Damages for war crimes. How to force perpetrators to make concessions?

We are tired of hearing that it is impossible for war victims to obtain compensation, that these are helpless cases. We decided to show how it can be done – says Dr Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka. Together with a dozen or so lawyers, she founded the Defenders for Defenders War Compensation Foundation. They have already filed the first claims on behalf of the victims and their heirs.

All of the Foundation’s barristers and legal advisers work pro bono. They run thriving practices and are experienced in a wide range of legal matters. – It’s very important that we have specialists in different areas of law. Among us there are specialists in international and EU law, experts in civil, financial, tax and property matters – lists Barr. Brzozowska-Pasieka. – Therefore every lawsuit is meticulously prepared, but something unexpected can still pop up during a trial. That’s what the beauty of precedential cases consist in.

First suits, change of addressee

Compensation for war damages belongs to the most difficult court cases but actually this is no news. Victims and their heirs have already tried their hand at it, suing the state of Germany for war crimes or damages caused during WWII. And although some have won their cases in the ordinary courts of their countries, attempts to enforce the law ended in a fiasco.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE – We have decided to take a different path by bringing lawsuits against specific subjects rather than states. At first we represented the heirs of two persons which is also of importance here. Not on behalf of a group, but of specific individuals – says Brzozowska-Pasieka. Those were Tadeusz Śledziński and Leopold Wellisz.

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Tadeusz Śledziński was a renowned pre-war engineer, inventor, author of many patents in the field of construction. He participated in the construction and streamlining of the Zakłady Azotowe chemical plant in Tarnów. Besides, he was a polyglot, fluent in five languages.

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After the German invasion of Poland he took on sabotage activities. He was caught and deported in one of the first transports to the Auschwitz camp. The Germans quickly discovered his knowledge of foreign languages so initially he was a kind of translator. Later on he found himself as a forced labourer for the now defunct IG Farben company.

This chemical consortium had long been known for its generosity to the NSDAP, the Nazi party that ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. The “investments” quickly paid off in the form of lucrative contracts for the military industry. More than 20 executive officers of the company appeared before the Nuremberg Tribunal after the war.

The company also benefited without restraint from slavery labour of Auschwitz prisoners. A few hundred thousand passed through the nearby facilities, among them there was Tadeusz Śledziński.

IG Farbeninudstrie, liquidated eventually in 2012, had comprised, inter alia, the Bayer plant. – This company still exists and is doing extremely well. It’s precisely against it, that we are claiming PLN 1,7 million on behalf of the heirs – points out the barrister.

They took the factory as if it had been theirs

The second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Leopold Wellisz, an intellectual and entrepreneur, but above all, a devoted Polish patriot with Jewish roots.

Leopold took over the family business from his father Wilhelm before he was thirty and managed it with incredible panache. In the interwar period, he co-founded armaments factories, such as the “Pocisk” Ammunition Plant and the “Nitrat” explosives factory. He also expanded and polonised industry in Silesia, opened a Renault assembly plant in Nałęczów, and co-created the first locomotive factory in Poland, the popular “Fablok”, in Chrzanów. From here, among others, the famous Luxtorpeda high-speed train cars would leave.

Leopold Wellisz was a very enterprising industrialist and financier, but also a patron of the arts, of which he was a valued expert. It would be enough to say that it was he who financed the development and publication, and thus the distribution by Zenon Przesmycki, of the works of Cyprian Kamil Norwid.

After the outbreak of WWII, in September 1939, Wellisz helped in the evacuation of Polish gold and works of art. Together with his family, he reached Switzerland through Romania and later became an economic adviser to the Polish government-in-exile. In the aftermath he settled in the US and never visited communist Poland, where he was considered an enemy of the working class.

In this case, on behalf of the heirs, the lawyers will file a lawsuit against the Henschel company, a German tycoon producing locomotives and other vehicles. From 1933 to 1945, the consortium benefited from orders for tanks from the German government; it also started producing aircraft and missiles. During the war, Henschel took over the locomotive production plant in Chrzanów as its branch. – The German company has changed its structure over the years, divided and multiplied, but it still exists as such and can be held responsible for its activities during the war – says Barr. Brzozowska-Pasieka.
1939. Beginning of the war. Destroyed engine shed of the Locomotive Factory in Chrzanów. Visible wreck of a Luxtorpeda type motor car. Photo: NAC
The amount of compensation was estimated at PLN 17 million. – The methodology for calculating the valorization of lost goods was elaborated especially for us by prof. Mirosław Kłusek – says the lawyer. Professor Kłusek is one of the authors of the report on Poland’s war losses.

Victims’ rights

The Defenders for Defenders Foundation does not want to limit itself to matters related to WWII. However, according to the lawyers, the strategy of action needs to be slightly altered. – We see the problem when it comes to the addressees of the allegations, i.e. against whom the Italians, Greeks, Poles, residents of the countries of former Yugoslavia or African countries are filing lawsuits. The victims of the conflict in Ukraine will probably not be able to cope with it either, the barrister believes.

– The aggrieved parties usually sue states but they are helpless in the face of their immunity from jurisdiction or statute of limitations. Our idea is to develop international standards for individuals who claim compensation for various armed conflicts. Victims would not only testify as witnesses, but also appear before a specially appointed tribunal as the voice of a party in the case, explains Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka.

At the same time, she admits that similar sentences would be very difficult to enforce anyway, because a judgment issued by a tribunal under international auspices may not be recognized e.g. by the Federal Court in Karlsruhe, i.e. the German Constitutional Court, as has already happened on other occasions.

– However, the multitude of similar cases would eventually force concessions and even agreements, bilateral agreements, and thus the payment of compensation – if not called so, then otherwise – forecasts Brzozowska-Pasieka.

She also points out that these will go on for years as many countries need to be persuaded to such proceedings. – And yet, the war in Ukraine will lead to a change of approach to this problem – believes Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka. The wounds of historical conflicts are healing more and more, whereas the current fighting in the East is something tangible, happening here and now. It’s a good moment to think about victims and their rights, not only in the context of state-to-state relations.

– Sławomir Cedzyński
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Oświęcim IG Farben plant, during WW II and German occupation known as Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0056 / CC-BY-SA 3.0/ Wikimedia
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