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New twist in Polish Church’s attack on property of Melbourne woman

Julie Szego
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Published: 5 December 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in Poland is trying to dispossess a deceased Holocaust survivor of ancestral land she inherited after her entire family perished in the war, arguing the inheritance was invalid because at the time she was a minor, being two months short of her 21st birthday.

The local parish in Tarnów — a town in Poland’s southeast that on November 9 held a memorial for the anniversary of Kristallnacht — made the extraordinary claim as part of a decade-long, politically-charged campaign to wriggle out of justice for effectively stealing the late survivor’s land in a scam 32 years ago.

If the late survivor, Blanka Drillich née Goldman, never legally inherited the estate of her murdered family, the parish argues, then her descendants are not the rightful owners and it did nothing wrong when it took the land. The parish has since built a church, Our Lady of the Scapular, on the estate.

At the centre of the epic legal battle — which in May saw the country’s Justice Minister intervene on the side of the Church — is Blanka’s daughter, Melbourne doctor Ann Drillich.

“I find it unbearable; what can you say about the Catholic Church trying to dispossess a Holocaust survivor 75 years later?” Drillich says. “And this goes beyond the local parish; the highest echelons of the Catholic Church, including the Pope’s representative in Poland, knows about my case. It’s ongoing abuse.”

Prominent liberals say Drillich’s case is emblematic of the populist zeitgeist under Poland’s ironically-named Law and Justice party, including its effort to expunge from the historical record the complicity of many Polish citizens in the crimes of the Holocaust.

This is not the Church’s first bid to revoke the postwar inheritance of Blanka Goldman. In separate but related proceedings, which have not been reported before, the Church sought to exploit Holocaust-era documents detailing the dispossession and deportation of the town’s Jews to cast doubt on Blanka’s ownership — and thereby dispossess her family of their property once again.

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The stolen land, 8,500 square metres, forms part of what was the Goldman’s sprawling prewar estate, which had included a tile factory, extensive gardens and a neo-Gothic villa. The latter was taken by authorities in 1985 and now houses a public registry.

After the war, Blanka found herself the sole heir to the estate; all other relatives perished in the town’s ghetto: she found her mother shot dead in her bed.

On February 13, 1945, she asked Tarnów’s local court to declare her an adult so she could inherit the property. She was successful on both counts.

Three years later, Blanka left Poland, entrusting the property to a family friend who had helped hide her from the Nazis.  She married and settled in Australia. But the trauma of the Holocaust lingered. She took her own life when Drillich was only 13.

In 1987, the parish conspired with the Drillich’s family friend to falsely claim the Drillichs had forsaken the land. The friend, Jerzy Poetschke, passed the land to the parish, which later built the church. The Drillichs didn’t know. Drillich herself only learned of the theft in 2010 when, as heir, she ordered a public records search about her family’s estate.

She sued for restitution. She won. And won again and again. In what should have been a final ruling, in 2016 three district court judges found the Church had acted in “bad faith” when it acquired the “abandoned” land.

But the Church refused to settle, continuing to tie Drillich up in costly and emotionally draining proceedings. In November 2017, the parish wrote to the district prosecutor’s office in Tarnów alleging – without evidence – that Drillich, her notaries and lawyers had used “forged” documents to “unlawfully swindle compensation from the Church”.

In May, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also the Prosecutor General, intervened on the Church’s behalf under contentious new laws, petitioning a chamber of politically dependable Supreme Court judges to overturn the earlier rulings in Drillich’s favour.

The European Union alleges Poland’s sweeping legal reforms, which include empowering the Prosecutor General to seek to annul virtually any court ruling over the past 20 years, undermine judicial independence and the rule of law.

It is unclear when the Supreme Court will hear the Minister’s petition.

Meanwhile, in an application filed with Tarnów’s District Court a year ago — but which Drillich’s lawyers only discovered in the past month — the Church seeks to reverse the 1945 court ruling granting Blanka’s inheritance as a “violation of law”.

Drillich’s lawyer, Tomasz Krawczyk, says of the Church’s bid: “The application is groundless – firstly, I don’t know any legal way to overrule such a court decision. Secondly, the parish has no legal interest to challenge that decision.

“I wonder if the Church is also considering an application to nullify the edict by the Egyptian Pharaoh allowing the Jews leave Egypt. If it had not happened, her predecessors would never have had any property in Tarnów.”

In a separate application, filed with Tarnów’s District Court in April 2018, the parish seeks to revoke Blanka’s inheritance from her grandfather, Izak Goldman, who perished in the town’s ghetto. Here, the parish tries to exploit the facts of the Holocaust to dispossess the descendants of the Holocaust’s victims.

For instance, the parish claims that because at one time Blanka had two different addresses — one in the ancestral home and the other in the town’s Nowa Street ghetto — there were, in fact, two Blanka Goldmans. Thus, the “wrong” Blanka Goldman inherited the estate and Drillich has no legal claim against the Church.

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The parish also sought to rely on a Nazi-era document naming another “Izak Goldman” who died without known heirs to allege Blanka wrongly inherited the estate. This document decreed that Jews whose descendants had been “resettled” could not inherit their ancestral property or pursue such a claim in court, as inheritance was “purposeless ... because the German authorities decree the resettled person’s property is without an owner.”

In other words, because the Jews had been “resettled” to death camps, there could be no beneficiaries left to inherit property.

The parish even claimed Blanka’s identity was “not established” at the time she inherited the land in 1945 because she could not produce a birth certificate to authorities. Blanka could not produce the certificate because, as she testified in court, she fled the ghetto in 1942 and went into hiding until the war’s end. She had left the certificate behind when she fled.

The District Court is yet to hear this action.

Virtually all of Tarnów’s 25,000 Jews — nearly half the town’s total prewar population— perished in the Holocaust. After liberation only about 700 returned and, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, virtually all of them soon left after encountering lingering antisemitism.

In more recent years the town’s tourism pitch has sought to highlight commemoration of its lost Jewish heritage. The Kristallnacht commemoration last month was attended by a Catholic priest.

Accusing “the Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities attracts civil penalties, under contentious laws introduced by the ruling party last year.

Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski, of the University of Ottawa in Canada, has said the Polish government’s meddling in Drillich’s case “is part and parcel of a larger campaign to elevate the myth, the fantasy, of national innocence.”

RELATED
Melbourne woman fights the Church in Poland after it stole her land

Main photo: Dr Ann Drillich in Melbourne

All photos: Christopher Hopkins/Guardian)

About the author

Julie Szego

Julie Szego is a freelance writer and columnist for The Age/SMH. Her non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

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