Baroness Deech, the former BBC governor and Oxford college head, has hired lawyers in a bid to force the Polish government to compensate her for a series of family properties apparently confiscated during the Second World War.
The estate includes a block of flats in Krakow which belonged to her maternal grandmother, killed in a concentration camp, and a now-derelict oil refinery owned by her paternal grandfather near a village where he was once mayor.
Baroness Deech recently instructed New York-based Klein and Solomon, which specialises in Holocaust restitution, to pursue her claim. But she says her motives are not financial.
“I don’t care if it’s a penny or a million pounds,” she said. “It’s acknowledgement I’m after.”
Unlike other Nazi-occupied countries, Poland has failed to legislate for compensation on behalf of Jews who lost assets in the war. Baroness Deech believes that a legal claim now would benefit from obligations to which Poland signed up when it joined the EU in 2004. It became bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, whose first protocol includes the right to property.
She has considered taking legal action since she visited the village, Ustrzyki Dolne, in the south-east of the country, in 1994 — the first chance she had after the end of the Cold War. Her grandfather, Moshe Fränkel, had owned a large house and an oil refinery there.
“The current mayor knew all about my grandfather, and said he wished Moshe Fränkel was still alive, as they had full employment then,” she said.
“I was shown his house, on which someone else was building; his mayor’s office and the graveyard; and then they drove me out to show me the oil refinery he used to own. It’s now derelict.”
It was there, overlooking the refinery — “so huge it included a small railway” — that the thought first occurred to her: “Hold on, who owns it now? This new house being built on the village site, whose is it?”
She accepts that she may face a long battle. Poland did pass a law offering compensation for stolen communal Jewish property in 1997. But it is still the only member of the former Soviet bloc yet to take any measures to help private property owners recover their assets.
In 2001, the Polish parliament agreed to some compensation, but only for those who were Polish citizens at the end of 1999. The bill was vetoed by the then president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, partially for economic reasons: the total value of lost property has been estimated at around €16-18 billion (although the largest group of claimants are not Jews, but Polish nobles).
Another Bill which would provide 15-20 per cent compensation to former property owners, even if they were not Polish citizens, passed its first reading in 2006 but was then abandoned.
Last month, Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised during a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York that the issue would be resolved by the end of the year.
Wojdiech Pisarski, a Polish embassy spokesman, refused to discuss Baroness Deech’s case, but said lawsuits would soon become unnecessary, as the Bill is in its “final stages”. The problem so far, he said, has been frequent changes of administration, each with its own vision of how the compensation package should work. “But this government is really focusing on it.”
Baroness Deech, however, is skeptical. “We’ve heard that before,” she said. “There’s a history of promises that have not been kept.”
She believes that the problem is not money — “their economy is doing all right, they can afford to pay now” — but culture. The Poles, she said, still see themselves as victims, not perpetrators, of the war, and so refuse to take responsibility for its consequences.
“They have airbrushed out of their history what happened to Jews in the Second World War, and the few who went back after the war to reclaim property — many of whom were scared off or massacred. They take refuge in the fact that in the Communist period, properties were confiscated by law.
“My mother’s mother left behind a list of assets, including silver candlesticks. There must be millions of homes all over Poland with silver candlesticks — don’t they ever ask where they come from?”
Although she intends to sue, she sees the courts as only a stop-gap solution.
“Individuals shouldn’t have to press,” she said. “They are mostly old and don’t have the money.”
Rather, she added, Poland must be forced to pass legislation. Ideally, she would like an inter-governmental permanent conference, headed by an international lawyer, pressing for payment. The key, she believes, is that Poland is in breach of European human-rights laws.
She wants Britain to take a lead in pressuring the Polish government to comply. “We have seen some 600,000 Polish people coming over here to work,” she said. “Their children are educated here and they are taking all the benefits of being members of the EU. But Poland has not paid its dues. They are in debt to the Jewish survivors. It needs pointing out that Poland has responsibilities as well as rights: not a nation of victims but a nation of debtors.”
When Baroness Deech visited Poland, she said she had “mixed feelings”.
“I must look Polish — people kept on asking me for directions,” she said. “There was partly a feeling of that’s where I come from, it’s home. And partly a feeling of how ugly it is; polluted, run-down and decrepit.”
This mixed legacy is inherited from her parents. Her father Josef Fraenkel, she said, looked upon his past “philosophically”, and brought her up on affectionate stories of his home village, including “the postman who couldn’t read the envelopes, and how, when his father walked to shul, the children, duck and the geese followed in a long procession”.
Her mother Dora, who lost her own mother in the Shoah, was more bitter: “She kept on telling me what she’d lost.” It is on their behalf, and not on behalf of her grandparents, that she sees herself acting.
“It’s the least I can do for them. I had a wonderful childhood, but I look back at the disruption of their lives. Going through old photo albums, I see all these happy photos of my mother before the war, and miserable ones afterwards. They had promising lives and had to start again. What can I do but have a go?”
Legal actions against the Polish government have been a major factor in its decision to press ahead with legislation providing compensation for properties confiscated during the war, according to one of those leading the fight for restitution.
A handful of cases have made their way through the Polish courts, culminating in the full return of “lost” properties, according to Kalman Sultanik, president of the Federation of Polish Jews in America and World Jewish Congress vice-president.
There are under-stood to be around 240 restitution cases pending in the European Court of Human Rights. But these are mainly useful “as political pressure”.
Mr Sultanik, who is due to meet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk next week to discuss the compensation Bill currently being drafted by a Polish parliamentary committee, is hopeful it will pass by the end of the summer.
However, he emphasises that its terms are not yet clear, and that in the meantime, court cases should continue.
“The more pressure the better,” he told the JC.