Judaism in Poland: It’s Warsaw, Jake

You would think that when the Polish edition of Forbes, the internationally respected financial magazine, publishes a front-page exposé on the disappearance of tens of millions of dollars of Holocaust restitution funds, Jews everywhere would be outraged and demand an immediate, independent investigation.

You would be wrong.

Instead, the two main institutional Jewish reactions have been: 1. Hey, it’s Poland — what can you do? And 2. Those Forbes people — what a bunch of anti-Semites.

But if you talk to committed liberal Polish Jews and their supporters about the scandal, you get a different reaction — absolute outrage. 

“The Polish Jewish community is potentially the wealthiest Jewish community in the world, per capita,” Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak told me. “But instead, there’s no money.”

Rabbi Beliak, who lives in Los Angeles, has been a key figure in supporting various streams of Judaism in Poland. 

He said the loss of funds means that the estimated 80 percent of American Jewry who trace their history to Poland will see their patrimony sold off by the very people charged with protecting it. And it means that the revival of a vibrant, living, breathing Polish Jewish community will be, if not impossible, then impossibly difficult.

Last week, Rabbi Beliak came to my office with Piotr Stasiak, chair of Beit Polska, the umbrella organization for all progressive Jewish communities in Poland.

Stasiak is a solid, middle-aged man, a physicist-turned-businessman with a heavy brow over bright blue eyes. Like many Polish Jews, he discovered his identity from parents who had long kept it hidden. Thousands of Poles share similar stories. Poland is not just, as so many Israeli and American Jews would have it, a Jewish graveyard. It is also a Jewish opportunity.

But it seems what makes being a Jew so difficult in Poland these days is other Jews.

According to the Forbes article, titled “Kaddish for a Million Bucks,” a woman named Monika Krawczyk sits at the head of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which is charged with recovering the property of Jewish communities confiscated by Nazis and the communist regime.

Krawczyk also works for the Regulatory Commission for Jewish Communities, which distributes restitution funds. Krawczyk, Forbes said, personally benefits from the restitution decisions she makes. Forbes also accuses the president of the Union of Jewish Communities, Piotr Kadlcik, of personally taking money resulting from the sale of several Jewish communal properties.

Kadlcik controls some $310 million in communal restitution properties, Forbes reported. And where is that money? No one can say.

The Forbes story, bold as it is, is far from thorough and raises many unanswered questions.

The Polish Parliament adopted a “Restitution Law” in 1997 to return all the communal Jewish property that existed in Poland before World War II to Poland’s official Jewish community.

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) lent the indigent Polish community $800,000 to process the filings. In return, WJRO and WJC were meant to receive half the value of the properties recovered. 

According to Forbes, and confirmed by Stasiak, much of the money is completely unaccounted for.

“I am asking a very simple question,” Stasiak said. “Please explain to the community what happened to the money.”

If Stasiak and other Polish Jews are the victims of this scandal, its Zola is an L.A. Jew, Severyn Ashkenazy.

Ashkenazy has been the kol koreh bamidbar — the voice crying in the wilderness — for years. Tall, courtly and determined, Ashkenazy has for years maintained to Jewish leaders and journalists that something was rotten in Warsaw. 

Born in Poland, he survived much of the Holocaust by staying silent while hiding under a stranger’s floorboards. After becoming a successful businessman in Los Angeles, Ashkenazy has returned to Poland frequently over the years, almost singlehandedly founding and supporting the revival of the liberal, non-Orthodox Jewish life that flourished there before 1939. He witnessed the glorious synagogues and Jewish community centers of his past being sold off in Poland’s real estate boom, and the monies that should have been directed to all Jews disappearing into other pockets.

The Twarda, the officially recognized Orthodox community in Poland that has received the lion’s share of existing restitution funds, has called the Forbes editors anti-Semites on a witch hunt — never mind that the article was instigated, and reported, by Jews.

And in a press statement, Ronald Lauder, chairman of the New York-based WJRO, flatly repudiated Ashkenazy’s charges, and the article.

“To make it very clear,” Lauder said, “neither the WJC nor the WJRO, of which the WJC is a founding member, have ever sought or received money coming from the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, as the articles suggest.”

With all due respect to Lauder and the Polish Jewish leaders, their denials cannot be the final word. In the name of the Polish victims of the Holocaust, and on behalf of their heirs struggling to rebuild Jewish life there, and in recognition of the history and tradition so many of us share, an outside, independent forensic accounting firm must fully investigate the dispensation of every last dollar.

To read the Forbes article, visit forbes.pl.