Friday, February 8, 2008

Story of the Week - Feb 4-8

The Candy Factory

In the 1920s, two brothers returned from business college in Vienna to their hometown of Cieszyn on the border of Poland and Czecheslovakia and started a cookie making company in a basement. Soon after, the cookie making company blossomed into a thriving little chocolate factory that employed 500 people and made candy around the clock.

The family and the factory survive to this day. The family wound up in Cleveland, by way of the ghetto and concentration camp. The factory, , was confiscated by the Third Reich like all Jewish-owned businesses in Poland, then nationalized by the communist government of Poland, and later sold to its current owner, Kraft Foods.

The family would like its factory back.

Cieszyn is a large town about 100 miles southwest of Krakow, 200 miles north of Vienna and 300 miles west of Prague, on the Polish border with the Czech Republic and near the Polish and Czech border with Slovakia. It is and has for centuries been a crossroads town with a diverse population. Historically, Cieszyn was a tolerant and independent community made up of merchants and craftsmen.

In the Middle Ages, Cieszyn was a geographically ideal location for Jewish settlers. Jews were allowed to practice business freely and the proximity of Cieszyn to a variety of trade opportunities made that business lucrative. And so a Jewish community grew.

By the late 19th century, Jews made up 10 percent of the town's population. The rest of the population of Ciezsyn was a vibrant mix of Catholics, Protestants, Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs, and Germans. From about 1890 up to the outbreak of the First World War, Jews enjoyed political stability and security and economic prosperity in Cieszyn.

After World War I, political stability wavered as Ciezsyn was divided by the new border of Poland and Czechoslovakia. At the same time, the Schramek brothers returned from college in Vienna and started a cookie-making venture in a basement on the Polish side. They built up a factory and expanded into chocolate making. Even after one of the brothers died in 1932 and the future of Ciezsyn and Poland itself became uncertain, the factory continued to grow, and the 12 year old Hans Schramek envisioned one day inheriting the factory.

By 1939, the Schramek's candy factory had 500 employees. The town of Cieszyn had been reunited and had a Jewish population of about 3,000, still about 10 percent of the town. Hans Schramek was 19 years old when Germany invaded, and chose to remain behind in Cieszyn even as some family members fled the Nazi occupied country. The Third Reich issued its restrictions on Jews swiftly, and soon all Jewish businesses in Cieszyn, including the chocolate factory, were confiscated by the Nazis. The factory was sold to a German official at a steep discount.

Hans was forced to live in a ghetto and then shipped to various concentration camps, but managed to survive. After the war he attempted to reclaim his family's chocolate factory. But a lack of documentation and the rise of a new communist government in Poland made the reclamation impossible. In 1948, the candy factory was nationalized by the Polish government and the Schramek's appeal to a Polish high court was denied. In 1950, Hans Schramek and his mother left Europe and immigrated to Cleveland, OH.

Under Polish governmental control, the factory introduced the Prince Polo Bar, which was widely popular in the Eastern Bloc and even became the first widely available chocolate bar in Iceland. After the communist regime fell, Poland began to privatize its nationalized businesses, and in 1993 it sold the Schramek's factory to Kraft Foods, then a division of Phillip Morris.

The Schramek's have been fighting for their candy factory for over 50 years. They believe it was stolen from their family and should be returned. Kraft says it bought the factory in good faith and that the Polish Government has upheld the legitimacy of the sale, which is true.

But the situation brings up a moral responsibility debate that has been ongoing since the end of World War II: what can and or should be done to restore Jewish property stolen by the Third Reich?

According to the German government, a lot can and should and has been done. Germany has spent hundreds of billions of dollars satisfying Jewish claims of lost property from the Nazi regime. Since 1951, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (based in New York) has negotiated restitution for Holocaust victims on everything from real estate to artwork and family heirlooms. Forced labor compensation has also been addressed, though records in that area are sketchier and reparations are harder to calculate.

While Germany has provided retribution to surviving Jews worldwide for the atrocities of its recent past, the Polish government has done nothing. No legislation exists and therefore no legal precedent exists within the country to provide restitution to Jews, even in the case of the Schramek's chocolate factory, in which the claim to the property is relatively strong. Polish courts have ruled consistently against the claims of the Schramek family. As Hans Schramek told his daughter-in-law after Kraft bought the factory: "That factory belongs to us! No one ever compensated us for it! I am the legal heir to that business. I should have received millions of dollars for it!"

What is the United States doing to help the Schramek's and others like them? In short, a lot. The U.S. Government and various agencies, including the State Department's Office of Holocaust Issues, has put pressure on eastern European governments like Poland's to restore stolen property to its rightful Jewish owners. Thursday, the House Financial Services Committee heard testimony for the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007. The act would provide accountability for thousands of bank accounts, insurance policies, and real estate claims that have gone uncompensated.

In 2008, the issue is increasingly more urgent and necessary. Holocaust survivors are aging and decreasing in number. Testimony to congress in October 2007 showed that as many of 1/4 of the remaining survivors are living in poverty. So if there is money or property in Eastern Europe that could benefit them, they should get it. Even if it's 50 years too late. Even if there really isn't enough money in the world to bring justice for the atrocities they experienced.

The Schramek's claim to the chocolate factory in Cieszyn can be rectified without government intervention. Kraft Foods is a large multinational corporation. The factory in Cieszyn, with its 250 employees represents only a small piece of that corporation. So it would not cost Kraft that much. in the grand scheme of things, to return the factory to its rightful owner. Kraft could see it this way, too - in time, legislation could obligate them to hand over millions of dollars in revenue to the Schramek family from years of selling the Eastern bloc's most popular candy bar.

It's about doing the right thing. And if it gets the factory back, the Schrameks should do the right thing, too. And it should allow the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland to use the factory as a reminder of the once vibrant community of Jews in the town of Cieszyn and perhaps a sign of a possible return. After all, the benefits and reparations provided by the German government to Jews has caused the Jewish community in Germany to grow and prosper again. Under the right circumstances, the same thing can happen in Poland. Especially in a town like Cieszyn, with its proud history of diversity and multiculturalism.

Hans Schramek died in 2006, at the age of 86. Now it is up to his family to champion the cause of his father and uncle's chocolate factory. Before he died, he got to taste a Prince Polo Bar, as made by Kraft. He quipped "They probably still use our recipes."

Further reading:
Holocaust Retribution Sought for Kraft Plant - by Greg Burns, Chicago Tribune 2/7/08
The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany
Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland
Cieszyn web site - includes detailed history of the Jews in Cieszyn


brookLyn gaL said...

Hmm, and they're just now getting around to asking for it back?

Luke89 said...

It has nothing to do with their being Jewish or not. There is no law in Poland that would enable to give back all the property nationalised by the communist governments during the 1940s. Except for religious property which has been already given back to both the Catholic and the Jewish. The nationalisation of his factory was conducted according to the communist law so there is nothing that could be done at present. This is widely discussed in Poland because there are many Poles that can't get their or their relatives' proprerty back. There is an even bigger chocolate factory in Warsaw called Wedel which belonged to a well known Polish family, it has been sold to Cadbury after 1989 and the Wedel family has no possibility to get it back.