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Confusion reigns over Polish land claims


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.

Krystyna lived there six months, until her father returned and built a small home in a nearby village, making a living by opening a small office offering legal advice. In fact, had Communist authorities bothered to check the career history of the Krysowska family, they might have known they would someday have a fight on their hands.

Ms. Krysowska's parents were both lawyers, and so is she. A cousin who has handled her case, Ryszard Grzesiula, also has legal training, and his father is a judge.

So it was that when Poland became a democracy in 1989, Ms. Krysowska was one of the first to ask for a family estate to be returned, filing a motion with the Agriculture Ministry in the spring of 1990. She had vowed to her mother, who died in 1989, that she would someday live again at Rozalin.

It took three years to get a decision: In 1993, the ministry said the land was rightfully hers.

But by then the estate was being used as a "People's University," teaching young people and often housing foreign guests. The authorities weren't about to give up the place without a fight, and they appealed the decision to the nation's high court.

The court ruled that the ministry had made a technical error and would have to rule again. But by then Ms. Krysowska had a ministry letter in hand invalidating the 1949 confiscation, and she used this to register herself as the legal owner at the local registry of deeds.

So, on the morning of July 1 in 1993, armed with her deeds and documents, she and Mr. Grzesiula pulled up at the gates of the estate, only to be greeted by 15 newly-hired security people.

"We found them there with their clubs and pistols," Mr. Grzesiula says. "We told them, 'We are just going to our home,' but they said we couldn't go in."

Not long after, Ms. Krysowska heard that local authorities were planning to declare the estate to be municipal property, a move that would further complicate her case. And that's when she decided on a more aggressive strategy.

"I knew it was my only possibility of getting the property back," she says. "A few weeks later, and we might never have reclaimed it."

'Security people'

Besides, Mr. Grzesiula says, "We knew they couldn't employ their security people forever. So we waited for them to be dismissed, then we hired our own people from another security company, and on July 19 at 5 a.m., we entered the property."

There was some shouting, witnesses say. And somewhere along the way somebody cut the phone lines. But nobody got hurt.

A teacher awakened by the commotion told Ms. Krysowska that some handicapped students were staying at the estate. "I told the teacher to go back to sleep, and the kids stayed for the three weeks as planned," Ms. Krysowska says. "So nothing happened when we entered the place. But a quarter of an hour later, seven police cars came."

The police read Ms. Krysowska's documents, then called the mayor. The mayor read the papers and announced that Ms. Krysowska was the owner, Mr. Grzesiula says. The director of the "people's university" left in a huff. The police went home.

Ms. Krysowska found the place greatly changed from 1949. A once elegant guest house with a picturesque balcony had been clumsily converted into a small, blocky hotel. A swimming pool -- nice but a bit out of place -- sat in the front yard of the manor house.

With the school and the Education Ministry still appealing the matter in the courts, Ms. Krysowska has put her plans for fixing up the place on hold. Nowadays the grass is overgrown, the apple orchard needs pruning and the ponds are coated with green scum. The place is also still loaded with school equipment. But Mr. Grzesiula says he has been told to expect a final decision from the high court later this month.

The two-year delay has given the people of the small village of Rozalin plenty of time to choose sides in the matter. Most seem to side with Ms. Krysowska.

But Mr. Bojanowski, still tending his cows, isn't sure he approves of her methods.

"Well, I've heard on television that 35,000 people want to claim their property back," he says, "and if they all wanted to do it overnight, I don't think there would be enough security people to go around."

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