The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 opened the door for former citizens and their descendants living elsewhere to reclaim property.
Until then, it had been next to impossible. Even after privatization, legal and documentary hurdles, especially in Poland, remained to be overcome.
Poland, today, stands as a major exception among former members of the Soviet bloc or European Union: It is the only major country that does not have a law governing restitution or compensation for property seized by the Germans during the Second World War, or nationalized under Communism.
Poland says claimants should use the regular court system, but the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which claims it speaks for 3,000 claimants, says this is a “complex, expensive, burdensome and time consuming path”, which can act as a de-facto barrier to elderly survivors and their heirs.
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Still, some descendants of families who owned real estate in Poland have managed to recover their family’s property, and demonstrated that restitution is achievable.
Irwin Tauben’s parents were among the fortunate few – Polish Jews who endured sub-human conditions in labour and concentration camps to survive the Holocaust. They rarely talked about the past as they rebuilt their shattered lives in Montreal.
But in 1997, Tauben decided that, in spite of being told it was next to impossible, he would try to reclaim buildings and land that had belonged to his late grandfather, Bezalel Taubenblat.
After the war, Tauben’s father, Mordechai Don Taubenblat was eager to leave Poland and made a deal with one of the tenants, a butcher in a property in Kielce built by his father. It had seven retail stores and 12 residential units.
The butcher purchased 25 per cent of the building, and also agreed to pay all taxes.
“With that money, my parents were able to go to Paris – my mother was pregnant with me at the time,” he recalls. Tauben was born in September 1947 in Montreal.
Tauben’s father built a successful garment manufacturing enterprise here and over time disclosed that his father’s family had owned various properties in Poland.
In 1997, an intrigued Irwin Tauben hired a Polish-born North American resident, who was involved in business in Poland, to research the extent of his grandfather’s holdings there, with a goal of reclaiming ownership.
“He found several properties that my late father’s parents had owned in Poland.”
Tauben decided he would try to recover the property in Kielce, which was being managed by the same family.
That family had paid all taxes, and acquired 100 per cent ownership of the building in 1990, after the fall of communism, arguing in court that they had had no contact with the Taubenblats.
Tauben’s mother, Julie, said that if the family recovered the property and sold it, the proceeds should be used to assist survivors in Europe and Israel.
When the Taubens announced their intention to claim ownership of 75 per cent, the daughter who was managing the building was floored.
“She said, ‘prove to me that Mordechai Don Taubenblat and Morton Tauben (his name in Canada) are the same person’.”
“There was no good will, they were fighting me tooth and nail,” he recalled.
Tauben and his assistant went to work. They had to interview people, some in Toronto, get their English affidavits translated into Polish and authenticated by the consulate, send it to a lawyer hired in Poland, and supply it to the property owner’s lawyer.
“A lot of people may think it’s a slam dunk, but don’t realize how expensive it can be. By the fifth year I had already spent $50,000.
A real estate evaluator was hired to compare the building with other buildings in the area.
The property had not been well maintained, because that is the responsibility of the individual tenants, and its value was estimated at between $350,000 and $1 million,” Tauben said.
Tauben credits the assistant he hired for doing a thorough and often time-consuming job to research and document the extent of his father’s holdings, and his father’s contested identity, and other services connected to preparing a successful claim. It involved a lot of legwork over eight years and cost him about $80,000, including expenses, but Tauben vowed to continue “out of principle.”
By July 2005, Tauben was told the relevant court in Kielce was ready to hear the case and a hearing was set for November.
But he decided that it would be preferable to settle with the family out of court – an acceptable compromise would be better than an arbitrary ruling that could leave hard feelings.
“I did not want the court to make the decision,” Tauben stressed.
He and his wife Sara flew to Poland and just before meeting the current owners, took a look at the building.
“My jaw dropped. It was dilapidated, smelly, lights burnt out, paint peeling, staircases in disrepair, older than you could imagine.
“I said to myself, ‘this is what I fought for?’”
They gathered around a table with a white tablecloth at the lawyer’s home – the lawyer, the son, daughter, grand-daughter, the assistant, a translator, Sara and Irwin Tauben, and his lawyer.
“Their family was as white as a tablecloth. We read a statement written by my wife (author of Traces of the Past: Montreal’s Early Synagogues (Véhicule Press), saying, ‘We’re here, not as antagonists, but to right a wrong. We want to renew the relationship Irwin’s family had with your parents – Let’s hope we can come to a fair settlement.”
When Tauben asked why the building was so run down, they said they were reluctant to put money into its upkeep over the past eight years since they feared losing ownership.
Tauben then recalled the son’s first words: “You should be thanking us for running this building all these years and that it didn’t fall into Communist hands.”
They declined Tauben’s offer to buy him out, and some back and forth negotiating ensued.
The Polish family finally agreed to his proposal: a 50-50 split on ownership and future income, with no retroactive element.
“As nervous as they were two days before, we hugged and kissed and took a group picture.”
“Now we’re equal partners in a building and I had no idea what the income was and how much I would make from this whole marriage.”
He also asked that his share of the income for the first year be used to repair the building, and the Polish family agreed to use half their income for that purpose.
The court then formalized the partnership split.
Since his late mother was the rightful owner, ownership had to be transferred to Tauben and his brother Steve.
With the income from the property, Tauben says he has recouped his costs “plus.”
“This is a happy story. There is a lot of soul searching, and roadblocks that you have to overcome. It’s an uphill battle, not an easy task, and hats off to all those who want to pursue it.”
Asked whether he’ll try to recover any other properties, Tauben said, “I will have to go through the evidence to see whether it’s worth moving forward.”
What’s the probability?
The U.S.-based assistant, who worked with Irwin Tauben in his successful claim to his family being the rightful owners of a building in Kielce, has provided the following assessment of the probability of reclaiming ownership of property in Poland.
It is based on his experience assisting claimants. He also speaks on behalf of Polish lawyers with whom he has worked. He has asked that his name not be used.
“In Warsaw, practically all apartment buildings or land under former ones are recoverable.
“Elsewhere in Poland, on the whole, probably less than 30 or 40% is recoverable.
“Large forests (over 25 hectares) are generally not recoverable.
“Agricultural land is generally not recoverable for non-farming families, but big houses or palaces on such land are generally recoverable.
“Apartment buildings, hotels, and industrial premises are recoverable in some cases, in others not.”
Filming the emotions
It’s an issue that tears at the heartstrings of Poland’s tragic history over the last century, which is among the reasons Montreal documentary filmmaker, Eric Scott, is tackling the subject.
Scott is working on financing and locating interview subjects for a film on Restitution – the issue of WWII survivors and their families and attempts to reclaim property seized under German occupation and Communism.
According to Scott, about 20 per cent of claimants are Jewish, while 80 per cent are of Roman Catholic heritage.
It’s controversial because it involves reopening wounds, possibly displacing current owners and requires extensive research and documentation.
“I like to get people to talk about things that people don’t want to talk about,” Scott told a Polish radio interviewer.
If you have tried to recover family property in Poland, Scott would like to hear about it. He also is seeking contributions to help finance the film. restitutionthedocumentary.com