Restitution: too simple a solution

The Polish government's policy of returning confiscated property to its owners has unintended consequences

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Big Issue North issue 1322 contained an interesting article on property restitution in Poland. The article explored the difficulties around property that had been confiscated in the twentieth century by the Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland.

This is a point worth noting. It is awful that families who have been affected by the political turbulence of the twentieth century are still struggling to regain their property. It is hard to argue that Holocaust survivors and victims’ families should not gain compensation for their losses.

Yet the article offered a very simplified version of what is a tremendously complex issue. While justice may be sought for people who have suffered historic crimes, the answers are not always as simple as just returning lost property to would-be owners. My experience of Poland has shown me that there are hidden victims when attempts are made to turn back the clock.

In Lodz, Poland’s third largest city, yet relatively unknown outside Poland, I witnessed the issues of simple solutions to historic problems. The family I knew lived in a large block of apartments in an area of the city close to the centre. The building had stood since the nineteenth century, witnessing the Nazi invasion, Jewish ghettoisation, the rise and fall of communism and finally the entry of Poland to the EU.

It was in the wake of the world war, in 1945, that the families I met in this building moved in. In the turbulent times after the war, homeless families forcibly moved by the soviets to Lodz sought accommodation. They inhabited any building the state offered. This was a turbulent political period in a country devastated by war. Buildings that were still standing were being requisitioned by the new government and distributed to the population.

 Very quickly, the rents were raised and the families who had lived here, legally, were forced from their homes and their community

When I first visited these flats in 2010, many of the inhabitants had occupied their homes since the 1940s and 1950s. They had made it their home, built a community and invested emotionally into the block. But the building itself was in disrepair. Since the fall of the communist system, the government had stopped investing in the housing and the pre-1939 owners of the building were being sought.

I witnessed the property being returned to the family of the original owners and subsequently sold to developers. Very quickly, the rents were raised and the families who had lived here, legally, were forced from their homes and their community. Some became homeless, others were offered poor quality accommodation by the local government. This was often far from their original homes.

I know little about the owners to whom the property was returned. I don’t know what their family had survived, how they had discovered that they owned this property, and what their circumstances were after the war.

I did witness large numbers of people losing their homes. These were people who had not broken any laws and had occupied homes in a manner they understood was legal. These families had made their own personal histories in this building for decades. As they had been victims of the post-war turbulence, they now became the victims of policies trying to right historical wrongs.

Restitution of property is about giving back to victims what has been lost. But when the loss was decades ago, this often becomes a morally complicated process. History does not stop and communities have continued to live in areas where properties were requisitioned. As shown by the Lodz block, the property being returned resulted in massive hardships for the community of people who had lived there.

There is a wider issue in Poland of poor quality housing for poorer communities. Many live in private properties that are poorly maintained and there is limited social housing options in Polish cities. Returning properties in this manner may be exacerbating a much wider housing problem.

Again, it is hard to argue against people being compensated for historical crimes. This is not the place to consider the ethics of restitution. It is how restitution is carried out that needs to be questioned. My experience of this block in Lodz showed that while returning property to original owners may be seen as just, reality is never that simple. There may be hidden victims in attempts to right historical wrongs.

Photo: Warsaw officials, against the law, gave ownership of this land to people who have no link to its original owners but who do big business acquiring and reselling rights to real estate in Warsaw

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