discriminate against Americans who, like Michael Taffet, had placed their confidence in the United States to protect their interests.
Marilyn Henry is the author of a forthcoming book on the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, to be published by Vallentine Mitchell.