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Jewish Property Restitution in Poland

Michael Decker
Michael Decker

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Can Polish Jews still reclaim their property? In 2021, new legislation greatly limited Jewish property restitution in Poland, limiting the reclamation of property that was nationalized during the period of communist rule. However, the new law doesn’t apply in all cases, and you may still be able to file a property restitution claim. Alongside this, alternative tracks such as international arbitration may be available. Below, Adv. Michael Decker, a partner in our law firm specializing in inheritance and estate law, explains this topic.

Prior to World War II, approximately 3.3 million Jews were living in Poland. The overwhelming majority (approximately 2.92 million) did not survive the horrors of the Holocaust, with only approximately 380 thousand survivors remaining. The property and money left behind by Polish Jews in 1938 is estimated at a huge amount of approximately $3 billion, according to the current price index. Out of this amount, approximately $1 billion is comprised of real property, residential land, business land, and farming land in Poland. Like all other property and assets remaining in Poland following World War II, this property was nationalized or expropriated by the communist government.

The descendants of Poland’s Jewry, whose relatives survived or were killed in the Holocaust, and left their property behind, encounter significant difficulties in claiming compensation from the Polish government, which for years has avoided regulating this matter through legislation (as opposed to all other European Union countries, as well as Israel). Despite significant progress in this matter over the last decade, in 2021 a law entered into force, which in practice revoked the right of most Polish Jews and their descendants to claim property restitution and compensation. As a result of media coverage around this law, many drew the conclusion that it completely blocked the possibility of Jewish property restitution in Poland for Polish Jews and their descendants. However, it’s important to know that this is not the case. In actuality, there are a number of routes that might be available in such cases, as we explain below.

Jewish Property Restitution in Poland

In what cases does the new Polish law still allow property restitution claims for Polish Jews and their descendants?

The new law stipulates a 30-year statute of limitations with respect to restitution claims of property nationalized by the communist government by administrative decision. In general, the law does not apply in cases where the nationalization of property was done through legislation. Although most of the property in Poland was nationalized pursuant to government resolutions rather than legislation, these legal circumstances still allow an opening to file a restitution claim for Polish Jews’ property in certain cases. Although the law’s applicability is disputed with respect to procedures that already started before it entered into effect, legally and in principle, such procedures are still supposed to continue. In the event that these procedures are dismissed following this change in legal status, this might serve as grounds to seek recourse from general European judicial forums, such as the European Court of Human Rights. In addition to the cases mentioned above, there are still cases where property and assets in Poland were not expropriated or nationalized. The new law doesn’t apply to these cases, and in principle still allows the filing of property restitution or compensation claims.

How is a property restitution or compensation claim for Polish Jews or their descendants conducted in actuality?

In order to claim property restitution in such cases, you’ll have to file formal claim in Poland. In order to file claim, you must gather evidence regarding the nationalized property, the property owner’s identity, and your family relation to them (if needed). Evidence originating in Poland, which is unobtainable elsewhere, might require contacting archives and authorities in Poland, in order to locate documentation that might serve as evidence for the claim. Our law firm provides assistance in finding documents and official records in Poland.

In addition, if the property in question was nationalized or expropriated by law, you must present evidence of this. Alternatively, in the case of real property that was not nationalized or expropriated, you’ll need to review the Polish Land Register to get a picture regarding the properties’ transfer of ownership the over the years. This will constitute a significant evidential basis for the claim. The claim process might be complicated and elongated, but it’s important to know that even under the current legal circumstances, property restitution or compensation might still be granted in more than a few cases.

Are there other ways to claim property restitution, in cases where the new law doesn’t allow it?

As mentioned above, filing a property restitution claim by Polish Jews or the descendants is only possible in certain cases. However, there are additional legal ways to claim compensation, even in cases where the new law precludes this. One of these is conducting a class action or group action, based on international agreements signed by Poland. In 1992, Poland and Israel have signed a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). It might be that under this agreement, one can argue that the new legal status violates Israelis’ property rights, which Poland is obliged to defend.

Although in such cases, Poland may argue in its defense that the property’s nationalization was done before this agreement has entered into force, it’s important to remember that the very act of nationalization was performed absent of legal grounds. Such a legal proceeding might be investigated in an international arbitration tribunal. To understand all possible options in specific cases, we recommend contacting a lawyer specializing in inheritance law.

Jewish Property Restitution in Poland – contact a lawyer specializing in inheritance and estate law

In this article, we explained the ways in which Polish Jews and their descendants can file a property restitution claim, despite the complex legal circumstances regarding this issue in Poland. If you have any other question about this topic, or if you have need of advice and assistance with specific cases, you are invited to contact our law firm, and we will be happy to be at your service.

Our law firm, located in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, specializes in inheritance and estate law, and assists our customers with inheritance exercise procedures and property claims, both in Israel and around the world. The services provided by our law firm include assistance with representation in property restitution claims for Polish Jews, in cooperation with a leading Polish law firm in this area.

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