Yet again, this time in the open letter to President Komorowski, Jewish organizations demand return of the properties raked by Nazis (The Jerusalem Post). I don’t blame them for seeking justice, the problem is that expecting Poland, one of the countries that suffered the most from the events unleashed by Hitler, can cause some questioning and, understandably, anger of some Poles.
Discussions on this topic usually divert to heated blame game, but rarely lead to any constructive outcome. You can expect everything here, for example evocation of Israeli crimes in Palestina and questions “how they dare to expect any compensation for their seized property if they do the same to those poor Palestinians!”. But while the issue of Israeli actions in Palestina is a serious problem, calling upon it in discussion about Jewish properties seized by Nazis is just stupid. Yet the other side of this dispute is no shy of using some cheap arguments: whenever someone does not agree with Jewish claims, they instantly play an universal card of calling him or her “anti-Semite” (I can’t wait until this filters into, for example, master-chef style culinary shows: “What? You don’t like my herring salad? You anti-Semite! Help! Help! I am being discriminated for being Jewish!”).
But the stupidity of such discussions does not changes the fact that issue is here. Therefore maybe instead of unleashing yet another Twitter war or Facebook flame, we should try to look at the matter from slightly different angle. It’s an obvious truth, that Jews have lost an enormous amount of material goods, money and properties during the Second World War. And all this wealth is nothing when compared to the atrocious crimes commited on the Jewish nation by Germans and their various helpers. But that does not give Jews right to behave as if they were the only victims. The flames of war have consumed several countries in Europe and beyond, and the new order, agreed in Yalta over the heads of those most interested, resulted in whole nations suffering behind Iron Curtain for the next half of the century. Millions of Europeans lost not only everything they worked hard for their whole lives, but also had to watch their loved ones perish. Many of them after terrible 6 years of war attempted to rebuild their lives from rumbles only to have it all confiscated by Stalinist regimes. Many were unable to return to their homeland and had to start a completely new life in strange countries. Costs of war were astronomical – not only on human scale, not even at the country level, but for the whole planet. In this context demands to return to the situation from 1939 when it comes to ownership of assets in property seems to be at least inappropriate. Why do I think so?
It’s November 2013. 74 years have passed since German invasion of Poland in September 1939. If someone was old enough back then to own a property, today, if still alive, will be nearly 100 years old. His heirs in best case can have some childhood memoirs of those properties. If they are my age (and I am sadly not a colt anymore) they might know them from stories told by their grandparents. Two generations lived their lives, less or more comfortably, reconciled with the thought that those properties, that were taken away by Nazis and then locked behind the Iron Curtain cannot be recovered – after all, nobody expected to see the fall of Soviet Union so quickly. Yet this fact did not prevented anyone to have a normal live, to enjoy the day, to laugh and cry, to fall in love and start families, to make a career or develop one’s business and, simply, live one’s own live. How is then that now, suddenly, some heirs feel as if they were victims themselves and undertake so bold steps to recover their “family homes” that was until now just some faded photo in some dusty album forgotten in the attic? Yes, they say beautiful words about “owner’s right”, about how it is “impossible to reconcile with the past without fairly satysfying the victims” and so on. But is it really about that? Or it’s just a common greed. Because, after all, is it even possible to make everything fair and square again?
Proponents of the property restitution try to show the case as pretty obvious. “It was ours, it was taken from us, it should be returned”. Simply, eh? If Abramowicz family was kicked out from their house by Obersturmbannführer Weiß, all that needs to be done is to kick Obersturmbannführer Weiß back, and give the house back to Abramowiczs. Problem sorted. But in reality, it is not so simple: the former house of Jewish merchant might be today inhabited by grandchildren of the Nazi officer. Their family house might be burned down during the bombardment of Dresden. And perhaps a Polish family lives there? They were given this house by the state when they were forced to leave their family farm near Volodymyr-Volynskyi and were put into the train going to a strange town of Grünberg in Schlesien, that will soon be known as Zielona Góra? So kicking them out in order to return the house to Abramowicz family will in fact result in another family discarded to the pavement. A family that had already to come to terms with the loss of their farm in what today is Ukraine and for last two generations was building their new lives here. And even if it weren’t resettled Poles but still descendants of Obersturmbannführer Weiß – is it really ok for his grandchildren to suffer for the fact, that their grandfather was serving in Hitler’s army?
And this is just one simple example. The matter in question is much more complicated. People in the west might not be aware of how many times the ownership structure has changed in Poland since 1939. Most of buildings in Poland were destroyed (in some areas even as much as 93% was lying in rubbles) and many were later rebuild from ruins by someone else than their pre-war owners. Even those, that remained intact, were later electrified, refubrished, insulated, extensions were build and so on. Upkeep is also not free. In many cases it would be impossible to see, who owes whom and how much. Because who is a real owner: someone who’s grandfather used to own a building that stood here in 1939? Or someone who’s grandfather, after loosing everything, had settled in the ruins and then slowly with his bare hands had reconstructed it from the scratch?
And then we have to remember, that even if those buildings went into the hands of Polish families, it does not mean that those families became any richer. Such buildings were often assigned to Poles who lost their property after their country was shifted to the West by the big powers, or simply who’s houses were destroyed by bombs or fires. There was such housing shortage due to war damages in Poland, that people had to share flats with strangers for decades. Many of them would never want to leave their houses in today’s Ukraine or beautiful pre-war Warsaw, if they were given a choice. But they weren’t given any, it was a war, all was decided in Berlin and Moscow, and then in Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. They just had to do as they are told and they had no influence over the fact, that their children were born in new place. Today it is often a third generation that lives in one house – does really some Jewish guy from the US has more right to call such a property “his home”, because it used to belong to some great-great-uncle of his that he never met?
The law systems in many countries provide for such situations. Usucaption or acquisitive prescription is a concept known since Roman times and is there to avoid the situations where historical injusticies would have to be fixed by creating new injusticies. This is why descendants of the Jews who had their properties seized by Nazis lost their case in Germany. But they are willing to give concessions – if the property itself cannot be returned, they might accept financial compensation. “Our family is at loss, somebody has to pay for it” – they say. But they don’t care who will have to pay. And one thing is sure. It will not be Obersturmbannführer Weiß. It won’t be his boss Heinrich Himmler. It won’t even be Adolf Hitler himself. It won’t be Polish communists who were taking over Jewish property from the Germans after the war. It won’t be nor Joseph Stalin, nor Winston Churchill, nor Franklin D Roosevelt, who decided how to divide Europe after the war without asking for opinion of the interested parties.
Those payments would have to come from the pockets of Polish taxpayer. From the pockets of average Polish guy, who was born long after the war, and who just entered the path of rebuilding his country after terrible war and 45 years of Soviet oppression. It will be a representative of nation that, aside from the Jews, suffered most during the war. The nation, that for the next 45 years had it’s wealth syphoned out to the Soviet union while their Western peers enjoyed benefits of Marshall Plan and economical boom of 60’s and 70’s and who still can only look up at Germans, who despite being the ones, who started all this madness, enjoy their luxury lives and the position of one of the richest country in Europe. And Poland has no chance to get any compensation from anyone, despite the fact that the country was almost completely destroyed during the war, millions of it’s citizens have lost their lives, intellectual elites were murdered by Soviets and Germans and then, after all brave actions of it’s soldiers who were fighting at nearly all fronts of the war, was abandoned by it’s allies in Yalta.
So perhaps it’s time to let the history go and start looking forward? Yes, the past can hurt, but this is not the reason to reopen wounds allover again. It’s 21st century already, the world is now where it is, and maybe instead of demanding compensation that the world is now as it is, not as it could be in alternative universe, let’s focus on what is really important today? Social injustice, hunger, global climate change – thezse are the problems that we should focus all our means and energy.
Someone can say “It’s easy for you to say, but you can’t say for those, who lost their family property”. But, it just happens, that in the alternative universe I could be living in Poland, one of the most successful countries of Europe, where I would be running a business on my family farm near Włodzimierz Wołyński. Or perhaps I would be a CEO of the family owned food enterprise in Charsznica. But I am not living in the parallel universe. I am living in this one, and in this one’s history there was a guy called Hitler. As a result several members of my family lost their lives, the land that my grandfathers used to call “theirs” is now farmed by some Ukrainians, and what was left from my family’s wealth after the war was then taken over by Stalinist Poland.
This is why instead of being a golden boy back at home, I am living in Scotland and have to build my life on my own work, as I was unable to have a smooth start from family fortune. I know, that in theory I might have a moral right to some farm in today’s Ukraine – but don’t count on recovering it. I am not loosing my sleep over this historical injustice and i don’t participate in the associations that write angry letters to presidents of Poland and Ukraine demanding financial compensation. Because I know that this is not the first, and propably not the last time, where the steamroller of history demolished lives of ordinary people, their families and communities. I believe that history has it’s place in books, not in the justice system. For my grandchildren the matter of “unregulated question of the ownership of properties lost during second world war” will be as important, as the matter of “unregulated question of the ownership of properties lost during military campaigns of Alexander the Great or Napoleon”.
And if someone really wants to compare his situation to that in the alternative universe, it’s worth to remember, that there is infinite number of those. As I wrote, I could be a rich young heir of the family fortune. But would I exist at all? After all, if not for the Yalta agreement, my parents would propably never meet in Wrocław.
So, dear heirs of the Jewish fortunesd: if you cannot enjoy what you already have in your lives, even receiving a hefty financial compensation, or even your grandfather’s lost house in the country you probably never wanted to live anyway would not make you even a tiny bit more happy. And if you insist of getting your money at expense of other people, who’s ancestry were also victims of this terrible war, then, and only then, I feel sorry for you.
Text was published in Polish in gazetae.com