Roswell Man Reclaims Family Property in Kraków
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Roswell Man Reclaims Family Property in Kraków

A new law passed by Poland’s right-wing government will likely restrict other Jewish families from obtaining similar restitution.

The family home in Kraków for which Beckman received compensation.
The family home in Kraków for which Beckman received compensation.

Paul Beckman admits that his situation was unique, but he is still thankful that he was able to reclaim his family’s home in Kraków, Poland, when he did, a few years ago.

Today, the Roswell resident would have probably come up empty-handed.

In August, the current right-wing government of Poland adopted a controversial law that restricts potential restitution claims for property stolen from Jews by Nazis during World War II — property thereafter nationalized by the postwar communist regime. Both the United States and Israel have condemned the new law.

After Polish President Andrzej Duda enacted the legislation, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “… this legislation will harm all Polish citizens whose property was unjustly taken, including that of Polish Jews who were victims of the Holocaust.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a strong and rare rebuke. “Poland today approved — not for the first time — an immoral, antisemitic law.” The son of a Holocaust survivor, Lapid further called Poland “an anti-democratic, non-liberal country that does not honor the greatest tragedy in human history.”

Beckman said the new legislation reflects the continuing rightward trend of the Polish government. “A year after I testified [in Poland], Artur called me and said, ‘I have bad news. There’s a new right-wing government.’ The country started replacing all its reform judges and government functionaries that were democratically elected and replacing them with military people who didn’t have the same point of view.”

It was in January 2011 that Beckman and his wife Anne flew to Poland. Beckman had been subpoenaed to appear before the Kraków probate court judge who was hearing the case brought by Beckman and several Israeli cousins. Beckman’s late father, Sam, who died in 2002, had initiated the case to reclaim the family’s apartment at 9 św. Wawrzyńca Ulica, but it floundered for years due to complications before being picked up by Kraków resident Artur Bobrowski, a legal historian who specialized in “old law.”

Paul Beckman (left) and Artur Bobrowski in Poland.

In 2004, the city of Kraków had created a list of “abandoned property,” including the Beckman home. Bobrowski told this reporter in 2013 that he had tracked down several Jewish owners of these properties, including Beckman. For these properties, he said, one “must use the law of 1942-43, which is no longer in effect. And if I want to probate someone who died in the 1930s, I must use the law of then.”

Beckman said he hasn’t been in touch with Bobrowski in three years, but he still gives the Polish “legal historian” credit for helping to reclaim and sell the family home for about $300,000, split between himself and six other family members. “Artur found my grandfather’s deeds,” said Beckman, stressing that his case was “unusual.”

In fact, Beckman’s grandfather, Elias Hirsch Beckmann — the family later dropped the final “n” — owned the home in Kraków along with other properties, including the site of the family business, which specialized in transporting heavy machinery using horse-drawn wagons. During the war, the family was scattered or killed. Beckman’s grandparents were murdered in nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau, while his father survived after being added to Oskar Schindler’s infamous list.

After the war, Sam married another Holocaust survivor. Paul, their only child, was born in 1948, the same year that the Iron Curtain descended on Poland. An attempt to flee the country was unsuccessful, forcing the family back to Kraków and their home at 9 św. Wawrzyńca Ulica. Eventually, however, they did escape Communist Poland and lived in Israel for a few years before moving to the United States.

Street sign for św. Wawrzyńca in Kraków.

Beckman has affectionate memories of his childhood home in Kraków. Because the building was still in his grandparents’ names in the land register — instead of being nationalized, it was administered by the city of Kraków — it was easier for Beckman to claim ownership. His plan had been to try to reclaim the family’s other Kraków properties.

“In the next phase I was going to open probate on personal property compensation and then deal with the other properties,” said Beckman. “My argument was going to be the loss of income [from the properties] over the years. But then the Poles elected a government that would make them feel better and make them wealthier,” he said, referring to the fact that Poles took over many of the properties that had been owned by their Jewish neighbors before they were deported or killed during the Holocaust.

According to Beckman, the monetary gain from his family’s property wasn’t the only driving force behind his claim. He said he had “an emotional determination to make it as right as is possible.”

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