Dr. Ann Drillich is probably the only Jewish woman in the world who owns a church – at least on paper, that is. Drillich, born in Australia to Holocaust survivors, repeatedly won a lawsuit against the church, which she launched to recover the family property. The Nazis dispossessed her family but after the war Drillich’s mother inherited the family’s estate, and then again, an individual Pole stole it from the family.
Polish courts ruled time after time that the land, in the city of Tarnów, near Krakow, belongs to her family; in 2016, a final decision upheld that the church took control of it in bad faith. As a result, says Drillich, the church has no legal right to the property. However, the Roman Catholic Church refuses to recognize the Jewish owner, and is waging a legal war of attrition against Drillich that has resulted in anti-Semitic attacks. The church recently recruited a particularly heavy gun: the state. The Polish Justice Ministry used the authority it gained under the right-wing ruling party's controversial reforms to order the unusual step of reopening the case.
“How do I feel? How would you feel if a religious institution whose teachings helped to create the fertile conditions for the Holocaust stole your mother’s land, which was her legacy after the Holocaust?” she wonders out loud from her home in Melbourne, Australia.
“Then, after years of fighting in court to achieve successive and final court rulings in our favor, the church interferes with democratic process, avoids the rule of law and continues to defy many of the Ten Commandments – ‘Thou shall not steal’ – all in full view of senior Catholic clergy in Poland, and Australia. What would you feel? It is not lost on me that if one thing might be learned from the Holocaust, it is about the enabling role of bystanders.”
The ‘good’ neighbor
The family saga of Drillich, a trained physician and lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, starts in World War II. Her mother’s family, the Goldmans, had lived for centuries in Tarnów, a town located in southeastern Poland that was founded in the Middle Ages. The family owned an estate on Gumniska Street with a neo-Gothic villa, in which they lived, extensive grounds and a brick and tile factory.
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On the eve of World War II, which broke out this month 80 years ago, about 25,000 Jews lived in Tarnów, making up about half the population. The Germans conquered it on September 8 and began persecuting Jews almost immediately. They banished the Goldman family from its property in 1941 and expelled it to the ghetto. Everyone in the family was murdered in the Holocaust save for Drillich’s mother, Blanka Goldman. Blanka managed to escape the ghetto and return home. A Polish neighbor, who was her friend before the war, risked his life and that of his family to help her escape the Nazis and find a hiding place.
In 1945, at the end of the war, Blanka Goldman was recognized by the Polish authorities – now under communist rule – as the sole inheritor of the family estate, which the Nazis had plundered. “Despite her devastation – her family was murdered when she was 18 – and after years of hiding, she effectively dealt with the post-war Polish legal system and inherited her grandfather’s estate in 1945,” Drillich says.
Blanka, who was 20 then, spent three years living on the family estate she had inherited. However, she emigrated in 1948 to Australia “because of local anti-Semitism that persisted even after the war,” according to Drillich. In Australia she married another Holocaust survivor from Tarnów, named Henryk Drillich, and raised a family with him.
In her absence, the Polish neighbor who had saved her life and was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, took care of the family assets she had left behind with her power of attorney. However, the story would transform from one of the brave Polish friend who saved his Jewish neighbor to one of betrayal. At least, that’s how Ann Drillich sees it.
In 1973, after years of battling depression that had gripped her since she saw her mother shot in her bed in the ghetto, Blanka put an end to her own life. She left behind her husband and two adolescent children. Later, relatives say, the Polish neighbor exploited her absence from Poland to take control of the land he was supposed to protect. He sold half to the local Catholic Church and gave the second half as a "donation." He allegedly perjured himself in court in 1986, testifying that the property was abandoned and that he did not know where the Jewish family who owned it resided, despite the fact that in the preceding months, he and the parish bishop had written to Henryk with a request from the church to buy his property.
“A Catholic parish in Tarnów exploits a Holocaust survivor’s absence from Poland, who had left because of local anti-Semitism that persisted even after the war – and illegally acquired her property,” Drillich says. “If they had remained in Poland, he could not have declared their property as abandoned,” she asserts. No one informed them about the illegal sale and no one compensated them for it.
Only much later, in 2010, she heard about it for the first time. It happened when she hired a Polish lawyer to find properties her family had left behind in Poland. Thus she discovered the conspiracy through which her family was deprived of its property again – this time by the Polish neighbor and the Catholic Church. After she was notified of the matter, she decided to sue for the return of her property. She not only considered it a grave theft but also theft of family heritage, memory and history.
She quickly found herself caught in a legal fight facing one of the greatest powers in the world: the Catholic Church. At the end of a long and complex battle that went through several courts, dozens of hearings, appeals and legal procedures, judges of a district court in Poland decided in her favor. They ruled that the church had acted in bad faith when it took control over her property. The Polish Supreme Court upheld this decision.
However, the affair was far from over. Drillich says that because of the church’s actions, her family has since been slandered and trolled on social networks, where they are attacked with anti-Semitic canards of bloodthirsty Jews who stole Christians’ property. Drillich blames the local church authorities for ignoring Pope Francis, who strongly denounced anti-Semitism this year and said Christians are forbidden from being anti-Semites because they and the Jews share the same heritage.
The property has yet to be returned to her. “They are using every trick to trip up this case and to deliberately delay it,” says Dr. Tomasz Krawczyk, her lawyer. “I’ve seen a lot during my career as a lawyer, in courts, but I would have expected a different kind of behavior from such a body as the church. They shouldn’t have played a dirty game. From the moral point of view, this is a stolen possession of the Drillich family, which is now being given back to the people who stole it.”
The balance of power was altered a few months ago, when the right-wing Polish government joined hands with the very influential Catholic Church – its own flesh and blood, as many of its adherents voted for the ruling party – and decided to help it overturn the ruling at any cost. The Polish justice minister exercised his new authority and ordered the court to rehear the case. A date has yet to be set for the hearing.
“What you have to ask is why on earth would a relatively inconsequential case in a provincial town like this one be so important for the Polish government? The answer is the case is important for the church and the politicians who need the support of the church to stay in power,” observes Wojciech Sadurski, a law professor at both the University of Sydney and the University of Warsaw. “I think it’s as simple as that.”
Krawczyk is of a similar mind. “The involvement of the Polish ministry of Justice is 100 percent under the influence of the lobby of the church,” he says. “They can push the government to do anything they want.”
During the communist era, the government, which nationalized a great deal of private property, built a car park and a library on part of the family’s land. The Goldman family home, now called Wedding Palace, stands in another section. These lands were gradually expropriated from the family in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, also illegally, according to Drillich. However, she is now focusing her efforts on the section that was taken over by the church. She says she is not interested in chasing the church away and would suffice with financial compensation and an apology. However, she is not optimistic in wake of the government intervention.
“It will be a puppet court of the government in a court that is being challenged as unconstitutional in the EU,” she says, referring to the controversial legal reforms implemented by the Polish government. Opponents say the reforms, such as those affecting the appointment of judges, are politicizing the legal system. “The case, which has been decided in three courts, including the Supreme Court, will be heard again by judges who are not independent, who were recently appointed in breach of the constitution by the current political majority, which is in very close alliance with the church,” she adds.
Her attorney does not see a rosier future. “I’m 100 percent pessimistic,” he says. “I’d be astonished if we win. The judges in this court are politically nominated.”
Drillich sees a national injustice in her particular instance. “The Catholic Church is dispossessing the children of Holocaust survivors of their property,” she says. “The term ‘survivor’ is dubious given my mother committed suicide when we were children. She had title to the land that the church now possesses illegally. It is the same church that helped create the fertile soil upon which the Holocaust ensued. It is the same church that exploited the absence of a Holocaust survivor, who left her home because of anti-Semitism that persisted even after the war – in order to illegally acquire her property.”
Last week Drillich showed Haaretz the letters she sent to senior officials in Poland and in the Vatican, who are not helping her with her struggle. “The most senior ranks of the Catholic clergy – in Poland, as in Vatican City – all remain silent,” she says.
The Polish Justice Ministry and the Catholic Church in Tarnów did not reply to a Haaretz request for a response.