Jewish Real Estate in Poland
In the last few years I have quite often been asked by clients and friends about restitution of Jewish real estate in Poland. Consequently, I believe it could be of some help to have my answer printed and posted on the Internet. Yet, one should bear in mind that I am not a lawyer and that the following is not to be considered as legal advice but rather just a friendly exchange of views.
Generally speaking, no channel for restitution of Jewish real estate exists in Poland. This means that real estate which was confiscated by the Polish authorities in keeping with the laws in existence at the time of the confiscation cannot be returned to their former owners.
If so, what can be done? There exist two major possible scenarios:
1. In quite a few cases, the Polish authorities took possession of an asset without in fact changing its existing registration at the Land Registry Office. This means that, at the Land Registry Office, the asset is still registered under the name of its pre-1939 owner and nothing can prevent his/her heirs from taking possession of the asset if they can obtain the required inheritance orders. In actual fact this is not restitution, but a simple procedure of inheritance as known throughout the world. Simple? Did I say simple? Well, yes, at least in theory. In practice, missing vital records, undocumented changes of family and first names (quite common among immigrants to Israel) and similar issues may cause major problems and delays in obtaining the inheritance orders.
But quite often the procedure is indeed simple. Take, for example, the case of a building located at 6go Sierpnia St. in Lodz. My Polish partners and I discovered that it is still registered under the names of its former Jewish owners who bought it during the 1930s. It was not at all difficult to locate a daughter of one of the owners who today lives in the USA and obtain an inheritance order in her name. With the order in hand she was able to sell her share of the building for about $150,000 and the entire procedure took less than a year. All this can be much more complicated when multiple and/or more remote relatives are involved, but the principle is obvious: some Jewish real estate in Poland is simply waiting for its rightful owners to come and benefit from it.
2. In quite a few cases, when the confiscation procedure took place it was not done in accordance with the law and regulations which were in force at the time of the confiscation. The violations can vary from trivial cases of missing or misplaced signatures to much more serious matters where the authorities failed to deliver the confiscation papers to all the owners..
Take, for example, one of my other cases concerning a large track of land in Western Poland. The land was confiscated in 1955 but the authorities failed to notify one of its owners about their forthcoming action. It is difficult to blame them for this: the owner, a wealthy local Jewish industrialist, was long gone and his family was scattered throughout the world. Nevertheless, this failure can now serve as a reason to reopen the case, cancel the confiscation and restore the pre-1939 ownership. Once this is done, the case becomes a simple inheritance matter, as described in paragraph 1 above.
Very well, most people would ask at this point of our conversation: but what happens once I become a property owner in Poland duly registered at the Land Registry Office? After all, the real estate asset in question is not empty, there are, most likely, tenants who have lived there for many decades. How, if so, can I sell my asset? There are, again, two possibilities:
1. The simplest and quickest option is to sell your rights without, in actual fact, selling the building or even changing the existing registration at the Land Registry Office. In most cases, it should be possible to find a local businessman who will be ready to buy your rights for about 15-30% of the market value of the asset. It will then be the buyer’s problem to remove the tenants by providing them with alternative accommodations and sell the building. From your point of view, once you get your payment, the matter is finished.
2. The second option is to proceed on your own, fulfill all the necessary conditions and sell the building for its full market value. But bear in mind that such a procedure can be very expensive and protracted and, in my opinion, should only be considered after you are absolutely satisfied by reliable calculations that there is a very good chance to be profitable.
Whatever you decide, you will need a lawyer in Poland to represent you in courts, land registries, etc. And here is one golden rule that I cannot stress enough: never, but never, agree to pay your lawyer per hour but only go for a contingency agreement according to which your lawyer will be entitled to a percentage of what he/she obtains for you. In this way, you not only protect yourself from spending money in vain and ensure that your goals and your lawyer’s are identical but obtain a reliable indication as concerns the feasibility of the project: if your lawyer does not agree to the contingency arrangement, this most probably means that he does not believe there is a good chance of success or thinks that the expected income will not make the project profitable. And this should be an important indication for you as well that you need to seriously re-evaluate your plans.
When negotiating the contract with your lawyer, you should also address the question of obtaining the vital records required during the inheritance procedure. Normally lawyers would expect their clients to provide all the necessary vital records, which, in case of Polish-Jewish families, could be quite complicated and sometimes even impossible. Your lawyer in Poland should be in a much better position to obtain the missing records than you and that is why I recommend that this reflected in the contract.
And what about the expenses incurred during the legal proceedings and the various taxes? Well, try to reach an agreement that all the expenses are paid by your lawyer who will be entitled to deduct them from the income before his share is calculated.
So where do I start? You ask. Well, if your family comes from Poland and you have reason to believe that they owned some real estate there (but remember that in the interwar Poland even wealthy people would usually live in rented accommodations) try to first establish their address. This can be done by researching your family papers or using various on-line databases, telephone directories, address books, etc., or even by hiring a researcher who specializes in Polish-Jewish genealogy . Once you have an address, you will need to locate a reliable lawyer in Poland to check its legal status: if it is still registered under the name of your ancestors or if the lawyer thinks that it would be possible to revoke the subsequent confiscation – you are in business!