Polish government adopts restitution bill

25-02-2005

The Polish government has adopted a restitution bill, which is yet to go before parliament, allowing for the return of private property which was confiscated by the Nazis during the Second World War and later nationalized by the communist authorities.

European Court for Human Rights in StrasbourgEuropean Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg Jan Tarnowski, a seventy year old Polish aristocrat, has just finished yet another court hearing for the return of family property, including a landed estate and a distillery, which was confiscated by the communist authorities after the war. He has been launching class action suits against the Polish state for umpteen years for the return of a family manor which was in his family's possession since 1522. After the war the Tarnowski manor was seized without compensation and has been transformed into a school. He sees little hope of winning his family's heirlooms back in the foreseeable future.

"Do you want to know what our distillery is now? It's a hotel, warehouses. They privatized it. They sold it. When it came up for privatization they told me, if I wanted to buy it, I not only had to pay the price the thing was valued at but, I would have to take over the debts that they have made which were twice as much as the value of the whole thing."

The shifting of the country's borders after the war made it literally impossible for Poles to retrieve pre-war private property. Successive Polish governments repeatedly said they just didn't have the money to redress past wrongs, for the issue concerned millions of people. The families of Jews who lost their property in Poland had long been making futile attempts to get their property back as well. Restitution claims for the return of private property against Poland have now been filed with the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Since the 1990's French holocaust survivor Henryk Pikielney has been trying to recover a textile factory that was nationalized in post war Poland. Renata Kowalska from the legal treaties department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is looking into the complex legal framework of the case.

"The government is not involved. The case against Mr. Pikelney doesn't exist for the time being because the court is examining whether the case is admissible."

But there are those who wonder if today's democratic Poland should be made to pay for the mistakes committed by the former communist authorities, which in turn acted on Moscow's orders? Nathalie Lawie from Jewish Restitution certainly believes so.

"If the government of Poland of today took over the assets and the responsibility for Poland, it doesn't make a difference which government ruled Poland before, it is an ongoing responsibility of the government."

Warsaw has finally inched forward earlier this month, with the passage of new legislation on the restitution of property. Successful claimants would receive compensation worth up to 15% of the current market value. Revenues would be created from the country's privatization ventures. So what is aristocrat Jan Tarnowski saying to all of this?

"It's good news and a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient compensation, 15% is another robbery."

Jim Yrkowski from TCG Lawyers in Warsaw sees the proposed bill as a means to right past wrongs.

"At some point some solution needs to be proposed and at least there's a solution on the table now."

Official figures suggest that claims against Poland by owners who lost their assets could reach 3.75 billion US dollars. The bill now goes before Parliament and needs to be signed by the President before it becomes law. Former owners and their heirs have already said that the offer is insufficient. As for Jan Tarnowski, he continues to wage war against the state in the hope that one day he or his heirs will receive what was rightfully theirs.

25-02-2005