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Polish nobility fight to reclaim seized property

By Frederik Pleitgen for CNN
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Polish nobility fight for lost property
  • The Sobanskis had their property confiscated by communists after World War II
  • Count Michal Sobanski is now on a mission to claim compensation from the government
  • He says he needs $8 million to make the palace habitable again after it was left to rot

Warsaw, Poland (CNN) -- Count Michal Sobanski often drives his 15-year-old Volvo from his home in Warsaw to the tiny town of Guzow about an hour outside Poland's capital.

He visits an old palace, a ruin that could almost be the set for a horror movie. But the palace from the 19th century is the Sobanski family manor.

The 30-room building was once the home of Sobanski's grand father.

"We used to have mirrors all over the walls and lovely paintings," he says as he walks through the now decrepit rooms.

The palace was taken away from the family after the communists took over in Poland after World War II, the Sobanski were ordered to leave immediately and could only take a few of their most valued possessions.

"Our family owned almost everything around here," Sobanski says, "a park, acres of forest and a sugar factory. My grandfather even built several churches in this area."

The Sobanski's did not get their palace back after the fall of communism.

Instead they had to buy it back from the Polish government. Under Polish law disowned families can only get compensation for property taken by the communists if the belongings were taken away illegally under the laws of communist Poland.

Our family owned almost everything around here
--Count Michal Sobanski
  • Poland
  • EU Economy
  • Communism

Sobanski says he feels left alone by the Polish government."The politicians do not want to touch the matter, they fear backlash from many voters."

The Sobankis are not alone. All over Poland families are fighting to get back property that was taken away from them at some point in history.

There are no exact numbers, but the claims must go into the billions says Krzysztof Jamrozik, a lawyer who deals with the reprivatization matter in Warsaw. "It is a huge sum. We have about ten thousand cases in Warsaw alone and it is impossible to calculate how many there are in the whole country."

The situation is as complicated as Poland's history: When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 they evicted the Jews and many Poles and took their belongings away. After the end of the war Poland's territory was shifted westward. Germans living in the West were thrown off their land to make room for Poles who lost their land in the East. Finally, the communists nationalized almost all privately owned land under and agricultural reform.

"But it goes even further than that," Lawyer Krzysztof Jamrozik says, "Pharmacies, stores, ships, cars, almost everything was redistributed under the new leadership. It is almost impossible to untangle all of that."

In some cases the government pays out compensation and in a few things turn out well. The Jewish community in the city of Wroclaw in the Lower Silesia Voivodeship has just finished refurbishing their Synagogue.

Bente Kahan an industrious singer and activist from Norway fell in love with Wroclaw years ago and took up the huge task of trying to finance the renovation of the building which was a ruin when it was given back to the Jews in the 90s.

"The place didn't even have a roof," she says as she walked through the main prayer room which currently hosts an exhibition about Jewish life in Wroclaw. "We got some money from a European fund called EEA, some private donations and some from the public hand. The city of Wroclaw was very helpful as well."

Count Michael Sobanski received some money from the Polish culture ministry to rebuild his palace. It is not nearly enough to renovate the place and now he is looking for private investors to turn the palace and the surrounding park into an upscale hotel and retreat.

Sobanski says he needs about $8 million to make it happen and he will continue to fight until he sees the palace restored to its old glory again.