New Polish Property Restitution Law Slams Door on Jewish Heirs, Expert Says

Despite optimistic initial reports, the new timetable set by the law for reapplying for restitution of Holocaust property is 'impossible.'

A volunteer helps to clean a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, on Sunday April 14, 2013.
AP

Despite initial positive reports concerning a new Polish law for restitution payments for Jews who lost property during the Holocaust, the law does not necessarily bear good news. In fact, it might make it just about impossible to restore Jewish property in Warsaw, a Polish real estate expert says.

In September, the new restitution law took effect in Poland. Its main purpose was to stop private claims for property in Warsaw that were filed after World War Two and have been since pending. Only if the property owners or their heirs reassert their claims within six months of the law's passage will they be given another three months to prove their claims. This is not a realistic timeframe for completing the proceedings, says Mariola Hawel-Tocker, a Polish and Israeli lawyer who specializes in restitution of Holocaust-era property.

Hawel-Tocker told Haaretz the Israeli media completely misinterpreted the new law, and presented it as an act of good will on the part of the Polish government to make sure compensation is paid out.  But that is not true, she says.

Hawel-Tocker says that the way the new law works will prevent the heirs from receiving the property because the timetable involved is "impossible." She says her telephone in the office and her email never stop after the Israeli press got the story backwards, "and presented something bad as something wonderful." The real meaning of the new law is "the door has closed on the possibility for restitution of property," says Hawel-Tocker.

The new law does not allow the filing of new claims, and only claims filed by December 1988 are valid - and even these claims are now constrained.

After World War Two, all property in Warsaw, which lay in ruins at the end of the war, was confiscated by the Communist government for reconstruction. Later the government rejected most of the property claims by Jews, or bogged the claims in red tape and in the courts.

Since 1989, after the fall of Communism in Poland, thousands of homes have been restored to the Jewish heirs, who had to file specific claims in Polish courts over each individual property.

In recent years, the Polish media has frequently reported on corruption tied to the restitution of Holocaust-era property, in which criminal rackets have taken control of properties that once belonged to Jews. This is one of the main reasons the Polish government decided to deal with the issue and finally put an end to the suits over properties in Warsaw.

Now, as the new law is being implemented, Warsaw has released a list of 2,600 addresses that still have outstanding claims against them. The heirs to these properties are now required to "reactivate their claims," starting once the city publishes a specific announcement concerning their property in the Polish press; and then they have to prove their claim to the property. Otherwise, according to the new law, the property will become the property of the city of Warsaw or the Polish finance ministry.

To help those who have previously filed claims in Warsaw, before the end of 1988, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has launched a new database of the properties in Warsaw along with the names of their previous owners (http://warsawproperty.org).

The WJRO says their website was launched as a service to Holocaust survivors and their heirs so they can "identify their property so they can reactivate their claims before the Polish government takes final possession." The WJRO database matches the historic property registrations in Warsaw with the names of their previous owners.

Other countries, such as Germany, have enacted specific laws on the restitution of property to Holocaust survivors and their families. Poland has no such law and the new right-wing government has no intention to enact such a law, as Poland considers itself a country that was  occupied, exploited and suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Communists - and because such restitution could have a major impact on the Polish economy.

“Poland is the only country in the European Union that has failed to pass a national law to address private property wrongfully taken during the Holocaust or nationalized thereafter,” says the WJRO's head of operations, Gideon Taylor. “We call on the government of Poland to do the just and compassionate thing now, and provide restitution or compensation for survivors and their heirs, and other Jewish and non-Jewish property owners.”