Holocaust survivor sues to recover Pope's house

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The Independent Online
IN 1920, Yechiel Balamuth, a Jewish shopkeeper in the southern Polish town of Wadowice, rented out two rooms to a Polish man and his family. More than two decades later Yechiel, his wife and three daughters died in the Holocaust. One more tragic footnote in the history and destruction of Polish Jewry, except that the child born to the Polish lodgers in Yechiel's house grew up to become the Pope.

The Balamuth family home is now a museum dedicated to the life of Pope John Paul II and there is little trace of its former owners. But Yechiel's son, Chaim, survived the war. Now his son, Ron, a lawyer in New York, has started legal proceedings to recover his family property and return the house to his family's name.

Thus the stage is set for the latest step in the most delicate of Poland's post-Communist, if not postwar negotiations - that between the Catholic church and the country's tiny Jewish community, perhaps 10,000 strong.

The scars still run deep between Poland's Jews and the Catholic Church, tensions exacerbated by the field of crosses at Auschwitz, erected by radical Catholics who claimed the site of the death of more than a million Jews as, foremost, a place of Polish martyrdom.

But the crosses have been removed, with the support of the Church, reconciliation is in the air and on Pope John Paul's visit to Poland this summer he took pains to commemorate the Balamuth family.

He recalled growing up among them when he gave an emotional speech at Wadowice in June, when he visited his birthplace, and he remembered Chaim Balamuth, whom he assumed had been killed as well. "I know that many of Wadowice's Jews went through difficult times and were exterminated in ghettos in line with Hitler's plans," he said.

Like hundreds of thousands of formerly Jewish-owned properties, the Yechiel house was appropriated after the war by the Communist state. The issue of how to legislate for property return touches raw nerves in Poland, especially among Holocaust survivors and the victims' descendants.

Tens of thousands of people have not been compensated for the properties they lost, first under the Nazis, then under Poland's Communist government. Many Jews gave up entirely, horrified by the repeated post-war murders of Holocaust survivors who managed to live through the Nazi era, only to be killed by their neighbours when they returned to their home villages.

The writer Eva Hoffman, in her book Shtetl, details how the few Jews who returned to the village of Bransk were attacked by Poles. Two young women were killed in 1945; a Jewish man was shot dead in the marketplace in 1947.

Even now, recovering Jewish property is a difficult and complex issue in predominantly Catholic Poland. Some Poles resent what they see as outsiders returning to disrupt what is for them, the comfortable postwar status quo, dead Jews being easier to deal with than their live descendants.

Some communal Jewish buildings have been returned to the community, and this month the Polish Cabinet approved a draft private property restitution law that would govern the return of property seized by the state before 1989 and the fall of Communism.

Last month, lawyers for the Polish government said lawsuits launched in the United States by Polish Jews trying to recover their property are outside the jurisdiction of US courts.

For Ron Balamuth, grandson of the Pope's one-time landlord, the issue is one of principle rather than physical possession, and he has no plans to alter the building. His lawyer, Ayall Schanzer, said: "The only thing we want is a piece of paper that establishes legal title. We are not going to change it from being a museum. It will stay what it is.

"Ron wants title because it is the one connection he has to his roots. This is where his family came from and but for the war he would still be there."

The former Balamuth home is rented by the Catholic church from the local council, and is maintained by nuns. The church accepts the claim to the two-floor house, said Mr Schanzer. "We've taken great care not to offend anyone. This is a property with great significance for the Polish people."

Poland's Jewish community can never recover its former glory. This was the country that hosted - however grudgingly - the birth of the rich and complex Ashkenazi Yiddish Jewish culture.

That has more or less vanished in the smokestacks of the Holocaust, when three million Polish Jews were killed, living on only in the pages of the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer and a few outposts of London, Tel Aviv and New York.

For Jews such as Ron Balamuth, a family memorial plaque on the wall of the Pope's museum in Wadowice would at least acknowledge that another, now-vanished world once flourished on the streets where the Pope grew up.