Confusion reigns over Polish land claims

June 12, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

ROZALIN, Poland -- Tadeusz Bojanowski was up at dawn to check on his cows when the private army of Krystyna Krysowska rolled by in a fleet of red cars. The cars stopped, doors slammed, and Mr. Bojanowski watched 16 armed men advance to the gates of a neighboring estate. They seized the place without firing a shot.

That was nearly two years ago. This month Mr. Bojanowski may finally see the last of the hired guns go home if, as expected, the nation's highest court declares Ms. Krysowska the winner in a long-running dispute over the 175-acre estate she took by force.

The bizarre case has come to exemplify the confusion and frustration confronting thousands of former owners who, like Ms. Krysowska, seek to reclaim property confiscated by the Communist regime.

As the only country of the former East Bloc still without a property restitution law, Poland's parliamentary indecision has led to so much outrage that many people see Ms. Krysowska as a heroine for taking matters into her own hands. After all, they say, the Communists illegally shoved her family off the property 46 years earlier, driving the 9-year-old Ms. Krysowska and her mother away in a horse-drawn cart.

Even Mr. Bojanowski, who lost his job on the estate as a result of Ms. Krysowska's takeover, says she is entitled to the land.

"If it once belonged to her father, then, yes, she should have it back," he says. "But there should be rules about this."

That's the problem. No rules. And some say the resulting uncertainty is hurting economic development.

So far, eight property bills have come and gone, and two competing versions now before the Parliament show how much is at stake in the debate.

A bill offered by Polish President Lech Walesa would void all past confiscations, meaning that former owners or their descendants would get their land or "restitution in kind." Miroslaw Marek, director of the government's reprivatization office, says the bill would validate up to 500,000 claims at a cost of about $20 billion.

But the bill favored by the ruling party, dominated by former Communists, would only void confiscations carried out illegally. This would cut the number of valid claims to about 200,000, and even those claimants would receive neither land nor money, instead getting "securities" that could be used to acquire property sold by the state.

Further complicating the issue is Poland's drastic shift of borders after World War II. In effect, the country moved west 200 miles, swallowing up western areas that had been part of Germany while giving up eastern lands that became part of the former Soviet Union. For example, the port city of Gdansk, made famous by the Solidarity labor actions that helped oust the Communists, was once the German city of Danzig, famous in the literary world as the site of a trilogy of novels by German author Gunter Grass.

As a result, says Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economist who served as a consultant for Solidarity when it was Poland's governing party, "In the first year of reform you had a lot of Germans coming into western Poland, knocking on doors and saying, by the way, this is my house and I want it back. In that context, restitution doesn't look too attractive."

Nor has speedier action by other Eastern European countries guaranteed satisfactory results. "Decisive actions have often led a clouding of property rights later on," says Mr. Sachs. "The morality is tricky, and the finances are tricky."

Illegally confiscated

Polish courts have ruled that Ms. Krysowska's case falls into the category of land illegally confiscated by the Communists.

The Communists began seizing land for state-run farms in late 1944, even before the end of the war. The law then called for the state to take all estates with 125 acres or more of farmland. The Krysowska family's Rozalin estate, with 175 acres overall, had only 85 acres of farmland, with the rest taken up by homes, forests and ponds.

But when the law resulted in the collectivization of only 20 percent of the nation's farmland, the Agriculture Ministry decided in 1948 to broaden the definition of farmland to include virtually all rural property. This change, recently ruled illegal by Polish courts, boosted confiscations to 70 percent of all farmland, and in 1949 it brought local officials to the gates of the Krysowska estate.

The Krysowskas' lives were already in turmoil. Krystyna, then 9, had just been through her fourth operation to repair wounds resulting from being shot by the Germans five years earlier. Her father and grandfather were in hiding from the Communist authorities. That left her and her mother, who were hauled away with little more than a few clothes and books to a drafty, rat-infested barracks deserted not long before by the defeated Germans.

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