Polish lawmakers this week began wrestling with a long-delayed World War II property restitution plan, only weeks after 11 Jews filed an unprecedented federal lawsuit in Brooklyn against the Republic of Poland seeking the return of property seized from their families during the Holocaust.
Though details of a draft plan by parliament, the Sejm, have not been released, the proposal was criticized Monday as not enough by the president of the Polish Union of Real Estate Owners, or PUWN. The non-Jewish Polish organization stunned Polish authorities when it announced support for the American Jewish lawsuit filed June 18.
Even top U.S. State Department sources said they did not have the specifics of the draft plan — considered political dynamite for Poland’s elected officials.
One U.S. government source said, however, that nearly a half-million parcels of land could be at issue with a value of tens of billions of dollars. In comparison, Swiss banks settled a class-action suit last year for $1.25 billion.
New York lawyer Mel Urbach, who represents the 11 Jewish claimants, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that Polish sources told him the draft included several major points. They are:
# The legislation only would cover property taken between 1944 and 1960.
Urbach said most property was confiscated by the Polish communist regime after 1956.
# A claimant had to be a Polish citizen at the time the property was taken.
Urbach vigorously criticized this requirement, saying it would exclude many survivors who already were American citizens by the time the property was taken, including some of his clients. “We absolutely strongly oppose this,” he said.
# The plan would affect only property still owned by the Polish Treasury Department — a small percentage of the total. In these cases the government would give claimants 60 percent ownership while keeping the rest.
# If the property is not owned by the Treasury Department and has been sold or given away — which represents most cases — Poland would offer some sort of government bond, at a value not determined.
While critical of some points, Urbach said he welcomed the proposal as “a positive first step. We’re happy to see something after 55 years,” he said about the only Eastern European nation that so far has failed to approve a restitution bill. The issue has been divisive and eventually, costly, throughout Europe.
The U.S. lawsuit already has put pressure on the government to act on the long-dormant and restitution issue, said Adam Biela, head of the Sejm’s Enfranchisement and Privatization Committee.
But PUWN president Miroslaw Szypowski called the draft “a blow to owners because what the state treasury owns now is only a small percentage of property claimed by us,” he said.
Szypowski shocked Polish officials when he announced last month that his group would support the lawsuit — despite charges of ethnic cleansing of Jews against Poland contained in the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that the Polish government conspired not only to take Jewish property and make money from it, but also to complete the Nazis’ plan to make Poland Judenrein.
“The scheme, which has continued during the last 54 years, involved the forced, coerced ‘expulsion to extinction’ of the Jewish people from Poland through ethnic and racial cleansing through the use of violence and the threat of violence, including torture and death,” the lawsuit says.
Urbach said many of the survivors who returned to Poland after the war were forced to flee because of a wave of barbaric and violent anti-Semitism.
“Little was done by the Polish police and military to protect the Jews,” when more than 1,000 were murdered from 1945 to 1947, he said.
The allegations prompted an angry response by the Polish Foreign Ministry.
“It’s a rare example of linguistic aggression and disrespect for Polish history, which is used at the time when certain tangential points have emerged in Polish-Jewish dialogue,” said spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski.
Nevertheless, Szypowski said he would encourage members of PUWN to back the federal suit, which can become a class-action on behalf of tens of thousands of claimants, Jewish and non-Jewish, Urbach said.
“We support the claim filed by the Polish citizens of Jewish origin,” Szypowski told the Warsaw Business Journal last month.
Janusz Lewandowski, deputy chairman of the Treasury, criticized the PUWN for supporting Urbach and warned that the lawsuit could trigger a backlash.
“Such statements like the one made by Szypowski might only make the entire process more difficult,” Lewandowski told the Central Europe Business Journal. “It might do this as much as the Brooklyn claim to delay reprivatization [restitution] because it will set public opinion and the [government] deputies against it.”
The dramatic legal strategy in the federal lawsuit filed by Urbach and lawyer Ed Klein —both have been involved in the Swiss bank and German slave labor Holocaust restitution cases — is designed to allow the case to go forward against Poland.
For instance, U.S law generally bars individuals from suing a sovereign government. But the Brooklyn suit argues that Poland has been acting as a commercial real estate developer and not a sovereign nation with regards to the confiscated properties, which include homes and businesses seized by the Nazis, then nationalized by Poland after the war.
The 11 plaintiffs include Saul Klausner, Chana Lewkowicz and Goldie Knobel of Brooklyn; Bella Jungewirth of New York; Judah Weller of Queens; and Theo Garb of Long Island.
“Whatever they give me, I feel this gives a voice to my mother and father who are not here,” said Knobel, a retired Crown Heights teacher whose family owned spas in the small Polish town of Dukla before the Nazis forced them to leave in 1939, in an interview.
Weller of Far Rockaway, whose father owned a home, factory and optical shop in Kaluszyn, said he is in this legal fight for the duration. “We waited this long,” he said.
He called it “unfair” if the Poland bill restricts American claims. “My father fought his whole life for what was coming to him, and he wasn’t successful because of the situation in Poland,” Weller told The Jewish Week, referring to the decades under Communist rule when property records were inaccessible and claims were being rejected.
Meanwhile, Urbach said he will ask the European Union to hold fact-finding hearings in the fall on property restitution in Poland. He said the hearings would be similar to those held in the U.S. Senate last year about German labor camps.
U.S. government sources told The Jewish Week the new developments are being watched closely because of the tremendous repercussions they could have for the Polish economy. The State Department and Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat, America’s leading official on Holocaust property restitution, declined to comment on the draft plan.
Eizenstat said in March that he anticipated a draft, and was assured on several occasions by the Polish government “that it will permit Polish Americans to file claims for property they or their families owned.”
Some Poles fear that the lawsuit and draft bill will damage Polish-Jewish relations.
“It is realistic that anti-Semitic circles will become more active in Poland,” warned the Warsaw Voice newspaper.
Urbach said he has been contacted by a number of Holocaust survivor organizations since filing the lawsuit, “particularly the Breslau organization in Israel.”
Coincidentally, Poland in December is to host an international conference on the restitution of Jewish communal property.