A Polish businessman is going to court to try to obtain title to a third of Katowice on grounds that the Communists illegally confiscated the property after World War II. The proposition might be laughable except that courts have approved similar claims elsewhere in Poland.
Katowice Mayor Piotr Uszok vows to fight Marek Niegrzybowski’s effort to grab the property, which contains mining and industrial sites and thousands of homes. Apartment residents who have heard about Niegrzybowski’s lawsuit have expressed fear they will lose their homes. He has said they have nothing to worry about, although so far he has not said what he will do with the property if he gains title to it.
Niegrzybowski filed suit for the property after he and friends bought up the stock of the dormant Giesche S.A. company from Giesche family members. Before the war the family owned a number of Upper Silesian coal mines, four calamine and lead mines and ironworks in Katowice’s Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec districts. It also owned many housing complexes that it built for those working in its enterprises.
After the war the Communists nationalized the property. They maintained that because it was German-owned, they could seize it as a war reparation. The Germans, of course, controlled it during the war, but the Giesche family, while of German origin, had lived in Silesia since the 17th Century.
Niegrzybowski, chief executive officer of the Doradca/Nexus Company in Gdynia, reactivated the Giesche SA in 2005 after he and his friends had amassed a majority of the shares. He maintains that Poland’s Communist government had no right to nationalize it as a war reparation because after the war it became an American company, not German.
He is right about who owned it. The Giesche family sold the company to American interests after the war before the Polish government enacted a law nationalizing all property that the Germans had held. Because the property had become American-owned, it appears that it did not legally fall under the nationalization law.
Uszok is one of those outraged over the lawsuit. “Houses, the land, coal mines, ironworks and textile mills – it is one third of the Katowice area,” he told the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. “I’m not going to give it back to anybody. It’s ridiculous! I will fight till the end.” He said he has already contacted the Ministry of Justice about the case.
Lawyers specializing in claims such as Niegrzybowski’s say he could win. “Pre-war companies such as Giesche SA can be reactivated and get back their former property,” Roman Nowosielski told Gazeta Wyborcza. “It has happened in the case of the European Hotel in Warsaw and many other cases.”
Much of Katowice’s Nikiszowiec district consists of working-class housing built for those who toiled at the Wieczorek Mine. The Germans Georg and Emil Zillmann designed it for 7,000 residents. It was built in two stages – 1908-1915 and 1920-1924. The development had its own infrastructure, including roads and sewers, a police station, a post office, a hospital and two schools. It also had shops, bakeries, a restaurant, a pharmacy, bathhouses and laundromats. The multi-family red-brick apartments, known as familoks, are still occupied today. In fact, many residents own their units, having bought them from the co-operatives that used to run them. Sprinkled through the development are historical buildings such as the neo-Baroque St. Anne’s Church, which boasts an organ with 5,350 pipes. Many of the apartments are rundown these days, although some have been restored. The district plans to do more restoration as time goes by.