It was only in the late 1980s, when Lynn Schramek began researching her husband Brad’s family genealogy and questioning his Holocaust survivor father Hans, that the couple realized the Polish sweets factory Hans had mentioned in passing that was owned by his parents must have been illegally seized from them.
“Hans had blocked it out of his mind,” says Lynn in a video conference call from the Schrameks’ Florida home this week. Brad adds, “He never discussed [the ownership] when I was a child.”
“The sharing was healing, and once he had started then he wanted to document the whole story,” says Lynn, who eventually wrote a book, “They Stole Our Chocolate Factory,” in 2001 based on her conversations with Hans.
The Schrameks began their fight to recover the sweets factory in 1992.
Some background: In 1925, brothers Bruno and Wilhelm Schramek started a sweets business, Bracia Schramek TIP TOP. Before Bruno’s 1932 death from gallbladder disease, he bequeathed to son Hans his 50% partnership in the factory upon his 21st birthday.
In 1939 the Germans invaded the Polish town — which at the family’s request will remain unnamed — and appropriated the factory, which at the time employed 500. Hans and his family were taken to a ghetto, and eventually Auschwitz.
Post-World War II, in 1945 the communists renamed the factory, obliterating any visible ties to the Jewish family that owned it, and in 1948, the factory was nationalized under Polish law.
In 1993, the family received an answer of sorts from the Polish government on the status of the factory via its counsel in Tel Aviv (the Schrameks are currently represented by restitution lawyer Mel Urbach), “According to the writings of this decree, the owners were supposed to receive recompensation, which however has not been paid, because the advisory council of ministers failed to make proper decisions and laws.”
Since that time the family has continued to fight for its factory.
“The Polish government told us it had been nationalized according to Polish law — but said the owners were supposed to receive compensation — which they did not. That’s the most frustrating thing: They’re not complying with their own law,” says Lynn.
Bruno’s grandson, Bradley Schramek, and Wilhelm’s granddaughter, Nomi Rom, are now ostensibly 50-50 heirs to the family business. Their chances of seeing any recompense are slim in a Poland that still has not legislated a Holocaust restitution law or enacted any streamlined procedure for such claims.
The Schramek’s story is hardly unique. In response to the multitude of claims by Holocaust survivors and other former Poles — Jewish and non — whose property was repatriated under the Communist regime, member Baroness Ruth Deech has instigated a debate on the issue in the House of Lords on February 27 as the United Kingdom assumes the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In true formal British style, the official question for the debate is, “Baroness Ruth Deech QC (Hon) to ask Her Majesty’s Government about their priorities during their chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2014.”
Explaining why she and some 50 signatories sent a letter to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk this week calling for clear and expedient legislation, Deech wrote to The Times of Israel, “In Poland the greatest number of Jews lost their lives and possessions, three million lived there before the war and 90% died. And it is the only country in the European Union that refuses to pass legislation about restitution (there is no demand for 100%, or for eviction of current owner, just a small percentage).”
Since 1990 the country has promised a restitution bill and has come somewhat close on the at least 13 occasions Poland has drafted legislation and then shelved it. According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), “In 2001, for example, the Sejm [the lower house of the Polish parliament] passed a bill, proposed by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, which provided for compensation of 50% of the value of the confiscated property in issue, but only to Polish citizens. President Aleksander Kwasniewski vetoed the bill.”
In 2012 Poland changed tactics and proclaimed there would be no law and that individuals should pursue their claims through the Polish legal system. Frustrating and expensive, fighting for property claims in Poland involves a two-pronged system, first gaining an administrative nod that the property was indeed seized, and then heading to the courts.
‘It is most unlikely that litigation will bring a significant number of interested parties anything more than additional frustration and resentment’
“In effect, a claimant seeking restitution of private property stolen by the communist regime pursuant to its unjust laws cannot successfully argue to a Polish court the unconstitutionality of the communist government, its laws or the implementation of its laws, but must show that the communist law was not properly followed to be able to recover his stolen property,” states a WJRO report.
“… It is most unlikely that litigation will bring a significant number of interested parties anything more than additional frustration and resentment,” the report concludes.
Almost 50 states participated in discussions surrounding the drafting of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues and signed the principles, which include transparency of information and speedy resolutions of claims. Poland was not one of them.
The WJRO, an umbrella body for Jewish organizations tasked with negotiations and advocacy on the governmental level, urged Deech to set the House of Lords debate in the hopes that it will have a ripple effect and other European nations will too discuss the issue of Holocaust restitution.
On Thursday’s session, Deech will present her position and then open the floor to debate. Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, Baron Ahmad of Wimbledon, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, will represent the parliament.
The House of Lords debate is a strategic endeavor on the part of WJRO.
“Since the fall of communism there have been attempts to secure legislation. Every one has failed for one reason or another, so we feel at this point we need support from countries and major institutions to achieve any progress,” says Gideon Taylor, Chair of Operations of the WJRO.
“While survivors are still alive, we are waiting against a ticking clock to enable some kind of fair program,” Taylor told The Times of Israel this week.
The Israeli government, too, is pushing for some kind of acknowledgement of the problem and proposal of a solution from Poland. Bobby Brown, the director of Project HEART, a semi-governmental Israeli organization that seeks property restitution for Holocaust survivors, was a member of an unprecedented delegation to Poland last March where such solutions were discussed.
“There’s a complexity for the Poles in that 85% of the claims on property from the Nazi and Communist era have nothing to do with Jews,” says Brown this week.
“We’re talking about making the process less difficult and cumbersome, less time- and money-consuming — talking about the documentation they have in their archives and how to make it more available — about working together,” says Brown.
‘The problem is not going away — second-generation heirs are much more militant claimants than Holocaust survivors’
“I do detect a change, but we are racing against time because we only have a limited amount of years that we still have Holocaust survivors.” Brown reflects, then adds, “But the problem is not going away — second-generation heirs are much more militant claimants than Holocaust survivors.”
After more than two decades, the Schramek family intends to keep fighting.
Brad says his father was one to let things be, but, says Lynn, “he wasn’t dealing with the past until he shared this. Afterwards he became a different person” more at peace with himself.
“I would like some kind of compensation given to whoever — my daughter, future grandchildren,” says Brad. “We’re probably not going to get it, but it would be nice if somebody did.”
Lynn agrees, adding, “We want to see justice and see the Polish government comply with its own laws and have integrity.”
“I doubt it will happen in the near future, but we need to do everything we can to communicate the story and hope that action will occur,” says Lynn.