Courtesy of the Canadian Polish Congress, we publish commentary by Mark Paul, author of numerous books on Polish-Jewish relations during World War Two, on the subject of Jewish property restitution in postwar Poland. Mark Paul addresses this topic in much more detail in his book A Tangled Web: Polish-Jewish Relations in Wartime Northeastern Poland and the Aftermath, Part 3, which can be accessed on the website of the Canadian Polish Congress: http://www.kpk-toronto.org/obrona-dobrego-imienia/ or viewed at the bottom of this webpage.
- On May 6, 1945, Poland enacted a special restitution law “On Abandoned Real Estates,” which remained in place until the end of 1948. This law instituted a simplified inheritance procedure, with relaxed criteria, allowing dispossessed owners or their relatives and heirs, whether residing in Poland or abroad, to reclaim privately owned property in an expedited fashion with minimal costs.
- The existence of this law and procedures was well known. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of properties were reclaimed by Jews. The American Jewish Year Book (1947-1948), which closely monitored conditions in Poland, reported that “the return of Jewish property, if claimed by the owner or his descendant, and if not subject to state control, proceeded more or less smoothly.” Industrial concerns and landed estates were subject to state control, as was property in Warsaw. However, many Jews whose families owned such properties have recovered them in recent years through normal channels open to everyone.
- Many Jews in interwar Poland did not own property, so they and their descendants had, and have, no legitimate claims for restitution. Moreover, many Jewish properties were indebted, not least for unpaid property taxes. Almost all prewar shops and other enterprises were liquidated by the Germans, so all business loss claims should be directed at Germany. More than one million prewar Jews lived in Eastern Poland, which was seized by the Soviet Union in 1939, and retained after 1944. Those property claims should be directed at Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, where the properties are located, and even Russia, the legal successor to the USSR – not Poland. After all, it was the Soviets who first confiscated all Jewish enterprises in Eastern Poland. What are Jewish organizations doing in that regard? Moreover, Poland had yet to be compensated for the enormous destruction to property caused by Germany. Until a just settlement is arrived at with Germany, all claims against Poland must be put on hold.
- The immediate postwar period was the optimal time for Jewish survivors and their heirs to reclaim property, especially since Jewish survivors were receiving no compensation from the Germans at that time. The drawback was that property values were low (often the buildings were destroyed or dilapidated), so most Jews didn’t bother. Furthermore, there was enormous uncertainty about the status of private property, which was another reason Jews didn’t bother to make claims at the time. Making claims now, when the property values have increased because of the collective efforts of non-Jews to rebuild the country, constitutes a form of unjust enrichment. Given these complexities, one should look to other countries, like Israel, as a model for resolving property claims in a fair and comprehensive manner.
The image on the top shows destroyed buildings in the city of Wrocław (Poland), 1945.
Note: to browse the document please use directional arrows at the bottom.Postwar Property Restitution Mark Paul