Countess, now salesclerk, claims old lands U.S. immigrants, heirs seek former property taken by Germans, Czechs.

May 08, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

PITTSBURGH -- At Rosenbloom's Bakery, where Irma Pongracz is as popular as the cheesecakes, everyone knows she is originally from Germany. Even after nearly 40 years in Pittsburgh, her accent is unmistakable.

But very few people know that the genial, white-haired, 71-year-old salesclerk is an exiled countess, widow of the scion of a family that goes back 800 years in what is now Czechoslovakia. Or that she once lived on a vast estate in a 60-room castle with priceless antiques, artwork and servants. Or that in 1944, when Soviet troops stormed Czechoslovakia, she and Count Rudolph Pongracz were forced to begin an odyssey that killed their infant daughter, weakened his health and reduced them to refugees.

"I liked that side of the castle because you could see the mountains," Pongracz said, pointing to a long, white, turreted structure in a painting on her living room wall. "And I loved the, what you call it, gazebo. That was my favorite place."

She smiled, content but not smug, because the fairy tale may yet have a happy ending. She and surviving relatives in the United States and Czechoslovakia are seeking to reclaim the family property under a restitution law enacted in February by the new democratic government of Czechoslovakia.

"I was bitter, but over the years, it fades. You learn to adapt," she said. "Now, I feel that as long as I have my health, I'm happy with that. But if some money would come, good. I think we're entitled, you know?"

No one knows how many other U.S. immigrants or their heirs are seeking property under watershed restitution laws in Czechoslovakia and reunified Germany, but scores of thousands are believed to have valid claims.

The laws call for the return of nationalized property or, if that is not possible, financial compensation to former owners who can document their claims.

Throughout the former Eastern bloc, restitution is a burning topic, tied to ethical and economic questions that the countries must settle in order to rebuild after generations of totalitarianism and repression.

Hans Wiessmann, editor of Deutschland Nachrichten (News from Germany), published by the German Embassy's information center, said: "The East German ideology . . . was that we have no reason to pay reparations because we suffered as much as anyone at the hands of the communists. Another part of the reason for East German reluctance was they had no hard currency. . . . Now they see it's necessary and it's our obligation."

Czechoslovakian government officials say they have received tens of thousands of claims and expect to return as much as $10.7 billion worth of property. In the former East Germany, an area the size of Tennessee, half the land is tied up by 1.2 million claims.

"Nearly every German has looked into the history of his family to see if he has a claim . . . but with respect to Germans outside Germany, I think there's a high lack of information," said Thomas Verhoeven, a lawyer in the New York office of a German law firm.

Not all claims go back to the maelstrom of the World War II era.

Czechoslovakia is accepting claims for property nationalized by the communists after they took over in 1948, but it won't recognize claims for property seized by the nominally democratic Czechoslovak government from 1945 to 1948. The Czech deadline, first set for April 30, has been extended to Aug. 31.

Germany is accepting claims for real estate and assets seized by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945 or by the German communists from 1949 to 1990, but not for property taken by the Soviet communists during their occupation from 1945 to 1949. The exemption was upheld two weeks ago by Germany's highest court.

The German claims deadline, which was changed three times, expired on March 31, but "the main purpose of the deadline is . . . to protect claimants against property sales," according to the official guidelines. After that date, property could be sold and belated claimants would be entitled to limited compensation.

The process is further complicated by current tenants' rights and the usual dilemmas involving wills, divorce, remarriage and guardianship.

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