Former owners of large estates, Polish aristocrats saw much of their property confiscated by the communists. But now, a year after joining the EU, some of these nobles are pushing to get compensation.
As Poland moves on, aristocrats want past reconciled
The communists hated them, these once powerful owners of landed estates that stretched far into what is now Ukraine and the Baltic states. And when they took over after the end of World War II, they confiscated their imposing palaces and art collections, reducing them to near-poverty and forcing many into exile.
Some returned in the early 1990s after the fall of communism. Since then, Poland’s aristocratic families have been campaigning for compensation. Initially the Polish government told them it couldn’t shoulder the burden of such claims, along with those advanced by millions of ordinary citizens who were deprived of their homes in the post-war border shifts. But aware of Poland’s economic progress and its European Union membership, former owners recently doubled up their efforts, finally forcing the government to adopt a restitution bill.
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Albert Swiatopelk Czetwertynski is member of one of Poland’s oldest aristocratic families, whose records, originating in Ukraine, which was part of Poland for several centuries, date back to 960. The Czetwertynskis once owned vast stretches of land in the East in what is today Ukraine and Belarus.
Albert Czetwertynski was born in Poland. His father had made the mistake of deciding to return home after the war from the UK, where the family sought refuge from the Nazis.
"My father unfortunately came back from England and in 1953 he was arrested by the communists and put into prison so they could take away his property," he said. "He was accused of spying for the Americans. The entire accusation and records from the court proceedings indicate that everything was manipulated, it was one big lie."
The Czetwertynskis managed to slip out of Poland in 1960 and settle in Canada. But long before they returned to Warsaw in the early 1990s, their confiscated palace in one of the Polish capital’s posh districts had been torn down.
Ironically, the prime lot was given by the communists to the US government to build an embassy. This 1960s office block is an eyesore in a street otherwise lined with elegant villas, but since the US embassy had all the papers to prove they were the rightful owners, there was little that the family could do.
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"When I came back from Canada, I didn’t even think to get any type of compensation for any property that used to belong to my grandmother -- Poland was in a very difficult economic situation and I didn’t feel this was the right time to make a claim," he said.
"But things have progressed in many different ways. There are many properties in Warsaw that many former owners managed to get back, some of them through courts, some through selling their claim to someone who had better relations with the administration in Warsaw. Then we decided that the law should be the same for everybody, so we should get compensation, or get our property back."
The complexity of the restitution program is further complicated by the fact that some property is now in other countries. After the war, the Allies redrew the map of postwar Poland, leaving huge chunks of the country in what is now Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.
Mariusz Umiastowski, another Polish aristocrat whose family used to own two palaces in what is now the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, runs a foundation that restores historical monuments in the East that once belonged to Polish aristocrats. He also tries to promote the image of Polish aristocracy as "more than bloodsucking landowners."
"When Poland and Lithuania joined the European Union, we thought that at last, the foundation would regain the property that rightfully belonged to it," he said. "It turns out that the former owners are still being discriminated against, especially if the owner left the country before World War II. So we are still waiting for the green light to open again."
With little hope of getting decent compensation for their property, it looks like the younger generation of Polish aristocrats, like the dashing Marek Czetwertynski, now in his mid-twenties, made the right decision to go into business to run a family company, rather than get locked into a losing battle with the Polish state. Born in Canada, he returned to Poland at the age of 10. These days, he is philosophical about the role the aristocracy can play in a fast-changing Polish society.
"Personally I think that aristocracy can’t play a role exactly similar to the one it did before," he said. "Poland is a different country now, with different influences and the aristocracy doesn’t have the financial power that it used to have. It’s important that everybody should play a role in keeping up democracy in Poland, which everybody fought for, not just aristocracy."
Meanwhile, Marek Czetwertynski’s father and other aristocrats describe as ridiculous the government’s latest offer to pay them between 15 and 30 percent of the 1946 value of the confiscated properties, the year the nationalization process was started by the communists. They think that although they are now living in a very different Poland, the state still has the responsibility to put right past wrongs.