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Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

The baroness planning to sue Poland over lost family assets

Baroness Deech, the former BBC governor and Oxford college head, has hired lawyers in a bid to force the Polish government to compensate her for a series of family properties apparently confiscated during the Second World War.

The estate includes a block of flats in Krakow which belonged to her maternal grandmother, killed in a concentration camp, and a now-derelict oil refinery owned by her paternal grandfather near a village where he was once mayor.

Baroness Deech recently instructed New York-based Klein and Solomon, which specialises in Holocaust restitution, to pursue her claim. But she says her motives are not financial.

I dont care if its a penny or a million pounds, she said. Its acknowledgement Im after.

Unlike other Nazi-occupied countries, Poland has failed to legislate for compensation on behalf of Jews who lost assets in the war. Baroness Deech believes that a legal claim now would benefit from obligations to which Poland signed up when it joined the EU in 2004. It became bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, whose first protocol includes the right to property.

She has considered taking legal action since she visited the village, Ustrzyki Dolne, in the south-east of the country, in 1994 the first chance she had after the end of the Cold War. Her grandfather, Moshe Frnkel, had owned a large house and an oil refinery there.

The current mayor knew all about my grandfather, and said he wished Moshe Frnkel was still alive, as they had full employment then, she said.

I was shown his house, on which someone else was building; his mayors office and the graveyard; and then they drove me out to show me the oil refinery he used to own. Its now derelict.

It was there, overlooking the refinery so huge it included a small railway that the thought first occurred to her: Hold on, who owns it now? This new house being built on the village site, whose is it?

She accepts that she may face a long battle. Poland did pass a law offering compensation for stolen communal Jewish property in 1997. But it is still the only member of the former Soviet bloc yet to take any measures to help private property owners recover their assets.

In 2001, the Polish parliament agreed to some compensation, but only for those who were Polish citizens at the end of 1999. The bill was vetoed by the then president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, partially for economic reasons: the total value of lost property has been estimated at around 16-18 billion (although the largest group of claimants are not Jews, but Polish nobles).

Another Bill which would provide 15-20 per cent compensation to former property owners, even if they were not Polish citizens, passed its first reading in 2006 but was then abandoned.

Last month, Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised during a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York that the issue would be resolved by the end of the year.

Wojdiech Pisarski, a Polish embassy spokesman, refused to discuss Baroness Deechs case, but said lawsuits would soon become unnecessary, as the Bill is in its final stages. The problem so far, he said, has been frequent changes of administration, each with its own vision of how the compensation package should work. But this government is really focusing on it.

Baroness Deech, however, is skeptical. Weve heard that before, she said. Theres a history of promises that have not been kept.

She believes that the problem is not money their economy is doing all right, they can afford to pay now but culture. The Poles, she said, still see themselves as victims, not perpetrators, of the war, and so refuse to take responsibility for its consequences.

They have airbrushed out of their history what happened to Jews in the Second World War, and the few who went back after the war to reclaim property many of whom were scared off or massacred. They take refuge in the fact that in the Communist period, properties were confiscated by law.

My mothers mother left behind a list of assets, including silver candlesticks. There must be millions of homes all over Poland with silver candlesticks dont they ever ask where they come from?

Although she intends to sue, she sees the courts as only a stop-gap solution.

Individuals shouldnt have to press, she said. They are mostly old and dont have the money.

Rather, she added, Poland must be forced to pass legislation. Ideally, she would like an inter-governmental permanent conference, headed by an international lawyer, pressing for payment. The key, she believes, is that Poland is in breach of European human-rights laws.

She wants Britain to take a lead in pressuring the Polish government to comply. We have seen some 600,000 Polish people coming over here to work, she said. Their children are educated here and they are taking all the benefits of being members of the EU. But Poland has not paid its dues. They are in debt to the Jewish survivors. It needs pointing out that Poland has responsibilities as well as rights: not a nation of victims but a nation of debtors.

When Baroness Deech visited Poland, she said she had mixed feelings.

I must look Polish people kept on asking me for directions, she said. There was partly a feeling of thats where I come from, its home. And partly a feeling of how ugly it is; polluted, run-down and decrepit.

This mixed legacy is inherited from her parents. Her father Josef Fraenkel, she said, looked upon his past philosophically, and brought her up on affectionate stories of his home village, including the postman who couldnt read the envelopes, and how, when his father walked to shul, the children, duck and the geese followed in a long procession.

Her mother Dora, who lost her own mother in the Shoah, was more bitter: She kept on telling me what shed lost. It is on their behalf, and not on behalf of her grandparents, that she sees herself acting.

Its the least I can do for them. I had a wonderful childhood, but I look back at the disruption of their lives. Going through old photo albums, I see all these happy photos of my mother before the war, and miserable ones afterwards. They had promising lives and had to start again. What can I do but have a go?

Other claimants taking on Poland

- Legal actions against the Polish government have been a major factor in its decision to press ahead with legislation providing compensation for properties confiscated during the war, according to one of those leading the fight for restitution.

- A handful of cases have made their way through the Polish courts, culminating in the full return of lost properties, according to Kalman Sultanik, president of the Federation of Polish Jews in America and World Jewish Congress vice-president.

- There are under-stood to be around 240 restitution cases pending in the European Court of Human Rights. But these are mainly useful as political pressure.

- Mr Sultanik, who is due to meet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk next week to discuss the compensation Bill currently being drafted by a Polish parliamentary committee, is hopeful it will pass by the end of the summer.

- However, he emphasises that its terms are not yet clear, and that in the meantime, court cases should continue.

The more pressure the better, he told the JC.


Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

They should be suing the Russian Government. The area around Ustryzki Gorne (not far from Dolne) was forcibly evacuated of all inhabitants by the Soviets just after the war and is now an nature reserve. All that remains are abandoned cerkwie (the little onion domed chapels. Many of the inhabitants were native Ukrainians who were moved to Ukraine and I think the Poles there were resettled to Western Poland. Of course they also resettled many when they made the reservoir at Solina. People who were forcibly moved were made to live in Communist blocks and I'm sure they would like some compensation too.

Then there is the old chestnut of the lands of my family which are now in Ukraine, yes I would like compensation for that from Russia too.

Clearly people think they will have more luck getting compensation from soft Poland than mean Russia. They are of course right.

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

Unfortunately for the good baroness, she is wasting her precious time.

Assets confiscated or nationalized for public use cannot be returned. Eminent Domain, or nationalization, is exercised widely in the West and as long as the asset/property in question was used for public purpose and maintained with public funds by an internationally recognized government they will not be returned. Many courts have already spoken plainly on similar cases.

If such claims were honored, descendants of Polish nobility who owned 70% of country’s real estate in 1939 would have a field day, as well as descendants of former Jewish owners.

Too many legal hurdles and besides, let’s say that some form of compensation is granted, what would happen to former Polish holdings in what are now Lithuania (EU), Ukraine, and Belarus, or former German holdings in lands Poland re-took after 1945, or, for the sake of precedent (since the plaintiff here clearly invokes international law) all businesses and property regimes led by the likes of Fidel Castro confiscated throughout the years?

The only exception is communal property (religious or other organizations). All of it has been returned, mostly to the Catholic Church and some Jewish organizations, where court decisions were made based on deeds going back to 1300’s in some cases.

It’s a nice sound byte but ultimately a futile effort. But it keeps the lawyers busy

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

“They should be suing the Russian Government.”

Actually Ania, Russia has received much more similar claims. This is one of the areas where the Polish and Russian governments cooperate, since they are both in identical circumstances, and both countries have passed almost identical laws seeking to address the issue – return of religious and communal property as well as limited returns to those who held citizenships in 1998 and 1999.

Most legal experts consider such cases closed and wouldn’t advice pursuing them further.

But, as long as there is a sliver of a chance, they will continue to be filed.

There are a ton of similar cases against governments all over the world. Few, if any, are heard, and even fewer ruled upon.

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

The good lady might have asked someone to write the article.

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

Or at least proof read it - it looks like it was written by a school kid.

"She believes that the problem is not money their economy is doing all right, they can afford to pay now but culture."

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

“The Poles, she said, still see themselves as victims, not perpetrators, of the war, and so refuse to take responsibility for its consequences.”

Perpetrators? Does this woman own a dictionary? Responsible for what, being invaded from both sides, abandoned by its allies, deprived of self government for fifty years.

“But Poland has not paid its dues.”
More dues than you can comprehend Madame Deech.

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

“The Poles, she said, still see themselves as victims, not perpetrators, of the war, and so refuse to take responsibility for its consequences.”

Crikey...I had not seen that. That would be a shocking attitude - do you think it was misreported?

Re: Plan to sue Poland over lost family assets

Yeah that whole article is a piece of shit.

Feel sorry for whoever wrote it.