A mission to reclaim Nazi-seized property

Many Polish-born Jews and their descendants are trying to get back family property owned in Poland before World War II and afterward.

Paul Beckman (left) and Artur Bobrowski in Krakow (photo credit: ANNE BECKMAN)
Paul Beckman (left) and Artur Bobrowski in Krakow
(photo credit: ANNE BECKMAN)
Paul Beckman remembers his family’s apartment at 9 Wawrzynca Ulica Street in Krakow, Poland, where he spent the early years of his life. He points to the scar on his hand, the result of his breaking a glass door in the hallway of the two-bedroom residence.
“I remember sitting in the living room in front of a huge radio the size of an old-fashioned TV with a wood cabinet,” says Beckman, thousands of miles away, sitting in an Atlanta fast-food restaurant, sipping his iced tea. “I remember my parents tuning it into Radio Free Europe and listening to news every night. We would also listen to whoever was walking down the common hallway because there was a Polish secret service agent monitoring all the residents. As a young child, I remember my parents reminding me every day, ‘Don’t tell anyone you were listening to the radio.’” He also remembers receiving packages from his aunt Maria Dziewinski in America that had included two containers each of coffee and Nestle’s Quik hot cocoa mix.
However, by the time the family actually received the packages, one of the coffee containers and one of the cocoa mixes would be missing. When told that the packages came from America, the inspector would say, “Oh, a capitalist!” Beckman’s strong memories of his childhood home before his family fled Communist- controlled Poland in 1956 arouse more than sentiment in this 65-year-old, now retired Atlantan: A determination to right a wrong, a desire for justice, also arouse his passions. “We want to be made whole for the theft that continued since the end of the war,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Beckman and his family, which includes Israeli and American cousins, are just one example of many Polish-born Holocaust survivors and their descendants trying to reclaim property their families owned in Poland before World War II and afterwards, when Communist Russia controlled the war-ravaged country.
In 1939, Jews represented about 10 percent of the total Polish population of 35 million.
Of the 3.3 million Jews, only about 300,000 survived the Nazi-inspired Holocaust. Although the majority of Polish Jews were not wealthy, many owned property, including homes and businesses. In addition, there were thousands of synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish communal properties lost during the war. Many were totally destroyed.
After the war, Jewish survivors of the war for the most part were not welcomed back into their homes and communities by non-Jewish Poles who had moved into the evacuated Jewish properties.
And soon, Jewish properties, which had been stolen by force by the Nazis, were taken by the Communists after the war, when Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union.
Communal properties were often nationalized.
Since Poland became a free nation again in 1989, it has struggled to rebuild its infrastructure and economy. At times, it has used that argument to contend that it can’t afford to compensate Jews for properties they lost.
Nevertheless, Jews who survived the ordeals of both the Nazis and Communists and who were willing to identify themselves as Jews started rebuilding the Jewish community, with the help of international Jewish organizations. The organized Jewish community continues to try to reclaim communal properties, sometimes successfully receiving funds or badly damaged abandoned buildings. At the same time, individual Jewish survivors have also sought to reclaim properties owned by their families, with mixed results.
Beckman’s family may succeed where others have failed, for a variety of reasons.
The apartment building at 9 Wawrzynca Ulica was owned by his paternal grandparents before the war. The prosperous family with 12 children lived in the building, one of a number of properties owned by Beckman’s grandfather, who also owned a transportation company in Krakow. In 1941, the Nazis forced the family from the Jewish Quarter into the Krakow Ghetto. Two years later, the family was sent to the Plaszow Concentration Camp, where they worked as slave laborers. When Plaszow was liquidated, most of the family was sent to Auschwitz-Berkenau, where Paul’s grandparents were immediately murdered. But Paul’s father, Sam, whose name had been added to the list compiled by Oskar Schindler because of his knowledge of transportation, survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Sam returned to Krakow and married Sonia Gaitler, also an Auschwitz survivor.
Paul, their only child, was born in 1948, as the Iron Curtain descended upon Poland.
The family tried to escape across the border, and, when unsuccessful, returned to Krakow and amazingly found housing at 9 Wawrzynca Ulica. To support the family, Sam founded a successful soft-drink bottling business.
Only in 1956, when the Iron Curtain was briefly lifted, were they able to escape, making their way to Israel and into the arms of other surviving family members. Six of Sam’s siblings survived the war, four of them were in Israel, one in Germany and one in the United States. Paul and his parents lived in Israel for four and a half years and then resettled in Atlanta, with the assistance and financial guarantees of Sonia’s sister, Maria Dziewinski, who immigrated before them. The family focused their energies on rebuilding their lives.
Only in 1996 did Sam initiate the legal process to reclaim the Beckman family property in Krakow. There, the story, while less tragic, certainly became more complex.
Sam traveled to Poland “to engage an attorney,” recounts Paul, adding that although the attorney tried to help the family reclaim their property, “she was unproductive and the time probably wasn’t right, still being right after the fall of Communism.”
The effort was picked up by Paul’s family in Israel. According to Krakow resident Artur Bobrowski, who is representing the family in Poland, he met with Paul’s cousin, Moshe Ashel, and heard about the family’s attempt to regain property in Krakow. Those earlier efforts failed, says Bobrowski, partly because the family had received poor advice from a lawyer who suggested that it would be easier if the Israeli cousins declared that they were the only survivors of the owners of the building.
Unfortunately, this followed a time in Poland during which people used fake IDs to pretend they were beneficiaries of several properties. “There were so many ‘resurrections’ of supposedly dead people suddenly alive,” Bobrowski tells The Report that the courts started doing more due diligence.
“In Krakow, many of the families have had properties returned to them. The only problem now is that the court checks everything, even in the case of the Beckmans. The Beckman file was nearly finished when the judge went back to the archives and found an aunt, and then found another cousin,” he recounts.
Although Bobrowski studied law, he is not a lawyer. “I specialize in old law,” he says.
“To reclaim these properties, you must use the law of 1942-43, which is no longer in effect. If you want to probate someone who died in the 1930s, you must use the law of when they died.”
Bobrowski is also not Jewish, although a paternal grandmother was. In 2004, he says, the city of Krakow published a list of abandoned properties that he began to study. “I view the land registers and look for Jewish names,” he explains. “Most of my job is to track and find the people. I know the properties.”
Bobrowski has been tracking down former Jewish owners of these properties for almost 10 years. He says he’s worked on about 30 to 40 properties, with a success rate of nearly 100 percent. “The reason I’m quite successful is that I only work on contingency and I pay all the expenses, like flights and hotels, to bring Jewish families to Poland to appear in probate court to make their case,” he notes.
This year he is working on five or six properties, trying to find the owners and them. Not everyone is interested. “I’m trying to convince a family in Johannesburg, South Africa, but the problem is the family is rich and they don’t want to bother,” he says. “I told them, just reclaim and resell the property and give it to charity.
“My biggest case, with the most developed property, had been owned by an old woman who lived in Sao Paulo. There was a niece and nephew in Los Angeles. I sold the property for $2 million but it took me a year to convince them to do something.”
On the other hand, he just sold a house for a 56-year-old woman in New Jersey who had nothing. Now she’ll receive $300,000 this year and the next. “Some people are not rich,” he says, noting that his clients live all over the world. “I have a lot of clients in New York, Boston, a few in Los Angeles, and a lot from Brazil. I represented a retired professor at Yale University whose family was one of the richest families in Krakow.”
Bobrowski works with an associate who called him one day to say he had a woman in his office who told him that right before her father had died in the 1970s in Buenos Aires, he had informed her that he had property in Poland. “We found two houses that sold two years ago for 7.5 million zlotys, or about $2 million,” he relates. “The houses were registered under her father’s name and the case was easy. The parents both died in Buenos Aires. The only problem was that two daughters had died in the Holocaust, so we had to prove that.”
He acknowledges that that part of his work is often depressing. “When you learn of three and five-year-olds who died in concentration camps, it’s difficult,” he says.
“I had one client, a nice lady who lived in Paris, who saw her father and younger brother thrown into a fire. I hear a lot of stories like that.”
Beckman’s case is not unusual. The documentation was good; and the building is still in his grandparents’ names in the land register. It was never nationalized, but was administered by the city of Krakow.
But Bobrowski had to declare Beckman’s grandparents’ and cousins’ deaths. And there are many heirs involved. “We had to do a probate on each generation and for each member of the family,” he says. “Every case is a separate probate case and you never have the same judge.”
Beckman recalls traveling to Krakow, at Bobrowski’s expense, to appear before a probate judge in January 2011. He was asked a number of questions, including naming his aunts and uncles. The female judge seemed interested and sympathetic. But there was one question that puzzled Beckman: “Do you know if your grandparents had a will?” “I stopped and I turned around to the courtroom gallery and then faced the judge again and I said, ‘Everyone in here looks like they were a post-war baby. You are probably not aware of how things were during the war.
If you saw [the movie] “Schindler’s List” and how the Jews were rounded up, you know they were given about five minutes to collect their belongings,” he recounts.
“They only had time to pack vital clothing and when Jews were marched to the ghetto, the Germans stole everything they wanted, and whatever was left, the good citizens of Krakow moved in and stole the rest.’” Bobrowski says the Beckman case should be finalized by the end of the year. Already he has sold the property for about $300,000, which was split seven ways, for each family member authorized to inherit. “I sold it to a Polish individual who calls me every six months and asks if the probate is finished,” says Bobrowski.
For Beckman, it’s not just the money that’s important. “I have an emotional determination to make it as right as is possible,” he says. “It will never be corrected, but it can be cathartic for my family and for Poles, if it is done fairly and justly.”
For Bobrowski, his work to find Jewish surviving owners of abandoned property will be done in another two or three years, he says. “For me, it’s not just a mission. It’s also very profitable. I don’t do this as a charity, although sometimes I do feel bad about taking the money in these kinds of cases.
Yet, 90 percent of my clients would have had nothing if I didn’t represent them.”