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Poland’s Property Restitution

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Kudos to Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc) for supporting property restitution in Poland (https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/407297-for-poland-a-time-for-justice). One is surprised, however, why she limits herself to seeking redress for Jewish Holocaust victims only. There were others who suffered during the Second World War and its aftermath, including the families of her Christian Polish American constituents, and Wisconsin is choke full of them.

Property theft is perennial to conquest. Mass expropriations commenced with the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century and targeted all patriots. In particular, they impacted the Polish nobility who, having resisted in several major uprisings and numerous conspiracies, not only had their estates confiscated but also suffered Siberia as slaves, often along with their entire families. Patriotic commoners fared no differently, their ethno-cultural background notwithstanding, including Jews.

German Nazi and Soviet Communist ravages dwarfed anything experienced prior. They impacted nearly everyone in occupied Poland, elite and non-elite alike. However, they varied in ferocity, timing, and locality.

Upon jointly conquering Poland, Hitler and Stalin partitioned the hapless nation among themselves. Stalin incorporated his part into the Soviet Union and sovietized it ruthlessly with all that entailed: mass executions, deportations, and expropriations. The latter included virtually all state and private property, except for the smallest of personal items. The Kremlin took over large, medium, and small industry and enterprises; it collectivized agriculture; it seized community property; and it taxed into virtual bankruptcy houses of worship — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim – appropriating some of them outright and preparing to grab the rest next. As far as property theft, Christian landed nobility suffered most, followed by Jews who constituted the bulk of the entrepreneurial class in Poland’s east. In some instances, former Jewish owners and other middle class persons were permitted to manage their former properties for the Communists.

The Germans divided their spoils of Poland into two zones. The first one was incorporated into the Third Reich. After seizing all state property there, the Germans expropriated the Jewish people en bloc and all Polish Christian entrepreneurs and owners of large and medium size private property , as well as some smallholders. A large chunk of the population was deported to central Poland and a comparable contingent to slave labor inside the Reich proper. The Jews, of course, were despoiled, ghettoized, and, eventually, exterminated.

Hitler’s second zone of occupation in central Poland became a German colony, dubbed General Government. It took over all Polish state property in its territory. There, the Jewish population was subject to wholesale confiscations, labor exploitation, and liquidation. All their property was taken over by the German Nazi government. As far as Christian possessions, the Germans robbed all large industrial works and most medium sized factories. They stole most large landed estates and appointed commissars over the remainder as well as over medium size agricultural, industrial, and other enterprises and cooperative entities.

After Hitler attacked Stalin in June 1941, the Nazi system of property relations and economic exploitation was projected east. Basically, the German state retained the possessions appropriated by the Soviet power. There was no property restitution. However, some Christians (Poles and others) were permitted to manage their former properties under Nazi tutelage. The Germans sought out Jewish expertise to a much lesser extent, as they commenced their extermination action in waves from June 1941.

This situation persisted throughout occupied Poland until January 1944-January 1945. As the Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht out of Poland gradually, the Communists instituted two basic occupation regimes. One concerned a direct occupation and the other indirect. In the former case, Poland’s eastern territories were re-incorporated into the Soviet Union. Soon, all property was re-confiscated and re-collectivized.

To the west, Stalin established his puppet regime as the “People’s Republic of Poland.” The Communist state took over all the assets of the Third Reich, including Jewish properties. The Reds kept virtually all industrial plants and all large and medium size enterprises, expropriating small ones only later. There was a restitution, which concerned mostly small properties. Also, small estates and medium farms were initially spared, although later there was a brutal attempt to collectivize them along with small peasant holdings.

Ultimately, the farmers defended their land zealously, and Poland remained the only country in the Soviet Bloc with mostly private agriculture and a sprinkling of small enterprises such as car garages and artisanal works. Property relations froze thus. The only exception was a limited compensation plan executed at the insistence of the United States. Consequently, a few Americans were paid a pathetic fraction for their lost properties.

After 1989, a process of property restitution commenced through a dual process. On the one hand, the parliament (Sejm) enacted laws to restore property to churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations. Most properties have been restored, including Jewish community properties. However, despite numerous efforts by conservatives and libertarians, individual restitution bills have been invariably defeated in the Sejm.

Thus, most individual claimants must turn to courts. The process is arduous and lengthy. Initially, the post-Communist judges were invariably hostile to private claims. Only a few succeeded. Then, attitudes to private property softened; a new generation of judges emerged, more sympathetic to restitution. It is possible now to reclaim property if rightful claimants persevere.

One thing has not changed though. Like everywhere in the world, so called heirless property becomes state property. Some international (and American) Jewish organizations would like to claim heirless Jewish possessions in Poland as Jewish community property. That flies in the face of legal practice anywhere in the world. How can a collective proclaim itself the inheritor of an individual’s property? Also, why should international Jewish organizations collect the compensation, when there is a robust Jewish community in Poland? And who gets the heirless properties of the exterminated Christian elites?

It behooves the good Senator to keep herself better informed about such issues and, thus, remain even-handed. Justice demands restitution for all victims of both totalitarianisms.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 1 October 2018


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Darek Z November 18, 2018 at 9:23 pm

I read this article carefully, and was very surprised that at the very front there is this sentence: “Kudos to Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc) for supporting property restitution in Poland”.

Tammy Baldwin sponsored senate bills S447 and HR 1226, if I remember correctly, to benefit international private organization(s) as a prime beneficiary, and invalidate rules of the international law on heirless property.
As far as I know, Poland already paid restitution to known and identified heirs for their properties after
Germans and Russians ransacked and ruined most of them, but for some groups it is never enough.

Unfortunately, beginning and the end of this article seem to be on totally opposing sides.

Article raises good point at the very end with this section: One thing has not changed though. Like everywhere in the world, so called heirless property becomes state property. Some international (and American) Jewish organizations would like to claim heirless Jewish possessions in Poland as Jewish community property. That flies in the face of legal practice anywhere in the world.

Ursula Oleksyn November 18, 2018 at 10:59 pm

Those of us who know how unfair, morally and legally questionable and unjust the JUST law is would indeed be very disappointed if we thought professor Chodakiewicz truly applauded Senator Baldwin for her support for the law. His seeming praise for Ms. Baldwin in the first sentence turns into strong criticism right in the following sentence in which prof. Chodakiewicz points out how wrong, unfair and biased Senator Baldwin is in her support for the law which addresses restitution for only Jewish Holocaust survivors and does not try to do JUSTice to non Jewish survivors.

Stefan R October 29, 2018 at 3:40 am

It’s refreshing to read a balanced, well informed view of the complex situation with regards to property restitution in Poland. Our family were among the Polish Christian victims of land confiscation. We launched a legal review of agricultural property held by my grandfather to avoid being caught by catch-22 of “Adverse Possession” whereby all uncontested land is transferred freely to the Polish Treasury 30 years after the fall of communism (2019).

voice from Poland October 25, 2018 at 3:21 am

Well, it seems to me that Senator Tammy Baldwin does not care about a bulk of Wisconsin voters.

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