Making a joke of justice

The former predominantly Jewish district of Krakow, which in contrast to the Warsaw Ghetto suffered no damage during the war.

Krakow. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Some might call me lucky – but don’t envy me. Last October I received an unexpected letter from Poland, stating that I was being sought by a Mr. Thomas Niemiec, acting on behalf of the Krakow district court, which had determined me to be partial owner of three buildings in the city’s Podgorze district, a former Jewish Quarter, one of which was worth in the vicinity of $1 million. As the saying goes, life is full of surprises.
But the road to realizing this supposed inheritance seems to have made an elaborate joke of me, and the whole Polish justice system.
An article “High time for Poland to confront its past” by Daniel Schatz, published in The Jerusalem Post on April 8,, appealed to the Polish government and people to safeguard the fundamental principles of tolerance, freedom and democracy, honor signed international obligations and return confiscated Jewish properties.
These principles were reinforced in the Terezin Declaration of June 2009, ratified by 49 countries, Poland included, and by other international conventions on personal property.
I cannot say the Polish authorities didn’t try to find me. Perhaps it was unusual, or maybe just sheer luck, but they found me, here in Jerusalem, 76 years after I left Poland, and even under a new name! Mr. Niemiec informed me in his letter that he had been appointed the executor of the estate of Dr. Ruth Steinberg, (daughter of Bernard and Helene), who died on November 10, 2010, in Paris. As such, he had been attempting to locate persons with claims on the estate, register them with the court and present yearly statements concerning the administration of the estate, which included the three buildings mentioned above.
Dr. Ruth Steinberg was my wife’s aunt, whom I used to meet in Paris and in Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland, where she used to spend her summer vacations. I had also met her mother, who once taught Latin in Krakow’s Jewish Gymnasium. Dr. Steinberg, who had served as the medical officer of the Paris Police, was the sister of Mr. Alexander Silberfeld, my departed wife’s father. But we never knew that she owned property in Krakow, or anywhere else.
I must admit that Mr. Niemiec, as the court-appointed executor, showed both determination and skill in merely locating and establishing contact with me, and eventually he did in fact register me at the court as a prospective inheritor of the said property, together with a number of other relations. However, he warned me to find a good lawyer in Krakow to pursue my rights to these properties, for the simple reason that since they had been abandoned during the Holocaust and were being run by the Krakow Municipality, both the Polish Treasury and local municipality were now claiming to be the rightful owners. It would be up to the court to decide the matter, he said.
Google helped me to find these three buildings in Podgorze, the former predominantly Jewish district of Krakow, which in contrast to the Warsaw Ghetto suffered no damage during the war. Podgorze is quite a fashionable district today. The buildings are situated at the Mostowa Street 8, Triniarska Street 18 and Szeroka Street 12, and are all inhabited. The larger, corner house at Mostowa 8 once housed a Lemnitzer family synagogue, which was converted into a workshop during the Holocaust. This house is centrally located and the Krakow Municipality claims ownership of it.
As advised, I started looking for a lawyer, only to soon find out that this was no simple matter. The first one I found was eager at first, but later began avoiding contact, finally advising me that he wasn’t interested – too much red tape. The same happened with the second and the third. It seems that even if your claim is officially recognized, the Polish bureaucracy makes things most difficult.
The Polish government operates in such matters under an invented concept, “przedawnienie,” according to which properties which have long been abandoned by their owners and taken care of by others, including repairs, etc., may be legally recognized as belonging to the caretakers.
(One wonders what happened to the rents paid by the tenants in the interim.) This is certainly a strange situation, and one which urgently demands proper clarification. I have currently found a lawyer in Krakow, but she tells me she is waiting for a court decision before she’ll take on my case. She didn’t even ask me for power of attorney – apparently considering my case hopeless and not worth the effort.
So I wait. In the meanwhile I contacted a number of other people in my situation, all of them waiting for many years for such court decisions, all of us near or over 90 (I am 94) – an age of reason and contemplation, at least for some.