Under a new Polish law that took effect in September, Holocaust survivors and their heirs who unsuccessfully tried to reclaim their property in Warsaw decades ago under the Communist-era 1945 Warsaw Decree must come forward within six months after their property is listed in a Polish newspaper. If claimants do not come forward within that period, the City of Warsaw will permanently assume ownership of the property.
In response, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has created a unique database to reach those claimants.
Lists of street names in the database conjure up images of a once thriving Jewish world, images tempered for the reader by the devastation that was soon to follow. Name after name of people who lived and worked in a busy city. A world that exists today in old photos and faded memories. And in this database.
The 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory for Warsaw, as its name suggests, was perhaps the final chapter of the documentation of an orderly structured society on the eve of destruction. Other directories from that period captured snapshots of the life of pre-War Warsaw — lists of properties, lawyers, dentists, phone directories, mortgage records, etc. Because of the outbreak of war, the 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory was never published. Years later it was found and painstakingly digitized by committed genealogists.
It represents the seeming solidity of a city and a vibrant community. Thirty percent of Warsaw was Jewish. It was the city with the second largest Jewish community in the world, after New York City.
Many survivors returning to Poland after the Holocaust filed claims under the 1945 Warsaw Decree. However most of those claims were either rejected or not resolved, and many survivors and their families, 70 years later, do not know that they can pursue their claims.
In June 2016, a list of 2,613 street addresses with open claims under the 1945 decree was made available by the City of Warsaw. They did not, however, publish the names of the claimants or owners of the properties — just the street addresses.
WJRO matched that list against the Homeowners Directory and other historical material leading to the possible identification of two-thirds of the owners of properties that may have open claims.
The database is a creation of diligent research, manual data entry and modern technology combined with a stubborn refusal to let history disappear.
The database will not reconstruct a devastated Jewish community. But it does offer a view into a forgotten world and it creates a dramatic new opportunity for the families of those who perished to reconnect with that lost past. And towards reclaiming that which was taken.
Scrolling down the names of streets listed in the database leads one to imagine wandering through Jewish Warsaw amidst the bustling streets. Not much remains of the pre-War buildings of Warsaw today — most were destroyed in the War. But the streets are largely the same and the plots are those on which previous generations built their lives.
Nalweki Street was at the heart of the Jewish district of Warsaw. Who was Zelko Goldberg, who according to the database, was the owner of 40 Nalweki Street — right by the synagogue at Number 41? What was his profession, who was in his family and did he or any of his family survive the Holocaust?
For some, this may be an opportunity to recover what is today valuable property and for others it will serve to renew the public effort to secure from Poland a full and complete return of property confiscated by the Nazis and the Communists — both in Warsaw and throughout Poland.
And it is a powerful reminder that the Jews who lived in Nalweki Street had real lives and families, homes and businesses. And that the struggle for historical justice is not finished.