Poland does not have a law providing for the restitution of property nationalised by the communist government after WW2, so for the time being the process must be looked into on an individual basis. We, at Wozniak Legal handle many restitution claims for families who fled Poland after 1945. The process is unfortunately very slow and there are many obstacles. Recently there has been more focus given to the irregularities and scandals surrounding the matter than on the actual process of restitution itself.
‘So, what should I do to uncover my property in Poland, Grzegorz?
’ is a question I hear time and time again by people calling me from abroad. In fact, the answer is pretty simple: by being pro-active. ‘Try and try again’ is the best piece of advice I can give.
There are four ways which can help you uncover your family’s lost real estate in Poland.
- Check your family albums
Decide what you want to achieve in the long run, then take a small step towards it. The first step is to review all family documents, files, old photographs, letters or diaries. This should help with clarifying what assets were once owned by your family in Poland and what the possible location and addresses are. Do not diminish the importance of anything you come across.
- Talk to your grandma
The second step is talking to your grandparents and other elderly people in your family. They usually remember many stories and hold lots of valuable information. It could be that there are no documents but recollections of the living people may lead you onto the right track.
- Establish the line of inheritance in your family
The question of inheritance is very important. More often than not, pre-war property owners died in Poland hence the inheritance will be governed by Polish succession law. There is a main line of inheritance (children inherit from parents) but also a side inheritance (in the absence of children - a brother inherits from his sisters).
- Collaborate and build a good team around you
Reconstruct the history of your family on the basis of information you have gathered from the photo albums and your relatives. Remember: you are now a depositary of an extraordinary tradition and insight into your ancestors’ past, so take good care of it. Consider seeking the advice of a professional genealogist – they are very good at identifying the roots.
Collaborate with your family members and agree on a strategy. Build a good team around you, including lawyers. Polish solicitors are necessary for researching the national archives and ascertaining whether you have a case.
I can’t predict the outcome. It could be that you have a strong case, it could be that you have a weak case. It could also be that you do not have a case at all. Currently, the political situation surrounding restitution cases in Poland is very unfavourable so we cannot expect much at this stage. The most sensible solution is to make an application and wait. Inaction will only allow the fraudsters to continue with their ‘wild reprivatisation’ practices.
To illustrate my point, here is the story of Ron Balamuth:
Ron Balamuth and Amosa Arad were the successors of the Balamuths, a Jewish family who rent out a flat in Wadowice, a town near Cracow, to Karol Wojtyla’s, or Pope John II’s, family. The town house in which the flat was located was built in the first half of the 19th century and bought in 1911 by Rozalia and Yechiel Balamuth. Yechiel and his son Chaim opened at the flat the very first bicycle shop in town.
Nearly all members of the Balamuth family were murdered under Nazi occupation during WW2 in a death camp in Belzec. There was just one survivor: Yechiel’s son, Chaim, who had managed to escape on a motorbike, reaching the Soviet border. After his arrival there, he was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Once the war finished, he fled to Israel where his son Ron was born.
June 1999, on one of his papal visits, John Paul II travelled to his hometown, Wadowice. While addressing the crowds in the old town, reminiscing about his time living there, he mentioned the Balamuth family and their town house at 7 Koscielna Street. A journalist from The New York Times then telephoned Ron Balamuth asking whether he was aware that televisions around the world were broadcasting John Paul II’s visit to Wadowice and him speaking about his childhood home. Ron Balamuth was until then oblivious to the existence of the Wadowice flat. He immediately flew out to Poland and took steps to reclaim his family’s property. He informed the local authorities of his intention to try to get the property back, though he assured them he would not be attempting to change its use.
A few months later, a 1966 court judgment was discovered at the Regional Court in Wadowice confirming title over the town house to Chaim Balamuth and his sister Pepe. The property therefore proved to still be owned by the Balamuths. Ron Balamuth simply applied for an update of the land and mortgage registers to reflect his title as the sole owner of the flat.
In 2009 Ron Balamuth sold his property in Wadowice to Ryszard Krauze, a Polish businessman, who then donated it to a Cracow church.
The moral of the story? Be inquisitive, be optimistic and be pro-active. Things will go the right way.