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A Communist legacy

Poland is the last eastern European country to resolve claims from property seized by the communists.

Many properties in Warsaw's old city are the subject of claims dating back to the 1940s. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

WARSAW — Until recently, the purple-pink Branicki Palace on the edge of Warsaw’s Old City served as the mayor’s office.

“The communists took the palace from my family and we are finally getting close to getting it back,” said Countess Anna Mycielska.

Indeed, bureaucrats are busy packing up their files and furnishings following a recent legal victory by heirs of the palace’s World War II-era owner.

The question of property restitution has bedeviled eastern European governments since the end of communism in 1989. Twenty years later, Poland is the only ex-communist country still resolving the problem.

Cases where heirs win back the rights to property that belonged to their family prior to the war are still a rarity – even Mycielska and her cousins may not get their hands on the palace for years.

The palace was destroyed during the war: Following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 it was nothing more than a smoking pile of ruins. The palace’s owner, Franciszek Salezy Potocki, gathered materials and began to rebuild, but the newly installed communist government confiscated the palace in 1949, along with most of the other private property in the Polish capital.

As well as taking over city property, the communist government nationalized factories, shops and all farms larger than 50 hectares (or 123.5 acres), which destroyed the pre-war aristocracy.

“We were deported to Moscow for three years before being allowed to return home to Poland,” said Anna Wolska, whose family home is the Wilanow Palace in southern Warsaw, once home to Jan III Sobieski, a Polish king, and now one of the Polish capital’s leading museums and tourist attractions.