Property Restitution: Should Poland Pay?

The issue of compensation for those who lost property during the war and its aftermath remains a Pandora?s Box for Poland. Some 89,000 ownership claims are unresolved and it has been suggested that Poland would need in the region of 40 billion dollars to reimburse claimants at today’s market prices. Thousands of properties were seized by the Nazis and Communists, including city mansions, factories and country estates. Numerous bills have been drafted and redrafted over the last 18 years. Most have been thrown out as unworkable. This summer, a U.S. Congress committee, acting on behalf of American Jews of Polish background, passed a resolution appealing for Poland to act. The committee suggested that 20% of current property values should be provided for those who are due compensation. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said that a ?transparent? bill will be drawn up this September.

FOR: Quite simply, Poland has to pay. In fact, it’s amazing that Poland was even allowed to join the European Union given that it had failed to meet all of the necessary pre-requisites. The restitution of possessions confiscated by the Nazis or communists was a condition of Polish entry according to resolutions published by the European Commission in July 1997.

All EU member states from the “New Europe” have already carried out the necessary reforms, barring Poland and Lithuania. The Czechs pushed through measures almost immediately after the Iron Curtain fell.

The fact that the issue has been brought back to the table by Jewish groups lobbying through the U.S. Congress does not help the Polish cause. Rather, it creates the impression that Poles are biased against their former Jewish citizens (20 percent of the claims are from Jewish families).

“Consecutive Polish cabinets told us not to rush them,” a U.S. Congressman on the committee told Gazeta Wyborcza. “And so we’ve been waiting for almost twenty years. We took a lot of pressure from our voters to remind the Polish government about this issue. And let me assure you that this resolution could have been much firmer. No one is expecting you to pay 100 or even 50 percent of the property value. If you had done it ten years ago, the cost would have been much lower.”

Countless properties and businesses in Poland were taken over by the state after the Second World War. When the Iron Curtain fell, there could have been a fair settlement. But in fact, the newly democratic Polish state chose to sell countless properties. Of course, the new owners of these estates or businesses cannot simply be turfed out now. But some kind of compensation has to be paid to the genuine, pre-war owners. Many of these survivors, who endured unspeakable horrors during the war, are still alive today, now well into their eighties or nineties. Poland has to act swiftly in order to see justice done.

It is true that some properties have actually been successfully reclaimed as a result of highly protracted individual legal cases. But so far, there has been no consistency. Some families won back property only to lose it again in the appeals courts. Others found a legal stumbling block in the fact that they had lost their full Polish citizenship, for the simple reason that they had had to escape from the Nazis or Soviets.

As far as the EU goes, Poland has proved one of the most quarrelsome member states thus far, getting into scrapes over issues such as same sex partnerships, abortion and other sensitive subjects. However, Poland is a sworn member of the union, and her MEPs must learn to live with the policies that their country has agreed to uphold by joining the EU. Besides the above mentioned human rights, this also applies to the reimbursement of those who lost property in the war and its aftermath. At long last, this issue must be brought to a head.

AGAINST: 63 years ago, Poland was supposedly on the winning side in a World War. Yet after having fought doggedly against the Nazis for six years, she suddenly found herself being divided up by her allies. Churchill, just four weeks after signing the infamous Yalta Agreement of ’45, and realising that perhaps he had exaggerated in kowtowing to Stalin’s every last wish, wrote to the ailing President Roosevelt: “If we do not get things right now,” he stressed, “it will soon be seen by the world that you and I, by putting our signatures to the Crimea settlement, have underwritten a fraudulent prospectus.”

But things weren’t put right. And two years later, Churchill was making his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. Stalin prevented Poland from receiving post-war American funds to help rebuild the ruined country. And when Gierek became Prime Minister in 1970 (one more Soviet puppet whilst the legitimate Polish government remained in exile in London, pestered by Soviet spies), he borrowed colossal sums of money from the West to help fund flawed industrial projects, employing thousands of workers in factories that ultimately made a titanic loss. When Poland finally became independent again in 1990, she was immediately obliged to cough up billions of zloty to pay for ill-conceived communist schemes.

Poland is now just about pulling herself out of the Soviet swamp, although unsurprisingly, the average wage remains pitiful compared to both those of former wartime allies (the British, the French) and adversaries (for example Austria, which miraculously evaded Soviet domination). Tens of thousands of Polish citizens have had to flee their country just to find a job. And now, Poland is being told that she must pay out more billions, this time for crimes that were committed not by an independent Polish state, but by the invading regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

In a nutshell, yes, there should be compensation for those who lost property due to two foreign dictators. But why should Poles have to pay?

To this day, Polish survivors of Auschwitz, both Catholic and Jewish, are paid a small annual dispensation by the German government (it’s often forgotten that Auschwitz was originally set up by the Nazis as a holding camp for the Polish intelligentsia). Logically, Russia and Germany should pay for the damage that was caused to Polish private property. Whole cities were destroyed. Thousands of manor houses were either burnt or allowed to fall into ruin. Land was confiscated, businesses were nationalised. The eastern provinces were simply lopped off.

Realistically, Germany and Russia won’t pay. But what about the EU? Surely it was set up — at least in part — to champion noble causes, not to pay French farmers to sit around drinking ratafia. Reflecting on the desertion of Poland in ’45, the distinguished British scribe and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor concluded that the West “had failed to see justice done.” Surely, an EU project to reimburse the dispossessed would be a fine way, if not to right the wrongs, then at least to provide some measure of closure to the victims of the Nazi-Soviet tornado.

4 thoughts on “Property Restitution: Should Poland Pay?

  • Avatar
    July 9, 2012 at 7:30 am
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    Excellent article.I suggest all the commisars in charge of our real estate that they enjoy at present should be answerable for the theft of our properties. They should be made answerable for the real market value at the time of privatisation. Then the New Republic would have enough resource to compensate the previous owners who do not feel comfortable with the present set up concerning moral recognition and acceptance of rightful restitution. Only then would the previous national bonds be reconstructed with the New Republic and distant family heritage. Private security is still a problem.

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    July 26, 2012 at 1:58 am
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    It has been over 20 years since Poland has become democratic country. Polish government has not been able to address this problem as stated due to “financial reasons”.

    One should clarify that the very same financial reasons (which Polish government used to halt the process recently) promote restitution:

    – If cash money is the issue for the government than typically returning actual properties will lead to increase of tax revenue; Typically these assets will become more profitable and have a positive influence on economy;
    – In some case return of physical assets may be too complicated; Polish government seems to have cash resources for new nuclear plant, second subway line in Warsaw and procurement of F16 fighter jets (I guess more important than do right for those who deserve it also own citizens)
    – Addressing restitution will promote economic development since investors will no longer have to be concerned with title rights;
    – Poland will regain a reputation of social justice place (which is not in my opinion the case now inside of the country and outside of the country); The “country bumpkin” culture which dominated Poland for decades will have to admit that nationalization of 40’s and 50′ was an enormous social injustice act;
    – Some of still alive victims of this injustice will receive satisfaction, which they have been waiting often since 1945! This will improve the image of Poland.

    My mother, who passed away in 2012, will never see satisfaction and never will experience the same level of trust in social structures as we experience in the USA or in Canada (not perfect but still good). As young girl expelled from schools because of who her dad was (respectable Polish land owner with family history of standing up for the country when in need) she never received this satisfaction. There is another aspect of the restitution situation that outside of one time on polish TV apology has not been discussed. Paradox of the situation is that the very “country bumpkin” leadership does manifest and continuously reminds of sacrifices of those…. whose heirs can not get justice in Poland today.

    Do not be concerned passerby colleague – I remember my heritage.

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  • Avatar
    September 5, 2012 at 5:32 am
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    Property destroyet during War and posibly rebuild by Government can not be paid off to orriginal owner. If insurance covered such a demolishion, then insurace shoud pay, hovewer all was destroyed and this is sure lost on bouth sides. Property left and confiscated by Comunist regime, should be paid off to orriginal owners, same as property not destroyet and used for public use as museums, hospitals, factories atc schoud be paid off. Maria

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