Holocaust: Restitution battles

For the likes of Yona Tauba Lax, Shoshana Greenberg and David Kotek, the events of 80-odd years ago are anything but a fading memory.

WJRO acting Director General Nachliel Dison recites kaddish by Lax’s mother’s grave at the Lodz Jewish Cemetery. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
WJRO acting Director General Nachliel Dison recites kaddish by Lax’s mother’s grave at the Lodz Jewish Cemetery.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
For some, the dark days of the Holocaust may seem like a long time ago. That’s understandable. Who could blame, say, a 16-year-old for relating to the horrors brought on the Jewish people, and other “undesirables”, during the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s as ancient history? The temporal continuum is perceived differently by survivors, those with a direct family connection with a survivor, or with someone who perished in the inferno. They have a more immediate sense of the inconceivably heinous crimes of that era.
For the likes of Yona Tauba Lax, Shoshana Greenberg and David Kotek, the events of 80-odd years ago are anything but a fading memory. All three have Polish roots. Kotek and Greenberg had Polish parents, while Lax, a cheery 89-year-old infused with a seemingly indomitable spirit, was born in Lodz, at 38 Jaracza Street. A couple of weeks ago I went to Poland with Lax, Greenberg and Kotek under the auspices of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which helps Jews try to recover property that belonged to them, or their family, across Europe, other than in Germany or Austria. Holocaust-related material claims relating to the latter two countries are addressed by the Claims Conference.
It is an uphill battle for the WJRO, survivors and descendants, particularly in places like Poland, where the political climate is not particularly accommodating, to say the least. There are all sorts of legal minefields and political shenanigans going on which, presumably, are predominantly driven by economic interests and concerns. Estimates of the total value of property confiscated by Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis in Poland during World War II, vary between somewhere in the region of $60 billion and $350 billion. However, as Nachliel Dison, WJRO acting director general, noted as we stood by the remnants of the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto, “WJRO is not asking for all the money and property. But there should be, at least, some kind of compensation, some recognition of wrongdoing [by the Polish authorities].”
As in many former Soviet bloc countries, Holocaust survivors and their offspring have to deal with a double whammy. Assets that were taken by the Nazis were often later nationalized by the communist regimes. Others were seized by non-Jewish Poles who simply moved into homes belonging to Jews who had been sent to concentration camps or forced labor camps. The vast majority of the original owners did not survive. Before World War II, there were close to 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. It was the largest Jewish community in the world, and accounted for 10% of the population. Over 90% were murdered in the Holocaust.
MANY OF those who survived, who returned to their hometowns in a desperate attempt to find relatives, were threatened, attacked and sometimes even killed by Poles who had been living in their property in the meantime. Lax experienced that firsthand. As she approached the apartment building where she had lived with her family prior to the war, the new occupants began shouting at her. She quickly realized that if she went any closer she would be set upon, and possibly even killed.
Lax was not alone. She was with her twin sister who, against all odds, had also survived Auschwitz, the demonic experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele, and two death marches. Clearly, there was no future for them there. Fortunately, the sisters were tracked down by Rabbi Solomon Schoenfeld from Britain. Schoenfeld was an enterprising young man who had been very active in rescuing Orthodox Jewish children from Germany and Austria, and got around 300 of them onto Kindertransport trains to the UK prior to the war. My Viennese-born mother and her two older sisters were among them, although her parents and two younger siblings perished in Auschwitz.
Schoenfeld kept up his good work throughout World War II, and continued doing his utmost to get Jews out from Nazi-occupied Europe to some safe haven or other. As soon as he could, after the fighting was over, he went to liberated Europe and took Jewish children survivors back to Britain to provide them with, at least, a temporary home and the possibility of having a Jewish way of life. Lax and her sister spent two years in Britain before coming to the new state of Israel.
Lax, like many fellow survivors, has no documents attesting to her family’s ownership of the Lodz apartment. They weren’t exactly in a position to collect all their important possessions, or drop their official papers off with friends or a lawyer for safekeeping.
“One day we were given 12 hours’ notice, like all the Jews in Lodz, to go to the area that had been designated as the ghetto,” she recalls. “We lived in terrible conditions there. Two or three families in tiny apartments, with no sanitary facilities.”
While we were in Lodz, we climbed up the staircase of 38 Jaracza Street together. Lax knocked at the door of her family’s former home. There was no one in, or they didn’t want to answer the door.
Later we went to the Lodz Jewish Cemetery, the largest in Poland, with around 200,000 marked plots as well as several mass graves for victims of the Lodz Ghetto and concentration camps. The light was fading on a bitterly cold autumn day as we entered the necropolis and Lax looked, desperately, for the grave of her mother Juta Fuchs. Luckily, we found it, albeit with the stone askew and slightly obscured. Lax asked Dison to recite kaddish in the twilight.
While Lax has no hard proof of her family’s property, Shoshana Greenberg (née Borensztajn) has plenty. It appears that her father and grandfather owned extensive properties all over Lodz, although Greenberg does not hold out any hope of recovering all of her family’s assets, if any.
Three years ago there seemed to be a light at the end of a long tunnel. After spending years communicating with various organizations and authorities, recovering papers from Poland and the United States, and spending around NIS 300,000 in the process, the Lodz district court ruled that Greenberg, indeed, was the legal heiress to three properties in Lodz. The flicker of hope, however, was soon doused when the Municipality of Lodz refused to accept the court’s decision.
We visited the largest of the three Borensztajn assets in question, an enormous 7,000 sq.m. industrial building, at 98 Pomorska Street, part of which had been used for various other purposes since World War II. It had served as a textile factory owned by the Borensztajn family. Apparently, Lodz was known as “the Manchester of Poland”, referencing the northwester English city which was a powerhouse of the global textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The plot thickens. “After the court ruled that I was the legal heiress, we wanted to transfer the assets to my name, so I could something with them.” Greenberg explains. “However, there was a problem. There was a cautionary note in the tabu (Land Registry Office). That meant the assets could not be transferred to my name.”
“My lawyer started to look into it,” Greenberg continues. “We couldn’t understand why there should be a cautionary note. He started digging into parliamentary archives and he found something astounding. He discovered that in 1949 the Minister of Trade and Industry, or the Minister of Economics, issued a decree in which he instructed the Municipality of Lodz – as the asset was in Lodz – to manage the asset.” That, says Greenberg, did not just relate to the property at 98 Pomorska Street. “That was in connection with all the assets registered in the family’s name, in Lodz.”
Greenberg says that her attorney discovered more murky waters.
“After the Lodz Municipality took over management of the assets, only on Pomorska Street, about two years later the Minister of Trade and Industry who issued the decree drew up an agreement, between the national Treasury and the Municipality of Lodz, whereby he transfers to them [the municipality], legally from his point of view, that they were now the owners, I repeat, the owners of the asset.”
Greenberg’s lawyers, apparently, did not find any legal basis for the agreement.
“The lawyer looked into the matter further and, to his amazement, he found that the decree was issued without the consent of parliament.”
All of that, naturally, doesn’t make life any easier for Greenberg. She has no idea if she will ever gain ownership of her family’s vast assets, or at least some of them, in Lodz, but she is doing her utmost. After she told part of her story by the site of textile factory in Lodz, she was visibly moved. She had tears in her eyes, but also smiled and said that she felt a sense of relief.
“My father asked me to do what I can to regain the family property. I feel now that at least I have done my best.”
But the struggle is not over yet. For now, Greenberg has to decide whether she should try to stay the course.
“I can appeal, to a higher court, against the cautionary note in the tabu, because he [the Minister of Trade and Industry] did something illegal, so that I can have ownership of the assets put into my name.” All that costs money, a lot of money.
“The levy for the appeal is 5% of the value of the asset. That is an astronomical amount of value. However, if I can prove that I don’t have the funds to pay that, in any case it won’t be less than 100,000 zloty, 100,000 shekels.” That is in addition to the close to NIS 300,000 she has already doled out.
“I have already spent seven years on this, traveling all over the place, paying for flights, hotels, asking for papers. It is very difficult.”
Even so, Greenberg believes the fight should go on.
“Pressure has to be exerted on the Polish authorities. I don’t care if they don’t return everything to me, maybe only 60%. They should take a humane measure to return something. For now that isn’t happening. So it is vitally important that the world should exert more and more pressure. That’s the only thing that will get something moving.”
ON THE morrow, we drove even further from Warsaw, over to Sosnowiec, 250 kilometers and a three-and-a-half hour drive south of Warsaw. There we went to a drab-looking building on a pretty miserable autumnal day, at 12 Ciasna Street. The entire three-story structure belonged to David Kotek’s grandfather and it was where his parents, Yehuda and Jenya, first met.
“They may have even met, for the first time, in this very room,” Kotek suggests when we talk in the empty top-floor apartment. “Imagine that?” he adds with a smile.
Kotek, like Greenberg, has been recognized as the legal heir to the property that was originally at 10 Ciasna Street.
“There was another building added there,” he says pointing to an empty lot. “That’s probably why the number here was changed.”
Kotek’s grandfather, Moshe, and his two brothers moved from the country to Sosnowiec in the early 20th century, following the construction of a train route form Warsaw to Vienna that passed through the town. That boosted the local economy and the Kotek brothers opened a carpentry shop and furniture store in the area.
Kotek says his grandfather and father were interned in the Bunzlau forced labor camp. Moshe was one of six siblings. He was the only one who survived. It seems Moshe was a Zionist and, after the war, he accommodated a bunch of youngsters from the Mizrachi movement who went on to establish a kibbutz in the new State of Israel, Kotek’s parents included.
Kotek heard stories of the Holocaust from his grandfather and father, and began to dig into the family’s past, including the family assets, around 15 years ago.
“I hired the services of an investigator who told me the family had owned five or six assets in Sosnowiec, and this property was definitely registered in the name of Kotek. That was a court ruling from 1945. I have the document to prove it.”
He may have proof of ownership from 70-odd years ago, but regaining possession of the building is another story entirely.
“I was told that the building had been nationalized, and taken by the Municipality of Sosnowiec,” he explains. Not that the authorities did not make it technically possible for the previous owners to stake their claim. Unbeknownst to Kotek, he could have filed a claim to the property anytime between 1974 and 2004.
“As that didn’t happen – because I didn’t know about it – the asset was taken over by the municipality.”
Kotek says he is not quite ready to give up the fight.
The work of WJRO
The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) was established in Jerusalem in 1993, as a nonprofit for the purpose of pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It is active in 12 countries, including Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Baltics. When it is not possible to return the assets to the rightful owners, or their heirs, the organization seeks full compensation.
Dublin-born Gideon Taylor serves as chair of operations from the WJRO offices in New York, and is palpably aware of the minefields the organization has to constantly negotiate.
“It is not easy,” he admits. “It is a struggle, but it is one that needs to be fought.”
There has been some encouragement along the way.
“We have succeeded in a lot of countries in Eastern Europe,” Taylor notes. “We think, ultimately, we will succeed because it [the Holocaust and related claims] is part of the history.”
Taylor is upbeat about the chances of achieving restitution or, at least, compensation for Holocaust survivor claimants, and their descendants, even in Poland, which has proven to be the most obdurate of sparring partners.
“I think, at the end of the day, Poland will have to address it. They will defer and defer but, at the end of the day, it will have to address it.”
Taylor points to progress made over the years.
“In Romania, for example, there is a system of return of private property, and also of communal property in place. It’s not perfect, but we have definitely made significant progress. We’ve helped individuals recover property, and we have recovered communal property, which has been distributed through a foundation to help the Romanian Jewish community and Romanian Jews in Israel.”
Relevant legislation has also been introduced in Bulgaria, and even in Hungary there is a “symbolic program for individuals, and returns of communal property,” Taylor notes. “In the Baltics, there were returns of communal property, and in Latvia there was compensation paid for private property. In most countries in Eastern Europe, there has been some kind of a program that has not been perfect, but that has been symbolic recognition.”
The latter is an important issue for the WJRO.
“For us, this issue in, some ways, is about the money, but it’s also about recognition, acknowledgment and history,” Taylor adds. “That’s why we think it’s important to pursue the issue – not just for the financial impact it can have on Holocaust survivors or their families, but also as a matter of principle.”
Poland is a particularly tough nut to crack.
“It has been disappointing to hear statements that have come from officials, that somehow that people [claimants] can go to court,” says Taylor. That, he believes, is a smokescreen. “The only way you can succeed in court in Poland, with a restitution claim, is if you can prove that the way the confiscation was made was technically incorrect. Even then it is very difficult. It has been a cruel journey for many survivors.”
There is a wider issue here, too, with a strong educational aspect.
“I think this issue is also important for the younger generation of Jews and Israelis,” Taylor states. “I think it is a sign of our awareness of what happened, and it is a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors. I think it is also a way to educate about the past and to learn for the future.”