As Menachem Daum walked through the streets of Dzialoszyce, Poland, in 2002, he saw the roofless synagogue built in 1854, a poignant reminder of the vibrant Jewish community that had once existed there. On a return trip he made three years later, Daum was approached by a man who seemed to be in charge.
“How much do you want to pay me for it?” he asked Daum.
“I was startled by the question,” Daum said recently, recalling the situation. “The idea of selling this historical and sacred site and razing it for a housing development or shopping mall was just unthinkable.”
“But obviously,” Daum continued, “it wasn’t unthinkable for the man who was asking me this question and who had the legal authority to sell this synagogue to me or to anyone of his choosing.”
For Daum, a documentary filmmaker here and a descendant of a long line of Polish Jews, the man’s question and all it entailed might have brought to mind the closing scene of the Oscar-winning film “Chinatown,” about the shady politics of water rights in 1930s Los Angeles. “Forget it, Jake,” a character says to Jack Nicholson, “it’s Chinatown,” a reference to a situation so knotty that untangling it seems next to impossible.
Chinatown or Dzialoszyce, Daum’s peek through the window of Jewish communal property reclamation in Poland raises questions about the financial transparency of an organization — the World Jewish Restitution Organization — whose mission is to represent worldwide Jewry in the reclamation process. A month-long look by The Jewish Week at the activities of the WJRO reveals a murky world in which millions of dollars are at stake, and where getting answers to simple questions proved frustrating at best. It was not possible, for instance, to learn the total amount of money already received from reclamation activities.
But it is clearly a sizeable sum, and all for a Polish Jewish community that numbers perhaps 20,000. That seeming incongruity has led Daum and other outsiders with some knowledge of what is happening in Poland to scratch their heads.
The questions about transparency provide something of a counter-narrative to a host of stories in the Jewish and general press in recent years that detail a small but significant renaissance of Jewish life in Poland. Surely, the money from the reclamation process has helped fuel some of this activity.
But officials in Poland acknowledge there have been some problems over the years:
– Journalists in Gdansk found some non-Jews had been duped into signing up to join the Jewish community in the belief they were registering for a pension.
– A bookkeeper in the Jewish community in Gdansk was found to be double billing; he was immediately fired.
– When the reclamation process began in 1997, various individuals created groups that called themselves Jewish communities just to claim rights to Jewish property. The rights of one of those groups are being challenged in court.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Shudrich, said the Jewish leader who tried to sell Daum an historic synagogue is not corrupt but must “learn how to express their [community] needs.” And he said it would be unfair to paint everyone as corrupt.
“There was one charlatan, but I’m not sure all are charlatans,” he said.
There are two Jewish reclamation groups in Poland and officials at both insist that they are complying with the financial requirements of Poland. But at the same time they refuse to publish that material on their websites. In addition, they note that there are also complex moral and ethical issues involved in the reclamation process, including what to do with a synagogue in disrepair in an area in which no Jews live, and which, if not repaired, would be subject to government fines.
The woman at the center of one of the groups is a lawyer and a Polish native, Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FPJH). The foundation is part of the WJRO. The other group is the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland (UJRC).
The FPJH reclaims, manages and in some cases sells prewar Jewish communal property returned to the Jewish community under a 1997 Polish law. It handles property in areas of the country in which there is no longer a Jewish presence; the UJRC handles reclamation in the 16 regions in which Jews now live.
In an e-mail interview, Krawczyk was asked about critics’ complaints about a lack of financial transparency.
“We publish on our website all initiatives, projects which we initiate or join,” she wrote. “We have a good reputation and respect among Polish institutions and NGOs and private individuals. …
“If you ask in terms of financial issues, FPJH is strictly following Polish regulations and is submitting financial reports to the tax office and other relevant authorities. In fact, we are doing above what is required, as our yearly reports are audited.”
“It is probable that the ‘transparency’ regulations are different in the U.S. and in Poland, and some observers are not satisfied,” Krawczyk continued. “However, I briefly looked into some random websites of U.S. private foundations and Jewish federations, and I haven’t found any financial reports either.”
But she did reveal that her organization had obtained property from the Polish government in place of Jewish communal property that was not available and that money from its sale or rental totaled $1,053,192.
Krawczyk said the Polish government has also paid her organization cash in cases where Jewish communal property could not be returned. But when asked in a phone interview by The Jewish Week how much that totaled, she flatly refused to say.
“I am not authorized to give you the figure,” she said. “We are like any other organization that is subject to all kinds of laws and regulations in Poland. We are audited. We submit to the proper authorities, and this is the knowledge we are obligated to submit — not to newspapers or journalists who want to know the balance sheet of the foundation.”
In an earlier e-mail, Krawcyzk had written: “It is our dream that some of the active congregations from outside Poland could ‘adopt’ a cemetery or a synagogue as its own project and help us in restoration. … Then perhaps we will not be forced to sell property ‘A’ to pay for renovation of property ‘B’…”
Asked why any group would want to partner with her organization if she refuses to be forthcoming about finances, Krawcyzk replied: “Anyone willing to get involved in any specific project … will get all the information that he-she is required [to get].”
She added that the FPJH currently has 10 partners in the U.S., two in England and one in Israel.
Piotr Kadicik, president of the Jewish Community of Poland and the Jewish Community of Warsaw, said the UJRC has received about $1.3 million in each of the last 13 years from the sale of Jewish communal property.
“Monies are spent for the welfare system, educational activities, youth camps, restoration of synagogues and cemeteries, salaries of the rabbis and maintenance of religious life, assistance to righteous gentiles, and support to other Jewish organizations in Poland, such as Children of Holocaust or Jewish War Veterans’ Association,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.
He pointed out that the group’s community activities are listed on each community’s website as well as www.jewish.org.pl. There is no English translation.
“The information listed there is similar to those listed at American Jewish websites,” Kadicik added.
Daum pointed out that unlike the UJRC, “American Jewish organizations have independent and respected boards of directors, independent financial audits and they publish annual reports that provide financial details beyond what is found on their websites.”
“Mr. Kadicik claims members of the local Polish Jewish community do have access to this financial information,” he added. “Even if this were true, the data are still un-audited and it would mean anyone wanting this information from outside of Poland would first have to move to Poland and become a Polish citizen and join the local Jewish community. This is obviously unrealistic. If the UJRC has nothing to hide, why not just make this information more readily and publicly available?”
Daum added that the UJRC is “registered as religious communities” instead of social or cultural groups and thus avoids closer scrutiny.
Another critic is Norman Weinberg who, with his wife, Hannah, founded the Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project that since 2001 has raised sufficient funds to restore 30 cemeteries and is working on another five.
“They have never opened their books to anybody,” Weinberg complained in a phone interview from his home in Florida. “There are millions of dollars coming in from restitution funds. How many Jews live in Poland — 10,000 or 20,000? How many Jews does the union look after?
“Buffalo has 10,000-12,000 Jews and the Jewish community there has a budget of $2 million to $3 million. How many millions do you need to look after the education of the youth in Poland, of old people there, of overhead for their organization? I’m sure what they are doing is costly and worthwhile, but I’ve yet to see an accounting. These are questions I’ve been asking and nobody is providing answers.”
Shnayer Leiman, a teacher of Jewish history at Brooklyn College who often leads Jewish heritage tours of Eastern Europe, said he has visited “many places in Poland” and has repeatedly heard stories “that Jewish communal property was returned, stealthily sold and then the profits were kept by private individuals because there was no oversight or accountability.”
But David Peleg, CEO of the WJRO (made up of 10 worldwide Jewish organizations), which in 2002 created the FPJH, insisted that his board has detailed information about the FPJH’s activities and approves its budget.
“For us it is very important to be transparent,” he said.
Peleg insisted that the “return of Jewish community property is not a financial issue. … Basically for us it is an issue of justice and human rights.”
“We are not getting it just to sell it,” he said of the property. “[It represents] the core of Jewish religion and history and culture, and when I visit those synagogues I feel Jewish history; this is our mission. Sometimes you have to sell in order to be able to restore. That decision is based upon the state of the synagogue and whether there is a Jewish community that is close to it. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, according to the work plan of restoring Jewish synagogues.”
Peleg pointed out that a synagogue restored by his organization is to be dedicated in coming weeks.
The Jewish community presented 5,504 property claims to the Polish government, including 1,200 Jewish cemeteries, according to Krawczyk. To date, only 34 percent of claims have been resolved, with only half being reviewed.
Krawczyk said her group has successfully reclaimed 93 cemeteries and 11 “ruined synagogues.” But the dilemma for the FPJH is what to do with the synagogues because they are in areas far from major cities “where there is no Jewish community and no Jewish visitors’ interest, but it sticks out as a sore point in the eyes of Polish neighbors. … Certainly decisions about renovations are easily undertaken when we have a partner with a vision.”
Such a partnership existed in the renovation of the only Renaissance-period synagogue in Zamosc — 85 percent of which was paid for by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The remaining 15 percent was financed by the FPJH and other donors. It is to be inaugurated in April. There is a similar arrangement in the current renovation of the synagogue in Krasnik.
The FPJH has to date sold only one of its 11 synagogues, Krawczyk said in an e-mail, to a “Jewish community in Brooklyn.” She refused to say which one, writing in all capital letters, as if for emphasis: “The sale contract is subject to business confidentiality between the parties, and I am not authorized to disclose any details. Also rabbis consider this as tzedaka and this is subject to anonymity.”
The Jewish Week learned, however, that the sale of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Synagogue in Rymanov occurred about 10 years ago to Congregation Menachem Zion Yotzie Russia, a 400-family synagogue in Borough Park. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Avrohom Reich, is a seventh-generation direct descendent of the legendary rabbi for whom the synagogue is named.
“This was the synagogue where he prayed,” Rabbi Reich said of his famous ancestor and the nearly 500-year-old shul.
He said that after buying it — both Rabbi Reich and Krawczyk declined to disclose the sale price but said it was “nominal” — his congregation spent more than $250,000 to renovate the building, which has three-foot stone walls that are said to have come from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He said the FPJH contributed no money to the renovation.
The Jewish cemetery in Rymanov had for years been cared for by Michal and Adam Lorenc, two Polish brothers who traveled hundreds of miles each month to cut the grass there. But, according to Daum, once the FPJH was given ownership of it, “the brothers were forbidden to enter the cemetery unless they first requested and received written permission every single time they wished to clean it.”
“When these brothers organized an annual celebration of Jewish culture in Rymanov,” Daum continued, “they were told that neither they nor the Jewish survivors and descendants from abroad they invited would be permitted to enter the cemetery unless the FPJH was listed as a ‘sponsor,’ even though it did not put a cent of its own money into the event. … Instead of embracing such Poles with open arms, the Jewish organizations in Poland are deliberately chasing such allies away.”
Krawczyk said in an e-mail that although her group is “desperate in search of any groups who wish to work on Jewish cemeteries,” as the owner of the cemetery it must ensure that all work is performed under rabbinical supervision, that the volunteers are properly insured and that “they work for the benefit of the historical site.”
“Would you like a group of people from Poland suddenly trespassing your property, going to your garden and starting to pull out some plants?” she asked. “If some not authorized work is done, we as [the] owner will have [a] problem with the authorities.”
Regarding the disposition of property returned to the UJRC, Kadicik said there is no “master plan …[due to] complexity of the status of returned properties. Extreme caution is being exercised because some of the property is part of our Jewish heritage. I don’t think I can point to one case of a sale of property that was part of our Jewish heritage.”
Asked about his group’s activities, he cited “big preservation projects such as the Lublin Yeshiva with its synagogue and mikveh, maintenance of many cemeteries and of a number of synagogues in Cracow, Wroclaw and Lodz. …. As for the revitalization of Jewish community projects, there are kosher canteens, youth clubs and senior citizens clubs around the country.”
Rabbi Shudrich said he is also proud of the Jewish community’s work, pointing out that the Polish Jewish community had been “destroyed,” first by the Nazis and until 1989 by the Soviets.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community in Poland “had to build from the ground up — and the fact we got as far as we did is basically a miracle,” he said. “When democracy began 21 years ago, there was one minyan here and it was on Shabbat morning. Within a year, we had a minyan twice a day. The restitution money has been helping us. …. We now have six rabbis hired by the communities throughout Poland, five strictly kosher community kitchens, and we are restoring or building three mikvaot [Jewish ritual bath], with more planned.”
Rabbi Shudrich acknowledged that “until now too little money has gone to the restoration of cemeteries. But there is now a proposal before the foundation to commit more funds for cemetery preservation. Hopefully it will pass in the near future. … Part of the challenge was getting the system to work, now we have to see what our priorities are.”
He noted that even though there is no budget yet for cemetery restoration, “we have been able to stop cemetery desecration, such as a road or pipeline that were to run through cemeteries. We have saved dozens and dozens of cemeteries.”
Peleg said that although there is not enough money to restore all of the cemeteries, “we will try to do our best and we definitely think it is an important issue for the government, municipalities and the Jewish community to stand together to do what can be done.”
But Daum has his doubts, fueled by that encounter he had six years ago when he realized the Jewish leader offering to sell the historic Dzialoszyce synagogue was unaware of the community’s rich Jewish history.
The man, who was from the nearby local Jewish community of Katowice and who had been granted by the Polish government the legal right to reclaim Jewish communal property in Dzialoszyce, had told Daum that his fee to file the necessary legal papers for the sale would be $10,000. He added that he would apply for the return of both the synagogue and the cemetery and had asked Daum to make an offer for the synagogue.
“I would rather sell to a Jew than a non-Jew,” the man explained.
“I was simply dumbfounded,” Daum recalled. “I covered up my shock and asked him a simple question, ‘I don’t know how many Jews still live in Katowice, but it cannot be too many. I don’t imagine you incur any great expenses in providing services for the few Jews still living here. So what do you need all this money for?’”
The man replied that it was needed for the upkeep of the synagogue and the congregation.
“I left Katowice,” Daum said, “with the realization that I was hopelessly naïve about what is really going on beneath the surface of Jewish life in today’s Poland.”