Holocaust survivor sues Polish government in British courts

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A SURVIVOR of the Holocaust is to bring the first compensation claim in this country against the Polish government for confiscating property belonging to Jews after the Second World War.

The case is expected to generate hundreds of similar actions in the United Kingdom, likely to embarrass the Polish government in its campaign to become a full member of the European Union.

Peter Koppenheim, 68, from Manchester, fled Breslau in Nazi Germany in February 1939 after his family was terrorised by the Gestapo. His father and grandfather left behind a thriving property business in the town where they had been leading members of the Jewish and German communities.

Mr Koppenheim's claim is linked to events that took place at the end of the Second World War when the Russians occupied areas of Germany. Breslau became part of Poland, changing its name to Wroclaw.

Mr Koppenheim claims that the Polish authorities systematically transferred many Jewish property to non-Jewish Polish citizens. This, he alleges, was part of the Polish government's policy of ethnic cleansing, which he said has been going on for 54 years and includes the murder of thousands of Polish Jews.

American and British Jews who have fled Poland allege that, long after the end of the Second World War, Holocaust survivors were "murdered, beaten, raped, tortured and forced to abandon any attempt to retrieve their property".

Mr Koppenheim, who has joined 10 American citizens in an action launched in New York, believes that by bringing a separate case in the United Kingdom other British Jews whose property has been confiscated by the Polish authorities will come forward. The Polish government is contesting the claims.

"There are many other people who suffered a similar fate to me and my family," said Mr Koppenheim, who has asked his American lawyer, Mel Urbach, to instruct a British law firm to bring his case in this country. Mr Urbach said Poland has been slow in passing a law that would allow Holocaust survivors to reclaim property.

The legal action comes at a time when other countries, including Britain, are releasing funds deposited by Jews who fled the Holocaust. This week Barclays Bank agreed to pay money to survivors who can prove that their accounts in France were seized after the German invasion.

Since the end of Communist rule in Poland the government has embarked on a privatisation programme that has included selling property acquired after the war.

Mr Koppenheim's multi- million-pound claim relates to 11 properties in the former Germany territory, now part of Poland. It includes the town mansion his family was forced to flee in 1939. This property was destroyed in the dying days of the Second World War. Mr Koppenheim only learnt of its fate a few years ago when he revisited Wroclaw. He said yesterday: "I asked a taxi driver what had happened to the house and he told me that the Russians had destroyed it to make an example of those who were still resisting." The taxi driver recounted how a renegade German general had used the house to take shots at the Russians, who then levelled it.

His claim also includes compensation or the return of a five-storey office block in central Wroclaw. This building was part of the Koppenheim portfolio of properties, later sold to private citizens. As recently as 1991, despite protests from Mr Koppenheim and his lawyers, it was sold to a Polish steel manufacturing company. "We wrote to the Polish government," said Mr Koppenheim, "and told them what was happening was illegal, but the sale went ahead anyway."

The traumatic events of 1939 are still very much alive in Mr Koppenheim's mind. His mother managed to escape to England two years earlier, but returned when the German authorities refused to release him and his five sisters. Even when the family finally left Germany it was forced to pay reichsfluchst steuer, a Jewish exit tax. "My mother said this amounted to a hundredweight of silver. When we arrived in England we were penniless," Mr Koppenheim added.

His grandfather, who did not leave Poland, refused to accept that the Germans were deliberately killing Jews and stayed on in Breslau where he died with thousands of others Jews in the ghetto. His father died from high blood pressure soon after they arrived in England.

The family set up a business making chocolate in Manchester, which Mr Koppenheim went into after he left school in Salford. He now runs a small property business.

Mr Koppenheim said that any compensation he received would be given to the Neve Yerushalyim College in Jerusalem, which educates Jewish girls.