Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 12:11 UK

Long quest for Polish restitution

During the last century Poland endured both Nazi and Communist totalitarianism with atrocities on a colossal scale. Many decades later there are still those who remain determined to see compensation paid and in Krakow Nick Higham has been following a baroness's quest for justice.

Eugeniusz Waniek
Eugeniusz Waniek looked after the silver cutlery for 66 years

In September 1942 the Nazis arrived in the village of Ustrzyki Dolne in south-east Poland.

Eugeniusz Waniek remembered the day vividly. The Nazis rounded up all the Jews and ordered them to hand over their valuables. He saw two women who refused shot in the street.

Then his Jewish neighbour Hella came and thrust a small bundle into his hand. It contained some silver cutlery, wrapped up in a linen tablecloth.

Mr Waniek had grown up with Hella and her sister and brothers. They were the children of a prosperous local man, Moshe Fraenkel, who owned an oil refinery.

Mr Waniek went on to become an art teacher in Krakow, but in 1939, he caught pneumonia and went home to Ustrzyki to convalesce.

He was still there when the Nazi-Soviet pact divided Poland into two occupied zones. Eugeniusz and his wife found themselves trapped in their village.

After Hella was taken away, Eugeniusz wrapped her silver in newspaper and buried it in the garden. And there it stayed for the next three years.

And in 1946, when he returned to Krakow, the silver went too.

Symbolic return

That might have been the end of the story but last year, a neighbour read in the newspaper about an English Baroness, Ruth Deech, who was threatening to sue the Polish government to recover properties seized from her family - the Fraenkels - in a place called Ustrzyki Dolne.

Baroness Deech
Baroness Deech's believes proposed restitution does not go far enough

Last September Baroness Deech paid a visit to Eugeniusz Waniek, now aged 101. Hella Fraenkel had been her aunt.

Mr Waniek told his story and the silver and the linen tablecloth were handed over.

Photographs taken at the time show him sitting, frail and shrunken, in an armchair in his apartment. An audio recording captures his voice, quavering with age and emotion.

Eugeniusz Waniek has since died, but earlier this month Baroness Deech went back to Krakow to collect the cutlery from the flat of a friend, the distinguished historian Norman Davis.

There were 16 items in all, mostly tiny knives and forks for eating cakes or fruit, plus a larger two-pronged fork and the detached handle of a knife.

They were, she said, the only thing she had ever touched which had also been touched by those she had lost, and so they had immense symbolic value.

But Baroness Deech's campaign to recover her family's other belongings - or secure compensation for their loss - looks less likely to have a happy outcome.

Draft laws

Poland still has no law covering the restitution of private property seized by the Nazis or nationalised by the communists.

Historian Norman Davies says tens of millions of people in Poland were killed, deported, displaced or resettled during those eras, and millions lost their property.

They include his own wife Maria. Her parents abandoned their home in what is now part of Ukraine in 1944, when they fled before the advancing Red Army.

They ended up in a small town outside Krakow where they took shelter in an empty house and where Maria was born. That house, she says, may well have belonged to Jews deported in the Holocaust.

A map of Poland showing Ustrzyki Dolne, Warsaw and Krakow

Norman Davies says the sheer scale of the problem and the cost of compensation - estimated a year ago at more than $8bn (£5bn) - has terrified successive Polish governments.

Several draft restitution laws have been published. None has been enacted. What is more, many younger Poles see no reason why their taxes should pay for the errors of previous generations.

But that argument does not wash with Baroness Deech.

To argue that all Poles were victims does not absolve the country of responsibilities others have embraced, she says.

If Germany, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania and many other countries can offer restitution, why not Poland? No-one, she says, is asking for full compensation.

The latest draft law offers 20% of the value of an item over 15 years.

Twenty per cent, she says, may be reasonable.

But to offer to pay it over 15 years to men now in their 90s - that, she says, is an insult.

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Country profile: Poland
15 Apr 12 |  Country profiles


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