NEW YORK - In response to a new Polish law placing a six-month limit on Holocaust-era property claims in the city of Warsaw, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has launched a database aimed at helping potential claimants take advantage of the closing window of opportunity.
In 1945, a law known as the Warsaw Decree was issued by the ruling communist government transferring all property within the city to the government. The law allowed former owners to file claims on the properties, which include many that were seized from Jews during the Nazi occupation. At the time, authorities largely ignored claims filed and very little property was returned.
During the subsequent Cold War years, it was virtually impossible to advance any attempts at restitution, but in the years since 1989, many survivors and their families have tried to follow up on claims made under the original decree. Most of these claims have been stymied in the Polish legal system, and many others were forgotten by the heirs of claimants, leaving thousands of 70-year-old cases open.
In September, a Polish law set a six-month limit for survivors and their families to reinitiate legal proceedings on the 2,613 unsettled claims originally pursued under the 1945 statute.
“I don’t think that their intentions were good. The Poles are just looking to end the matter and limit their liability, but we’re hoping that the six-month window can be a catalyst to get more people to follow up on claims and actually get restitution,” Abraham Biderman, co-chairman of the WJRO, told Hamodia. “A lot of people don’t even know that their parents or grandparents made claims in 1945. If word gets out, this could be a big opportunity.”
The newly set statute of limitations takes effect once the addresses of properties are formally announced by the Warsaw government in local papers as well as on the city’s website. Shortly after the law was put in place, the government released a list of the addresses of properties in question, but without the names of claimants.
“Almost none of the people who are the heirs to these claims have ever lived in Poland. My parents lived in Warsaw before the war, but I have no idea what their address was,” said Mr. Biderman.
Using homeowner directories from the 1930s and ’40s, the WJRO matched up the addresses with names of original owners and presented their findings in a publicly available database.
On the topic of Holocaust compensation, Poland is typically ranked worst among European nations that were occupied by the Nazis. They are the only member of the European Union that has not established a national law mandating restitution to Jews and others dispossessed during the Second World War.
Some communal property, including cemeteries and yeshivah buildings, have been returned, but all individual claims for restitution must go through the Polish court system, an obvious impediment to the families of survivors, very few of whom live in Poland.
“The Poles never showed any interest in a restitution law. They have nothing to gain from it politically and were not interested in giving benefits to foreigners,” said Mel Urbach, an attorney who specializes in recovering items lost or stolen during the Holocaust. “On the other hand, there are neglected properties all over the country that no one wants to deal with, since they have questions of ownership hanging over them… This law is another attempt to try to clear up the title issues and allow for development to happen.”
Mr. Urbach was one of multiple attorneys involved in a class action suit against the Polish government in 1999 over reparation for Holocaust-era claims. The case advanced in U.S. courts, but was ultimately denied on the grounds that Poland was “immune” from litigation in America owing to its status as a sovereign power. He felt the six-month window was unrealistic.
“It’s a very difficult process to establish yourself as the legitimate heir. In most cases you have to dig back to documents from the beginning of the last century. The information is not digitized, spellings of names have changed, you’re left with scraps of information that you have little or no access to,” he said.
“We are doing what we can to improve the odds of people getting compensation. What the Poles are offering is certainly too little, but hopefully not too late,” said Mr. Biderman.