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Count Michal Sobanski has finally returned home – if by home you mean a 2,000 sq m palace ruined by four decades of neglect during communist rule followed by years of abandonment under Poland’s post-1989 democracy.
Peering up at the faded coats of arms decorating the dining-room ceiling, Sobanski grows angry as he points out the damage to one of the jewels of Polish architecture, simply because it had been owned by a class of people whom the communists regarded as their ideological foes.
“I was baptised in the chapel here,” he says, crunching over the glass littering the floor of the greenhouse that runs adjacent to the panelled dining room, where the wood has long ago peeled away.
Sobanski bought back the ruined Guzow palace, 60km west of Warsaw, when the local government put it up for sale in 1996.
He calculates it will cost roughly €7m ($9.5m) to repair the damage done since 1945. “Of course it makes no economic sense to do this. I’m doing this for ideological reasons, to show that the communists destroyed a lot but not everything, and that some things can be rebuilt.”
The Sobanskis fled the 19th-century palace in early 1945, escaping across the snow as the Soviet army approached from the east. The Germans took the building in 1939, and Hitler used the palace ballroom as his headquarters while planning his army’s triumphant entry into Warsaw. After the war, the palace was confiscated by the authorities and turned first into a school, then an office. The Sobanski family was grudgingly allowed occasional short visits.
It is a situation familiar to many families attempting to reclaim former property – including my own. My grandfather, Stanislaw Cienski, spent his last days in a cramped apartment in the Polish city of Krakow. But every night in his dreams he escaped the coal-stained walls and leaking pipes and returned to the untamed forests and frozen lakes of Pieniaki, the sprawling, 3,000ha estate that had belonged to the family for three centuries before being lost in the ragged aftermath of the second world war.
Pieniaki, which my grandfather had rebuilt after it was ruined in the first world war, lies about 200km east of Poland’s current border with Ukraine. The estate, along with a third of prewar Poland, was taken from the country after the war, when its frontiers were moved hundreds of kilometres to the west. Land in the east was granted to the Soviet Union, and Poland was compensated with former German territory.
Now, more than 70 years after the outbreak of the war, 20 years after the end of communist rule in Poland and 17 years after my grandfather’s death, my father, Tadeusz, and his siblings are trying to gain compensation from the Polish government for at least part of the value of the estate.
The claim, slowly working its way through the local administration in Krakow, is part of a wider attempt to make some sort of reparation for the harm caused by the war and the subsequent communist governments. Poland is the only ex-communist country in the EU yet to make substantial reparations to the former owners.
Some claims relate to properties like Pieniaki, left behind when Poland’s borders moved, whose owners stand a good chance of gaining compensation following a change in the law that allows them to receive 20 per cent of today’s value of the property. Other claims are further from resolution. Some cases relate to landed estates located within the borders of today’s Poland confiscated immediately after the war; others seek restitution for factories and shops. People from the city of Warsaw, where most private property was confiscated in 1949, form the final group.
Miroslaw Szypowski, head of the Polish Union of Property Owners, an umbrella group for claimants, says there are roughly 300,000 people with potential claims against the government, totalling 85bn zlotys ($29bn).
But the government of Donald Tusk, prime minister, has no intention of paying out anything like that sum. A law – which Szypowski calls “scandalous” and which would set payments at a predetermined amount, payable over 15 years or more with no return of actual property – has stalled in parliament.
Meanwhile, a compensation fund that had taken in 5 per cent of the proceeds garnered from selling off assets over the past two decades faces being ransacked. The government plans to take 1bn zlotys from the fund of 4.7bn zlotys, and to limit future payments to 1.5 per cent of privatisation proceeds.
“Obviously the year of crisis did not help; 2009 was the worst moment to get acceptance [for the legislation] in parliament,” admits Tusk, adding he may try again this year.
However, there has never been a good year to push through reprivatisation – as the issue is called in Poland. Roughly 20 attempts in the past two decades have failed. As the original owners have died and been replaced by children and grandchildren, support for reprivatisation has withered from about two-thirds of Poles in 1991 to less than a third today.
“I think that so many years after 1989, any solution will be very controversial,” says Leszek Miller, a former prime minister whose Democratic Left Alliance party has been sceptical of the need for compensation because it is the heir to the Communist Party, responsible for the original confiscations. “There is no financial means and no political will. If legislation was put before parliament, there would be immediate opposition.”
Rightwing politicians are also opposed. Several years ago, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, denounced compensation as forcing “the heirs of the poorest Poles … to pay the heirs of wealthy Poles”.
The issue in Poland is especially convoluted because of fears any compensation scheme could open the door to claims filed by the heirs of millions of Germans who used to live in western Poland, although both Polish and German courts have taken a dim view of such attempts.
The issue also complicates Poland’s international relations, as Jewish groups are pushing for repayment. Tusk has said all descendants of prewar Polish citizens, no matter their religion, would be eligible for inclusion in his scheme. But some groups want the return of all Jewish property, even if there are no heirs – a frequent occurrence as so many of Poland’s 3m prewar Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. However, under Polish law, such property goes to the state treasury.
The only groups that have made much headway in getting back confiscated property are religious denominations, particularly the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which has a controversial special arrangement with the government and has succeeded in settling almost 3,000 cases.
In some cases, financial compensation is the only response because the original property has gone. In Pieniaki, the bricks from the 17th-century palace were used to build a local community centre, and the hill once occupied by the palace is now a parking lot. Some of the locals are nostalgic about the past – a man named Stepan gripped me by the knee during a visit and, obviously fuelled by vodka, tearfully proclaimed: “I never thought I’d ever see a Cienski again” – but most Ukrainians in the nationalist west of the country are happy to see the back of the Poles.
As the war ended, Poland’s communists struck a deal with the Soviet republics that had taken parts of Poland, agreeing that Warsaw would be responsible for the claims of the more than 1.2m citizens resettled from the east. Those claims were to be settled with land taken from the Germans. In the cases of people with small houses or farms, for the most part they were. But that did not apply to class enemies such as my grandfather.
The government was forced to move on those outstanding claims after losing a 2004 case before the European Court of Human Rights. Now, Poland’s 16 local governments are processing tens of thousands of claims. The state treasury has paid out more than 1bn zlotys in compensation.
“I think about 80 per cent of all the matters before us will be resolved within about five years,” says Tomasz Turaj, whose department in Krakow is wading through more than 4,000 claims.
But for property claims in today’s Poland, the issue is less about money than about getting the actual land back – though the government argues that returning only some properties would be unfair. Szypowski estimates three-quarters of confiscated property is still in state hands and could be returned, which would have a much smaller impact on state finances than Tusk’s compensation plan.
“Not passing a reprivatisation law during 20 years of independent Poland is an enormous failure of government,” says Stanislaw Buczek, a lawyer specialising in such cases. “The claim by the government that there is nothing to give back is obviously untrue.”
My mother, Anna, has spent more than a decade working with her cousins to reclaim Rudka, a 6,000ha estate in north-eastern Poland, made up mostly of forests now owned by the state, and a palace that serves as an agricultural school. The palace had been devastated in the 1920 war with the Soviets, and my grandmother’s family, the Potockis, spent much of the interwar period restoring the property. All that effort was wasted. By the end of the second world war, the palace was empty, looted by the communist authorities. Some of the paintings and furniture are in museums, but the majority have disappeared.
“There is no chance of getting forests back,” says Jozef Forystek, the case lawyer. “However, there may be a better chance with the palace.”
The nationalisation of landed estates larger than 50ha was a reaction to the perceived unfairness of prewar Poland’s social structure, and most political parties, including those who formed the wartime anti-communist government-in-exile in London, were in favour of radical land redistribution. Today, property owners’ associations exclude reclaiming land handed to peasants after the war; they are interested in getting back houses, forests and factories that had nothing to do with empowering the poor.
But in the postwar confiscations, not only aristocrats were targeted.
Piotr Andrzejewski’s father owned a seaside villa and a small piece of coastal land. The villa was confiscated for years before being returned, while the land was lost forever. “The officer in charge asked for the land to be signed over to him and told my father that if he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t be going home,” says Andrzejewski, a senator who shepherded a 2001 reprivatisation bill through parliament that would have returned 50 per cent of confiscated property. The bill was vetoed by ex-communist president Aleksander Kwasniewski.
“In keeping all the nationalised property, the state is acting like a robber,” says Andrzejewski. “Until this issue is resolved, Poland will not have made a complete break with communism.”
Karol Ogorek, 82, used to own a limeworks in western Poland, until it was confiscated in 1945. He is now fighting for 12m zlotys before the Strasbourg tribunal. “I am not giving up because I am owed something for this,” he says. “The Polish state is in the wrong.”
While the prospects of getting back larger amounts of land are at a standstill, there has been movement on regaining palaces and manor houses confiscated – and looted – after the war. The regional government of Malopolska recently recognised that the Italianate Krzeszowice palace near Krakow had been confiscated illegally. However, the municipality and other bodies are still fighting to prevent the return of the crumbling building.
My grandfather’s expectations of any compensation were more modest. He had pulled all his savings back to Poland in 1939 to pay for the war effort, and volunteered to fight although he was too old to serve – leaving his family destitute after the war. In 1959, he wrote to the government asking for a house in return for his estate and his war wounds. The response was blunt: the state was not obligated to compensate for “the nationalised property of landlords”.
In most cases, it still isn’t.