Three years after being sent to a notorious Nazi concentration camp in World War II, Esther and her sister returned home to find their entire family had been murdered. She was 15 years old. Now, more than 70 years later, Esther is still the victim of injustice, as the clock runs out for Jews and others displaced by the Nazis to reclaim confiscated Holocaust-era property in Warsaw.
While restitution legislation around the world is provides some justice to the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust and their families, Poland remains the only state in the European Union not to have enacted comprehensive private property restitution legislation.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) in December announced the launch of a database aimed at addressing the glaring shortcomings in the law that places an almost impossible burden on those seeking to make claims to properties that belonged to their families before the war. In 1939, before Germany’s invasion of Poland, one-third of the population of Warsaw was Jewish.
Under the Small Reprivatization Act, a law that came into effect in Poland in September 2016, claimants will have only six months to act once the Warsaw city authorities publish the list of properties eligible for restitution, and only those who have made a prior claim can apply. To date, however, they have published no such list. Recently discovered instances of corruption, dubbed “wild privatization,” are a major reason for the delay, and the Anti-Corruption Bureau and other government authorities are investigating the entire privatization process that has taken place since the fall of Communism in 1989.
The Holocaust took the lives of more than three million Polish Jews. As a professor of law and the author of several books on property confiscation, I have long fought to expose the historical wrongs inflicted on families during the Second World War. However, I was compelled to become personally involved after hearing from Esther and others who contacted me after reading an article I co-authored for Newsweek last August with the chief of operations for the WJRO.
The article raised the challenges faced by individuals to claim restitution of property seized by the Nazis or Communists in Warsaw. Like many survivors who fled Europe after the war, Esther was unaware of the new law or the time limit given to file a claim. Even now, she may find the opportunity to reconnect with her roots snatched from her.
As a child, Esther lived with her family in a four-storey apartment building next to her father’s factory. After the Nazis forced her family into the Warsaw Ghetto, they were split up in 1943 and dragged onto trains bound for the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps. Her parents, two brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins did not survive.
My own father fled eastern Poland when he was 17, just as the Germans began murdering Jews, so I wanted to help. My Newsweek article was distributed to members of The 1939 Society, a Holocaust survivor organization created in Los Angeles, where I serve as vice president. Esther, now a grandmother living in California, did not know what had happened to the family home, but within three days of contacting a Polish solicitor to do some research, we uncovered a listing for Esther’s father in the 1938 Warsaw telephone book, making it likely that he was the owner of the building or one of the flats prior to the war.
Remarkably, the building survived the almost total decimation of Warsaw by the Nazis after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and is currently in the ownership of the City of Warsaw. We are now beginning the journey of proving her father’s ownership of the property. But time is not on our side. If the property is not reclaimed in time, it will revert back to the city.
Meanwhile, Esther has had to relive the memories of the atrocities she suffered. She and her sister were in the German concentration camp of Buchenwald when it was liquidated and they were forced on a death march by their Nazi captors. When the few survivors from the Jewish community returned to Warsaw after the war, they found their property was no longer theirs. Fortunately, the sisters knew the names of relatives who lived in the U.S. and they were welcomed into the arms of a loving family.
I believe that Poland, which had the largest pre-war Jewish population in Europe, has both a legal and moral responsibility to open the claims process for everyone, including those who did not file previous claims in 1945. Back then, the Warsaw Decree allowed property owners to file a claim but few, if any, claims were reviewed and approved.
It is also essential the city’s authorities publish a list of all former owners who made claims prior to 1989. Such lists are not publicly available. Instead, it is only through the database created by the WJRO that people can search for a property using an address or a family name.
Warsaw is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. But Poland cannot be recognized as a serious financial player until this long-neglected business of World War II is resolved in a fair and transparent manner. A national Polish restitution law is the best means to accomplish this goal, and give Esther and others like her, the peace they deserve.
Michael J. Bazyler is professor of law and The 1939 Society scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. The name of his client has been changed to protect her anonymity.