Warsaw’s schools under the restitution ax

They survived war, communism, and transition, but a new threat looms.

WARSAW, Poland | Warsaw’s nurseries, kindergartens, and schools are becoming collateral damage in unresolved property disputes that democratic Poland has failed to address for 25 years.

For a casual walker in Warsaw, the changes are likely imperceptible: school sports grounds suddenly fenced off from an adjacent school building, another school apparently on the move from one building to another.

These are the first signs of a new wave of more than 1,500 restitution claims, more than 100 of which concern land on which schools and kindergartens have been built, while many others target public buildings that have stood for decades and create much of the city’s social fabric.

The process of handing over the properties – a belated hangover from war, communism, and Poland’s neoliberal policies after 1989 – has recently picked up steam.

“For legal, practical, and moral reasons … one has to doubt whether the reprivatization in its current form makes sense,” said Piotr Kozak, a member of the Warsaw branch of the Green Party.

Kozak estimates the process has cost Warsaw more than 500 million zloty ($148 million) so far and that the tab could eventually top 15 billion zloty.

In the campaign for Poland’s 16 November local elections, the Greens and other leftist groups called for a suspension of restitution until parliament moves to replace the handover of real estate with compensation, which would be capped at below-market rates.

Such legislation has been debated since at least 1998, the last year parliament tried to address the issue – and failed.

A fast-growing list of court decisions has allowed claimants – not necessarily the original owners’ heirs, who may have died or sold their stakes – to take over the disputed properties.  

New owners then fence off sports grounds or kindergarten playgrounds and proceed with the permitting process for commercial or residential development, or simply paid parking lots. Some schools have been forced to move, and others will likely follow.

Early this year, a gymnasium, or middle school, on central Twarda Street was forced to move when a claimant was awarded the entire school property.

Another gymnasium, on Swietokrzyska Street in central Warsaw, lost a 1,000-square meter (almost 11,000-square-foot) area that used to host the school’s sports grounds. A parking lot stands there now.

A kindergarten on Goszczynskiego Street in the city’s prestigious Mokotow neighborhood will have to deal with a reprivatized piece of land that cuts through the middle of its playground. At another kindergarten in another prestigious Warsaw district, two claimants are fighting to get the city to buy, for 900,000 zloty, a piece of land that they received in restitution but that makes up a quarter of the school’s premises. Otherwise, they have threatened to fence off the property.

Joanna Kanicka, a member of the parents’ board at a Warsaw elementary and middle school that is under threat of restitution, predicted it was only a matter of time before the school has to give up part of its sports grounds.

“It’s a so-called integration school, where 25 percent of the kids have disabilities. Taking away a sporting ground from them is unimaginable,” Kanicka said.

She said the property’s claimants told the parents’ board they had become “militant about the issue” after their attempts to work with city officials went nowhere.

“It could have been sorted out,” Kanicka said.

Right now, she said, the only hope is that the city soon adopts a micro-master plan – only for the school’s premises – that would designate the property for educational purposes only so as to diminish its market value.

Administrators from the school and officials at City Hall did not respond to requests for comment.


Warsaw was nearly destroyed between 1943 and 1945. Over 80 percent of what lay on the city’s left bank of the Vistula River was razed or burned down during or following the Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the ensuing planned destruction that the Germans executed in retaliation.

The communist authorities of postwar Poland managed to rebuild the city, owing, in part, to the so-called Bierut Decrees (named after the then-president of Poland), which simply shifted all property rights in Warsaw to the state – often unlawfully, which fuels the current wave of restitution claims.

Soon after the communist regime collapsed in 1989, replaced by liberal democracy and a market-based economy, questions surfaced about what to do with the formerly private properties in Warsaw where schools and other public buildings now stood.

In 1998, activist Piotr Ikonowicz, who was then a member of parliament, sounded the alarm that the process of restoring to private ownership “thousands” of Warsaw plots – after some 50 years – would come with a massive price tag.

On behalf of his former party, the Democratic Left Alliance, Ikonowicz proposed to cap compensation to former property owners, their heirs, or any other claimants.

The legislation, however, never made it through parliament, while the Warsaw authorities faced an ever-growing number of claims, mostly from businesspeople who had bought claims from the rightful representatives of owners. The tide reached critical heights late this year, after City Hall said its repertoire of legal tricks to defer claimants was running out.

“Various legal catches that we’ve been trying to find are not working anymore. We’re giving it all away,” Marcin Bajko, who heads Warsaw’s real estate management office, told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper in November.

The Polish courts, Bajko said, are giving claimants increasing leeway, for instance by no longer requiring that a property’s owner or heir be present when documents are signed handing back the property. Now it is enough for a so-called claimant’s curator to be present and sign, effectively taking over the property. That is thanks to a loophole that allows indefinite curatorship as long as the curator is formally seeking the original owner or his or her heirs – who in many cases are likely dead.

In the run-up to the local elections, in which Warsaw voters elected a new city council and mayor, the opposition to the ruling Civic Platform party and its Warsaw mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, made restitution one of the top issues.

According to Andrzej Rozenek, a member of parliament from the Twoj Ruch (Your Move) party who also ran for mayor, City Hall has done little to save Warsaw schools from ending up in private hands and being effectively liquidated.

“The gymnasium on Twarda Street is located on a plot that used to be made of several plots before the war. When a claimant to one of those plots filed for the land to be given back, City Hall simply gave away the entire school area to him. On which side is City Hall, then? The local community, young people, parents and teachers, or businessmen buying claims?” Rozenek said.

That argument, along with similar ones from other candidates, failed to move voters. Of four candidates calling for a halt to the reprivatization of school grounds until parliament passes a compensation cap, only one – Piotr Guzial, the incumbent mayor of one Warsaw district – received slightly over 8 percent of the vote. The rest, including Rozenek, did not even get 5 percent.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s hope,” Joanna Erbel, who ran for mayor with the support from the Greens, told her supporters on election night after picking up only 2.8 percent of the vote.

“We got our message across to the mainstream, and now Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz will have to take note,” she added.

Or perhaps not. In October, Marcin Kierwinski, a Civic Platform activist in Warsaw, toldGazeta Wyborcza that a national law to deal with the city’s reprivatization problem will be difficult to get through parliament.

He said he didn’t count on it getting much support from lawmakers “who are not from Warsaw, which they think is so rich.”

This article was originally published by Transitions Online. Wojciech Kosc is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw. Photo by Paweł Piekarski/Wikimedia Commons.


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