Lea Evron, a Holocaust survivor from Whitestone, Queens, has fought for years to win back title to the apartment building in Zywiec, Poland, her parents lost in the Holocaust. She finally won back the title in court, but the Polish government appealed.
After both an appeals court and the country’s supreme court rejected the appeals, a man who claims he owns the building filed his own appeal. He lost, but is appealing yet again.
“I don’t believe we’ll live to get anything — but maybe our grandchildren will,” said Evron’s husband, Jehuda.
Although 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust —more than from any other country — Poland remains the only country in the European Union that hasn’t passed a restitution law requiring private property confiscated by the Nazis or later nationalized by the Communists to be returned to the family or for the family to be compensated for it.
But in recent weeks there have been several significant developments that may increase pressure on the Polish government to finally deal with the issue.
Just last week, outgoing Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski — who in 2011 had called the lack of a restitution bill “a disgrace for Poland” — refused to sign into law a bill that would have severely restricted survivors and their heirs from reclaiming property in Warsaw that had been seized by the Nazis and then confiscated by the Communists that ruled Poland until 1989.
Ronald Lauder, chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, noted that Komorowski referred the bill to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to see whether the legislation would violate the constitution.
Gideon Taylor, the WJRO’s chief of operations, said, “For us the issue is not whether the legislation is constitutional or not but rather the fact that it is unjust.”
Passed by parliament June 25, it would have set a six-month deadline for rightful owners or their heirs to participate in administrative proceedings for property claims filed by December 1988.
Taylor pointed out that survivors and their heirs might today not even know such claims had been filed decades ago, and that this legislation would prevent them from pursuing their claim if they did not act within six months. In addition, it would end the practice of appointing a trustee to represent an heir who has not been identified. And it would have also denied owners the right to seek the return of large categories of property, including those in public use.
“The reality is that most people can’t recover their property because in order to succeed in court it is necessary to prove that the confiscation of their property by Poland’s former Communist government was incorrectly carried out because of a technical error,” Taylor noted.
More pressure on Poland came two weeks ago when the heads of three of the largest government pension funds in the United States called upon Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz to fulfill the country’s “obligation” to the survivors and heirs whose property was confiscated by the Nazis.
The three officials are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and California State Treasurer John Chiang. Together, Stringer and DiNapoli manage pension funds totaling $340 billion.
The letter, dated July 30, is the “first step,” Stringer told The Jewish Week, pointing out that one of his predecessors, Alan Hevesi, used his position to leverage concessions on restitution claims from Switzerland in the 1990s. Hevesi threatened to move New York funds from Swiss banks and to withhold licenses the banks would need to operate in the state.
Their letter comes nearly a month after a bipartisan group of 42 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge that the State Department continue its efforts to ensure the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property seized by the Nazis throughout Europe.
The lawmakers wrote that many survivors in the U.S. “and around the world live in poverty knowing the property that was stolen from them and their families remains in the hands of governments and private owners who have no rightful claim.”
Among those signing the letter were New York Democratic Reps. Steve Israel, Jerrold Nadler, Nita Lowey, Joseph Crowley, Grace Meng, Kathleen Rice, Carolyn Maloney, Charles Rangel and Jose Serrano. Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin also signed.
Stringer told The Jewish Week that approximately 60,000 Holocaust survivors live in the New York area and that about half of them live at or below the poverty level.
All of these actions are part of what Taylor called a “new sustained effort to hopefully get this issue back on the national and international agenda.” He said it is “hard to estimate how many people would be eligible” to apply for property restitution, but that “most of the claimants would not be Jewish.”
Poland has long claimed it doesn’t have the financial means to make property restitution payments. In fact, Taylor cited a newspaper interview published in February by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in which Irena Lipowicz, Poland’s ombudsman for civil rights protection, quoted the Finance Ministry as estimating in 2012 that a uniform property restitution law “could cause a sudden increase in the public debt of 18 billion zlotys [more than $4 billion].”
But because the issue has not been dealt with, she said a “property restitution industry” has developed in which property owners cede their claims to profiteers who give them pennies on the dollar and then seek compensation from the government.
Restitution payments were meant as “a remedy for historical injustices,” Lipowicz said, “What kind of injustice is being redressed here?”
She noted that it is “usually the elderly” who are not wealthy enough for court battles who “become easy victims for potential ‘claim hunters,’ even targets of intimidation and coercion. … If we initiated property restitution, for example by enacting the bill that was once vetoed by President [Aleksander] Kwasniewski, of course probably with certain modifications, we could give everyone compensation, perhaps even in the amount of 20 percent of the value of the assets that were lost — if we cannot afford more. It is important for this to happen quickly, and above all, for everyone to be entitled to it, rather than for instance having 5 percent of former owners and their inheritors recovering 100 percent but the rest nothing.”
Although the 20 percent offer might “outrage certain former owners,” Lipowicz was quoted as saying it “is a way out of the stalemate.”
“And for very elderly owners, that 20 percent could represent a huge amount, greater than what is being proposed by the ‘claim hunters,’” she added. “It seems more fair than the situation today. … I have also made an impassioned appeal for parliament to reinitiate legislative work as it concerns property restitution … The time is now [while] ... we still have EU funding.”
Taylor said several governments — including Australia, the Great Britain and Canada — are now lending their support for private property restitution not only in Poland but also in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe that have such laws in whole or in part but are slow in processing claims.
A property restitution program in Poland would undoubtedly be more difficult than in any other country because its 3.3 million Jewish residents represented 10 percent of the population when Nazi Germany invaded on Sept. 1, 1939, according to Michael Berenbaum, former director of the Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“Imagine what a Herculean job it would be if they said they would return all the Jewish property,” he said. “That’s one reason they have been avoiding it.”
Taylor noted that Jews in Poland “lived in urban areas and so clearly they had a lot of property. Living in villages and towns they owned lots of buildings, factories and houses.”
Asked about the financial drain on Poland to make such private property restitution payments, Taylor said his organization has suggested ways to finance it through “issuing bonds and through paying it over a few years — creative solutions could be found to restitute property.”
“It is complicated process,” he added, “but it must be done.”