On a cold day in January 2013, Marta Pyzel came back from a trip to the shops to find that she was unable to enter her apartment building in the eastern Warsaw suburb of Grochów. “I rang the doorbell and was told by the building’s owners that I wouldn’t be allowed in,” she says. “I never entered my apartment again.”
It turned out that Pyzel’s apartment building had just been “reprivatised”, meaning that the heirs to the building’s prewar owners had successfully claimed it back from the city authorities after it had been nationalised under the communist government of the 1940s-80s.
Faced with rampant homelessness, and uncertain as to who might still be around to reclaim their property, in October 1945 Poland’s new communist authorities issued the so-called Bierut Decree to facilitate the city’s reconstruction. Named after communist leader Bolesław Bierut, the decree transferred ownership of all land within the city’s prewar borders to the municipal authorities. In theory, property owners could claim restitution or compensation under certain conditions. In practice, the vast majority of claims were ignored or refused.
Although the Polish People’s Republic was abolished in 1989, the Bierut Decree remains in legal force. This means that ever since the fall of communism, the Warsaw city authorities have been flooded with thousands of claims – both bogus and legitimate – for the restitution of property and plots of land throughout the city. Warsaw’s City Hall estimates that, between 2007 and 2016, 447 properties consisting of 4,479 occupied dwellings were returned as a result of the decree. The decision of Polish courts and successive city administrations to honour these claims has had profound consequences for Warsaw’s social and physical landscape.
For some in Poland, the reprivatisation process constitutes historical justice for widespread communist expropriations. “Should I give up on the return of my family’s property because the courts and local authorities took over 60 years to make a decision?” asks Henryk Grocholski, a lawyer representing the heirs to prewar owners, and whose family also has outstanding property claims. “If we believe in private ownership and we believe in the rule of law, then these are things that have to be respected.”
But others accuse city authorities of colluding with property developers and vested interests to exploit loopholes in the system, and in so doing to undo the collective achievements of the city’s postwar reconstruction.
“They stole the soul of the city,” says Jan Śpiewak, a local councillor and leading campaigner against reprivatisation. “The identity of Warsaw is built on two things: resistance during the war and rebuilding after the war. Warsaw was supposed to be the phoenix from the ashes, but they took it from us, they privatised it, and they told us this effort was worth nothing.”
Reprivatisation claims are based on delineations of plots of land as they existed in prewar Warsaw, which often have very little connection to the the city as it is today. This means that plots of land within areas that are now used as public spaces, such as parks or public squares, can be subject to multiple reprivatisation claims because numerous properties used to stand in that area.
The results can be found all over the city: school playgrounds that have been reprivatised and turned into weed-laden car parks; requisitioned green spaces in the middle of the city that now lie untended, characterised by litter and patches of wild grass; buildings that stand empty and decrepit due to uncertainty over their ownership.