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Fight to Return Seized Property Gains Ground

World Perspective | POLAND

Faced with angry citizens and lawsuits abroad, government is moving to give back real estate taken by Nazis and Communists.

July 30, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — The historical plaque on the reconstructed Palace of the Bishops of Krakow in central Warsaw gives no hint that it's stolen property, but to Joanna Beller, heir to the massive building, that's exactly what it is.

Ever since the 1989 collapse of communism here, Beller, 65, has been battling the Polish state for the return of this prime real estate, now housing a branch office of Poland's social security agency.

"It's 10 years that I've been fighting, digging in my nails to get it back," Beller said. "I simply will not allow them to take it away from me. No way."

Beller is one of tens of thousands of Poles and former Polish citizens, or their heirs, who claim to be rightful owners of property confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust or by the post-World War II Communist government of Poland.

The other democratic states of the former East Bloc, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, have done much more than Poland to return real estate to pre-Communist owners.

Now, under pressure from angry property claimants within Poland and lawsuits filed abroad by Polish citizens or former citizens, the government is moving toward approval of a re-privatization law that would resolve claims valued at about $30 billion.

"I think it would have to help me in some way," Beller said of the proposed law. She said, however, that she believes that even without new legislation she ought to be able to regain control of the property, because official documents still list her as the legal owner. The building, bought by her ancestors in the early 19th century, was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in the immediate postwar years.

Elzbieta Mlynarska, head of the legal department for the social security office housed in the building that Beller claims, said the agency is awaiting a court verdict in the case.

Within Poland, demands for the return of property confiscated by the Nazis and Communists are spearheaded by the Polish Union of Property Owners, which together with affiliated groups claims to represent 250,000 people.

"I'm not interested in whether the state can afford it," said Miroslaw Szypowski, president of the owners union. "The state is supposed to give back what was stolen. What does it mean, being 'able' to afford it? It is like asking if a thief can afford to give back what he has stolen."

Land and buildings that became state property under the Nazis and Communists were passed on to national and local governments after the democratic changes of 1989, Szypowski noted. "Now they are saying, 'This belongs to us,' " he complained. "They say, 'We know it was stolen, but we did not steal it.' "

Szypowski argues that returning property to its rightful owners, far from being a burden for the country, will on the contrary help boost economic growth. "Today, a lot of investors--honest investors--do not want to invest in Poland because the issue of property is not resolved," he said.

The Treasury Ministry says passage of the re-privatization law is essential in practical as well as moral terms. Failure to pass the proposed law--which provides for return of real estate or granting of vouchers to acquire other property--could mean that the state would eventually pay much more in cash compensation to the winners of lawsuits, the ministry said in a recent statement.

The ministry also noted that settlement of old property claims is a key condition for membership in the European Union, which Poland hopes for in a few years.

The Polish government is highly sensitive to lawsuits filed overseas, including a high-profile class-action suit filed in federal district court in Brooklyn last month. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust or their heirs, who believe they represent tens of thousands of people whose property was taken illegally.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, commenting on the Brooklyn lawsuit, said that the re-privatization law now being drafted would help resolve the grievances of many people whose property was confiscated.

Many here believe that claims of Jewish and non-Jewish property owners must be settled in the same way.

"We have never divided property owners by their nationality or religion," Szypowski said, commenting on the Brooklyn lawsuit. "Before the war, about 30% of properties in cities belonged to Poles of Jewish nationality. It was all, however, lost by Polish citizens. The fact that they now have a different citizenship has no meaning whatsoever. Our organization fully supports their claims."

Andrzej Zozula, executive director of the Union of Jewish Congregations in Poland, said that he does not see "any possibility of Jews getting back their property without resolving the issue of everybody in Poland getting back their property."

Ela Kasprzycka of The Times' Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.

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