A Communist legacy

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.

Wolska’s family, like other pre-war aristocrats, was prevented from living anywhere near its old home as the communist government embarked on a calculated policy of blotting out all traces of the land-owning nobility.

Before the war, the Polish countryside was dotted with more than 20,000 manor houses, castles and palaces — now only about 1,000 remain, the majority of them in ruins.

But there are no plans to return most of those properties, especially those lying outside of Warsaw, to their original owners.

“It would be unjust to return property to some and not to others,” said Treasury Minister Aleksander Grad. He has prepared legislation that would create a fund of about 20 billion zlotys ($5.8 billion) that would pay out a portion of land claims over a period of 10 to 15 years.

That plan infuriates the heirs, who estimate that the total value of nationalized real estate exceeds 100 billion zlotys, but who are most interested in getting the original property returned.

“We simply want our houses back,” said Michal Sobanski, who runs a law firm, Restitutio ad Integrum, that seeks the return of confiscated property.

But simply giving back what was taken is a political non-starter in Poland. Many argue that all Poles suffered because of the imposition of communist rule — some by having their ancestral property taken away, others by laboring as teachers or workers for laughably small salaries, leaving them now to survive on tiny pensions — and that it is unfair to single out the descendants of the aristocracy.

“Nothing should be given back,” reads an online comment to a newspaper article on the imminent return of the Branicki palace. “Damn the wealthy landowners. It was rebuilt by the state and it should stay the property of the state.”

The issue is further complicated by unresolved Jewish property claims. The millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust left very few survivors, and the vast majority of them decided not to stay in Poland after the war. Houses, synagogues and community centers were either expropriated or simply became the property of Poles.

Some Jewish groups would like all that property returned, but the Polish government is only prepared to return property to the heirs of the original owners, a solution that would leave the bulk of Jewish property unclaimed.

There is also a worry that any restitution scheme would open the door to German property claims. After the war, at the behest of the USSR and with the agreement of the U.S. and Britain, Poland’s borders were shifted hundreds of kilometers to the west, taking in large swathes of pre-war Germany while leaving about a third of Poland in the Soviet Union. Millions of Germans were deported, but some of those people want to get their original property back.

The lack of progress on restitution harms Poland’s relations with Israel and the U.S., creates uncertainty with Germany and causes real economic harm as well. About a fifth of the 2.5 million hectares (or 6.2 million acres) of farmland owned by the state cannot be sold because claims have been filed against it. Meanwhile, Warsaw’s real estate market is plagued by lawsuits and unclear titles to property.

“We’ve been arguing for years that the best answer is to give things back, but I’m not optimistic,” Sobanski said.

More on the legacy of World War II:

Argentina's anti-Semitic past

Istanbul revelers revive a Greek bacchanalia

A Polish story through Hollywood's eyes