Are Jewish Communal Funds in Poland Being Mishandled?

Photo by Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons
Jewish cemetery in Otwock; photo by Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons

There have been too many examples of mishandling of communal funds, in Europe and here in Israel, and ‘trust us’ is just not enough anymore.” (Rabbi Uri Regev)

by Jan Jaben-Eilon

When the Polish edition of Forbes magazine published an expose on the long-controversial restitution of Jewish communal property from the pre-war era late this summer, it dared to go where nearly no one else was willing to venture. As the editorial alongside the investigative piece pointed out, everyone had been treating the question of what happened to those properties worth hundreds of millions of Polish zlotys “as if it were a ‘hot potato,’ careful not to be accused of anti-Semitism.”

Not surprisingly, the stalwart business publication has indeed been accused of anti-Semitism for publishing articles that accuse a few people heading the organizations responsible for recovery of that property of corruption. More quietly, many Polish Jews and non-Jews are congratulating Forbes for finally tackling the intricate, essentially secret, maneuverings of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ), which recovers property of Jewish communities confiscated by Nazis and the Communist regime, and the Regulatory Commission for Jewish Communities, which makes “final decisions on what restitutions Jews receive.” According to Forbes, FODZ CEO Monika Krawczyk also works for the Commission which is composed of delegates of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland (ZGWZ) and representatives of Poland’s Ministry of Administration and Digitalisation (MAC).

Bluntly, Forbes says Krawczyk operates the interconnected system and personally benefits from the decisions she makes. Forbes also accuses the president of the Union of Jewish Communities, Piotr Kadlcik of taking money resulting from the sale of several Jewish communal properties.

In its article, “A Million Dollar Kaddish,” Forbes says that Kadlcik, from his various positions, “controls the process of restitution of Jewish communal property – according to our estimates – more than 1 billion zlotys ($310 million).” And, Kadlcik told eJewish Philanthropy in July, that his group can continue to reclaim Jewish communal properties for another 10-15 years.

This process started in 1997 when the Polish Parliament adopted a “Restitution Law” stating that all the communal Jewish property that existed in Poland before World War II be returned to the official Jewish community in Poland. The next year, the present Polish Jewish leaders met with the leaders of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). They decided that the WJRO would lend the Polish Jewish communities up to $800,000 to finance the filing for restitution of the Jewish communal properties, and in return WJRO and WJC would receive half the value of the properties recovered. In addition, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland would be created to receive these properties and sell them, with the money sent outside of Poland.

Nissan Tsur, an Israeli journalist who lives in Krakow and contributed to the Forbes article, as well as has written several articles himself, says he has received a mostly positive response to the article. “An Israeli couple who lives in a small town near Wroclaw wrote to me that they are renovating a synagogue there and wanted to thank me for the article, ‘which brought to light the terrible things done by the leaders of the Jewish community, especially by Ms. Monika Krawczyk’. It’s a ‘well-known secret’ that the leaders of the community are corrupted, but nobody has done anything to reveal it and we hope that you will not leave this subject and continue to investigate it.’” Another Israeli, who lives in Poznan wrote to Tsur saying that the Jewish leaders must be stopped before they liquidate all the Jewish history and heritage of Poznan.

According to a Jewish man with Polish ancestry who has lived in Poland for decades, the reaction to the Forbes articles “has been at the ground root level. Most of my friends, whom I have talked with, whether from (the Orthodox community of) Twarda or members of other, registered or unofficial groupings and independent communities, silently acknowledge and commend the actions of Forbes. Most cannot express their feelings openly because to do so may affect their relationship with the Board of Twarda directly or indirectly.” He, too, prefers not to be identified, but he’s clear in how he feels. “Most feel that the Jewish world does not care about Poland. Therefore without at least moral support from the outside, there will be no internal changes. The more publicity the articles have on a worldwide audience, then external support may encourage change in Poland.”

He explained why this is so needed. “Poland is important for many reasons including that most of us have their roots here. Judaism is thriving in Poland, with families coming out after 50 years of occupation. It is not easy. There are many who are just beginning to discover their family past, after more than 20 years of having religious freedom. It may take many more years for some to discover their roots or admit to others that they are Jewish. The war and occupation failed to extinguish the flame here. But the flame is weak and needs protecting so as not to be caught in a draft. The wick needs tendering to strengthen the flame.”

Furthermore, he says, the recognized Jewish establishment does not and cannot represent all Jews in Poland. “To believe otherwise is putting your own head in the sand. To us it appears the world has done this. To keep silent is to support their actions.” As individual Jews, he says, “we support all action for Jews to have the freedom of being in a community of their choice, and to be in the position to determine its day-to-day running and future development. One aspect of this is to have places to meet. Where is the property for us to meet? In many cases, we know where the property was.”

Lucia Czarny Goodhart, a Polish-born Jewish educator who lives in the Baltimore area, but has spent a lot of time going back and forth to Poland, says the Forbes article opened a Pandora’s Box that “had to open to let the snakes out.” Saying that she is disgusted by the current Jewish leadership in Poland which should be removed, Goodhart acknowledged that it’s “difficult for Jews to point fingers at other Jews.”

If there was anyone responsible for wrenching this discussion from whispers to public debate, it was Severyn Ashkenazy, a Polish-born Jew who later became a successful American businessman. A Holocaust survivor, Ashkenazy spends about half of the year in Poland where he’s put an enormous amount of his time, effort and money into rebuilding a Jewish community. He is the founder of the Reform congregation in Warsaw called Beit Warszawa.

Ashkenazy knows, and is proud of the fact, that he has long been a thorn in the side of the established Orthodox community in Warsaw, otherwise known as the gemina or the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. “Many are not willing to stand with me, although 99 out of 100 Jews and non-Jews are,” he says. His assertive manner, clearly portrayed in the article he wrote alongside the investigative Forbes piece, has earned him a few enemies. The Forbes publication, whose cover Ashkenazy graces, may be the culmination of many years of his demanding answers to the question of where the money from the returned Jewish properties has gone.

According to the Forbes editorial, “Ashkenazy has brought the problem of corruption in the Jewish communities to government ministries and the media, but no one considered it seriously. At the beginning, we also treated him cautiously.” Eryk Stankunowica, deputy editor of Forbes in Poland, contends that his magazine’s investigation validates Ashkenazy’s long-standing accusations of corruption by those dealing with the restitution of pre-war Jewish communities. “Ashkenazy decided to do something about it and spends the autumn of his life towards fulfilling this task.”

Several of the Jewish leaders accused by Ashkenazy and Forbes issued a letter, declaring that the accusations “are false and clearly slanderous.” The letter was signed by, among others, Piotr Kadlcik, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael J. Schudrich, and Monika Krawczyk, all mentioned in the Forbes article. They threatened legal action against Ashkenazy, not for the first time. World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder also called the Forbes report “littered with factual errors” and “sensationalist,” and its allegations “unfounded and slanderous.” Lauder responded to the allegations also as chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). “To make it very clear,” he said in a statement, “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.”

Rabbi Schudrich declined to respond to questions from eJewish Philanthropy.

Others haven’t been hesitant to react. An American rabbi of Polish ancestry, who has spent his own money fighting for the restoration of Jewish culture in Poland, also wrote a letter to the editor of Forbes. Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak heads an organization, Beit Polska, which is trying to rebuild Jewish life in communities all over Poland.

“For those of us who had such high hopes for a renewal of Jewish cultural and religious life (in Poland), the strong questions raised by the Forbes articles comes as confirmation of a sad reality. Where has the patrimony of our people gone? It could have served as a basis for senior homes, hospitals, schools, museums and the general purposes of building Jewish life for our Progressive movement and other parts of the great palace that is Judaism. We could have aided those Poles who aided us. We could have given dignity to those who survived. We could have restored dignity to our own people.” He contends that those responsible for the unaccounted-for funds are a third stage of destruction of Jewish life in Poland after the Nazis and Soviet Russians.

In Bialystok, Joanna Auron-Górska works to rebuild the Jewish community in her city. She also wrote a response to the Forbes article, saying that she’d heard private conversations about the “expropriation racket” from Jews and non-Jewish, Poles and non-Poles, for years. She says she was always frustrated that she had been unable to neither justify nor deny the accusations, until the Forbes article. “I hail the courage and integrity of Forbes in exposing the touchy issue of misspent Jewish money,” she writes, adding that Forbes should ignore charges of anti-Semitism. “Let’s take these matters into Polish courts. The guilty should be brought to justice. The innocent should be exonerated. Let us no more hear anywhere in our travels of Polish Jews expropriating Polish Jews.” Auron-Górska isn’t the only one asking the restitution groups to open their books to the public. Rabbi Uri Regev, also an attorney, is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Now he is President and CEO of Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting religious freedom in Israel. Referring to the Forbes articles, he says, “the claims are extremely disturbing, and no less is the reaction of the leadership of the established community.”

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. “And this holds true in the Polish restitution case as well. One cannot understand why a detailed account of income and expenditure would not be readily available, and when Polish law does not require it, the Jewish community in Poland and around the world should.” Regev points out that “if all financial matters are done in full integrity and for the welfare of the community, then full transparency should be the rule, not the exception. There have been too many examples of mishandling of communal funds, in Europe and here in Israel, and ‘trust us’ is just not enough anymore.”