In September 1939, Hitler and Stalin brutally attacked Poland and partitioned the country between them. Their occupation of Poland resulted in mass murder, mass destruction, and mass property theft.
Over the following six years, it is estimated that up to 20% of the pre-war Polish population was killed by Germans and Russians, including Jewish communities, other minorities, and millions of ethnic Poles – all Polish citizens.
Much of the pre-war Polish infrastructure was completely destroyed. In Warsaw, this included over 70% of residential buildings and 90% of historical buildings. A study done in the late 1940s estimated over $30 billion in damage was done to Warsaw alone (in 1940’s dollars). Many of Poland’s cities, including the capital, were completely rebuilt in the decades after war, and many properties were simply never reconstructed.
Poland was home to the largest population of Jews in antebellum Europe. Jewish refugees from all over Europe found protection in Poland from the thirteenth century on (Source). Sadly, only 10% of the pre-war Jewish population of Poland survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Because most property owners were dead or abroad by the end of WWII, many of the remaining properties were left in control of the state.
Following the end of World War II, Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years. It wasn’t until 1989 that Poles were able to fight to reclaim what they had before the war. However, numerous attempts to pass property restitution legislation in Poland’s parliament were thwarted by post-Communists and their allies. In the late 1990s, a vigorous Solidarity-sponsored effort for property restitution was vetoed by the post-Communist president of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Subsequent legislative attempts to right the wrongs of Nazi and Communist expropriations have been similarly unsuccessful.
The only way for many former property owners and their heirs to achieve justice has been through individual court cases. After nearly two decades of stalling or rejecting such cases, the courts have become much more sympathetic to rightful claimants in recent years. This is due to changing popular attitudes and the retirement of Communist-era judges.
Restitution is currently available in some municipalities. Since 1990, the city of Warsaw has returned property to (or otherwise compensated) the former owners of over 4000 properties (Source). This effort has been fraught with complexity and corruption.
90% of Polish Jews were killed by the Germans during the Holocaust. The vast majority of the surviving 10% fled Poland by the end of the war, leaving their properties vacant. Given these facts (and the passage of time), most applicants for restitution are distant relatives of the victims themselves.
Poland is still seeking to hold Germany to account for crimes committed against the Polish people. While German state officials have recognized a moral responsibility for the damage done to Poland, they have not yet accepted a responsibility to make financial reparations. German officials often refer to a 1953 agreement with Poland’s communist government that, in their view, exempts them from any obligation to pay reparations.
Poland has continually worked to secure damages from the German government, much like the damages secured by other European countries. Poland supports efforts by descendants to get restitution from those responsible for the losses incurred, whether German or Russian.
Poland is owed reparations by Germany and Russia. The United States should support Poland’s claims to fair treatment by its former occupiers. When reparations materialize, they will be applied to restitution claims by Holocaust survivors and other Polish victims. This will finally bring closure to a sad chapter in the history of Germany, Russia, and Poland.