World News

In Poland, ‘a Narrow Window to Do Justice’ for Those Robbed by Nazis

Posted June 10, 2018 2:43 p.m. EDT

WARSAW, Poland — Miriam Tasini and her sister, Alisa Sorkin, were toddlers in 1940 when they were loaded onto cattle cars bound for a gulag in Siberia, just two of the 1 million Polish citizens, including 200,000 Jews, deported by the Soviets to labor camps.

Their parents were allowed to take only what they could carry, including gold coins sewed under the buttons of their daughters’ winter coats, which were later traded for food.

But the real fortune was left behind when the family fled east from their native city of Krakow to Lviv after the war in Poland first broke out: the family’s large house overlooking the Vistula River and a lucrative bakery business that was seized by the Nazis and then nationalized by the communist government after the war.

Ever since 1989,when communism in Poland ended, the sisters, who now live in the United States, have been fighting to reclaim what was stolen from their family.

Poland is now considering restitution legislation, but even if it passes, the sisters, along with thousands of other victims of the war and occupation, would lose out because of what advocates call onerous requirements, including proof of Polish citizenship.

Those requirements, said Gideon Taylor, chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, would “exclude virtually all Holocaust survivors.”

Poland — the only country in Europe that has not passed legislation to compensate owners for properties seized under Nazi and communist rule — has long wrestled with the difficult riddle of restitution. Different Polish governments have tried to pass regulations more than 20 times since the fall of the communist regime.

All previous efforts failed, however, with one of the biggest obstacles being concerns among lawmakers about how much the restitution legislation could cost.

Home to the largest population of Jews in Europe before the war, Poland has more property that was stolen during the war and nationalized in its aftermath than any other nation. In addition to the Holocaust victims, tens of thousands of other Poles could also make claims on property. The compensation could total billions of dollars.

President Donald Trump recently added new urgency to the issue when he signed a measure that requires the State Department to monitor what European countries have done to compensate Holocaust survivors who had their assets stolen by the Nazis. It does not single out Poland, though Warsaw feels targeted by the law.

The Polish government has also been feeling pressured to amend the pending legislation, unveiled last fall, to make it easier for claimants, including for those who do not meet the current citizenship requirements.

Right now, those seeking restitution can claim their properties only by initiating private lawsuits. The process is difficult, expensive and time-consuming, often taking years or even decades, as it has for Tasini and Sorkin. If successful, however, claimants can receive full compensation for the property.

If passed, the new law would cancel all these lawsuits. While this means many of those seeking restitution will have to refile their claims with the state, the law is designed to considerably speed up the compensation process — a decision could be rendered as soon as one year after a claim was refiled.

Under the legislation, those who win their claims would be paid by the state, but compensation is limited to 20 percent of the value of the property, and is not necessarily paid right away but when the budget allowed it. The official government estimate is that the legislation would cost about $4 billion, although other estimates are much higher.

In addition to what many say is a short claim period — filings must be made within one year of the law’s enactment — the legislation would prevent people like Tasini and Sorkin from being compensated because they don’t fit the narrow citizenship criteria.

The legislation as currently written requires claimants to be citizens of Poland now and at the time when their property was seized, and it would exclude heirs other than spouses, children and grandchildren.

Since some 90 percent of the Jews in Poland were killed in the Holocaust, most claimants would be more distant relatives. Moreover, up to 90 percent of those who survived left Poland during or soon after the war and were not in the country when their properties were seized or nationalized.

Stories like that of Jacob Finder, the grandfather of Tasini, 82, and Sorkin, 80, are common. Running from the Nazis, he left his bakery business, Ziarno, that included a flour mill and a bakery complex. Ziarno’s share certificates were lost during the war, preventing Tasini and her family from filing a court claim.

“My grandfather had to hide from the Nazis in a salt mine,” she said. “Paperwork wasn’t exactly on his mind.”

After two decades of convoluted legal maneuvers and a change in the property’s ownership, a developer in 2011 turned the mill into loft apartments. The transaction, Sorkin said, was worth $17 million.

“Our grandfather’s legacy — and we never saw a penny out of it,” Sorkin said. The sisters’ claim is further complicated by past efforts at restitution, including an international treaty between Poland and the United States. Under the 1960 agreement, Poland paid the United States $40 million to settle all claims by U.S. citizens for property seized and nationalized in Poland.

Under the communist government in Poland, the state nationalized all industries and seized almost all properties after the war. Warsaw, the capital, which was nearly destroyed in the war, passed its own regulation to nationalize some 40,000 properties. The city created in 1945 a flawed mechanism for seeking restitution; of the 17,000 claimed properties, only 300 were returned to their owners by the end of the communist era.

Everything changed in 1989, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the arrival of capitalism, with its notion of the sacred right to private property. The sudden possibility of claiming their old properties by private lawsuits came as a shock to many people, said Lucyna Dygas, a Krakow-based lawyer who specializes in restitution of Jewish properties.

“For over 40 years, there was hardly any inheritance proceedings because the sense of private property was practically nonexistent and people didn’t see the point,” she said. “And now people were faced with a task of proving that they are a rightful heir, which meant carrying out inheritance proceedings for all those relatives who had died since the beginning of the war.”

But Poles quickly adjusted to the new legal environment, and claims were filed by the thousands — many legitimate but some of dubious provenance.

Since 1990, the city of Warsaw has paid compensation for or returned 4,500 properties.

“We estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of those were of a purely criminal nature,” said Mikolaj Paja, who works at a civic organization, City Is Ours, that serves as a restitution watchdog in Warsaw. He named corruption in the mayor’s office as one of the main sources of the illicit claims.

The government has set up a special committee to investigate questionable claims. Witold Pahl, Warsaw’s deputy mayor, said that there had indeed been “an abuse of trust on the part of public officials,” although he added the numbers given by Paja were exaggerated.

“It’s the human element that failed,” he said in an interview. “But to put a police officer over every official’s shoulder is pointless. We need a national legislation that will finally solve this Gordian knot.”

Advocates for claimants see an urgency to do the right thing.

“Holocaust survivors are dying every day,” Taylor said. “We have a narrow window to do justice when they are still with us.”