News

For many years a Melbourne Jewish doctor has been fighting assiduously to prove the Catholic Church in Poland willingly participated in a scam to steal her forebears’ land. Finally, justice has been served. By Jill Singer.

Australian Jew’s fight against the Catholic Church in Poland

Ann Drillich outside Our Lady of the Scapular church, on land owned by her family.
Credit: JILL SINGER

Dr Ann Drillich calls it the “Churchill Room” – a home office in Melbourne devoted to her fight for justice. There are books on the Holocaust, memorialisation and Polish–Jewish relations. And files – stack upon stack of files. Family records, testimonies of Holocaust survivors and transcripts of the dozens of court battles she’s fought in Poland over her family’s estate. “Everyone has stolen from us,” she says. “The Nazis, the Communists, state and municipal authorities, the Catholic Church – even a trusted family friend.” 

On April 21, Ann Drillich had a rare legal victory. A Polish court found the Catholic Church acted in “bad faith” when it got hold of 8500 square metres of her family’s “abandoned” land – that is, the church stole it. It’s left her in an unusual position. Drillich is a Jew who owns a Polish church.

Thirty years ago the Catholic Church built a large brick house of worship, Our Lady of the Scapular, in the mediaeval city of Tarnów, an hour’s drive east of Kraków. The diocese of Tarnów now claims to be the most pious in all Poland, measured by attendance at Mass, but souls here are not resting easy. In 2011 a local news outlet reported “dark clouds” had gathered over the city and Our Lady of the Scapular. A parish priest had given a “highly emotional” sermon to parishioners, but would not speak about it publicly. It turns out the sermon was not about loving thy neighbour or avoiding sin. After an anonymous online post warned Tarnów that Jews are their worst nightmare, the story took shape: it was about a Jew, theft and the very land on which the worshippers and their church stood. 

Not for the first time, a man of the cloth delivered worshippers a sermon instead of a confession. 

The Jew unsettling Tarnów’s fragile equilibrium was Drillich, a dual citizen of Poland and Australia, and the rightful owner of 4.7 hectares of Tarnów’s real estate. A fastidious keeper of records, Drillich teaches medical students to be diligent, documenting doctors. 

These skills have been crucial in her family’s long, expensive and emotionally gruelling battle to regain property stolen from the Polish estate of her late mother, the Holocaust survivor Blanka Goldman-Drillich. 

In the absence of post-World War II reparations legislation, dispossessed Poles and their heirs are left to fight their way through the courts or, in some cases, appeal to the goodwill of individual government ministers. Ann has endured dozens of court hearings related to various parts of the estate she legally inherited, but every time she won a title back another court would take it away. 

The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, is a straight-talking man originally from New York. Drillich visited him in his small, cluttered Warsaw office for some moral support before her latest court hearing. Rabbi Schudrich listened to her stories of injustice piled on injustice and agreed it was all unfair, horrible, crazy. Why does she have to endure this ongoing trauma after all her family has been through? Why can’t the various authorities and individuals that stole her property negotiate instead of litigate? 

His questions were rhetorical: everybody knows why. This is Poland. 

Shortly before she left, the chief rabbi cracked a joke that I imagined was intended to curb Drillich’s enthusiasm for truth, justice and reparation. “What’s the difference between a Polish optimist and a Polish pessimist?” he asked. “The pessimist says things cannot possibly get worse; the optimist says of course they can.”

Thousands before Drillich have given up in despair and I became intrigued with what keeps her going. It’s about more than money, that’s clear. I soon learnt of her passion for historical accuracy and an even deeper passion – the memory of her mother. 

Blanka Goldman was 15 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Nearly half Tarnów’s population of 50,000 was Jewish at the time. The Goldmans had been there for centuries and had established a thriving tile factory along with a stately home and extensive gardens. As the Holocaust began, Blanka observed that dogs trained to kill are less bloodthirsty than men. She saw mobs of “Polish thugs” rampaging through laneways, leading Nazis to Jews, and told of seeing soldiers shooting into piles of crawling babies and children. She found her mother shot dead in bed – the Nazis took the rest of her family away and executed them elsewhere. 

Blanka survived thanks to her wits, looks, accent and close friends, the Poetschkes, whose son Jerzy was in love with her – she would later say it was a mostly one-sided passion. The Poetschkes were Catholics with German roots and had been renting part of the Goldman estate, known as Goldmanowka. After the Nazis killed what they thought was the last of the Goldmans, the Poetschkes hid Blanka in the basement of Goldman House while they lived upstairs. There can be no doubt they were extraordinarily brave – the Nazis would have killed them all if they were caught. 

But the full story of the Goldmans and the Poetschkes exposes a series of historical fault lines. Like much of Poland’s official history, it has been twisted and distorted to fit a populist, nationalistic narrative. 

Poland is no longer a country where a Jew, or anyone else for that matter, is free to speak unpalatable truths. Democracy there is facing its greatest threat since the end of communism in 1989. The socially conservative, Catholic-backed Law and Justice party came to power last October and moved quickly to control Poland’s judiciary, media and cultural institutions – war museums and the like. Fundamental liberal democratic values are under threat. Human rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech are all imperilled. The party line is clear: Poland’s war history is to be controlled and sanitised, a fairytale of Polish heroes and rescued Jews.

After the war, Jerzy Poetschke went on to have a media career as a “Righteous Pole”, an award given to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. Warsaw’s POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews records Jerzy as a hero, but fails to mention Blanka on the list of those rescued. The house shown, where Jerzy is said to have hidden Blanka, is a building Ann Drillich has never heard of; certainly, it is not Goldman House. She has asked POLIN to remove it from their website. The Poetschkes also had a book published, which wrongly claims Jerzy and Blanka had been planning to marry. 

Jerzy, it turns out, could be trusted with Blanka’s safety during the war, but not with her property or story. 

Although Blanka Goldman survived the Holocaust her life was blighted by mental torment. Drillich was 13 years old when she came home from school one day to find her mother had killed herself in their suburban Melbourne home. Jerzy sent a condolence note. 

Blanka’s family inherited her estate, and continued to trust Jerzy to administer it, paying him accordingly. Jerzy would later tell authorities he didn’t know if Blanka was dead or alive. It was one of many lies. 

In 1986, Jerzy collaborated with Bishop Piotr Bednarczyk in a scam facilitated by church lawyers. Jerzy gained title to part of the Goldman-Drillich estate claiming it was “abandoned land” although he administered it through a power of attorney on behalf of the family. He then “donated” half to the church and trousered payment for the other half. Based on submitted evidence, including letters sent from the bishop to the Drillich family, the court decided that relevant Parish representatives knew that Poetschke was not legally entitled to the property.

Jerzy Poetschke is now 93 years old and still living in Tarnów. He says he remembers nothing about what happened to Blanka Goldman’s estate. Bishop Bednarczyk has a kindergarten
in Tarnów named after him.

But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this story is that in the current political environment three Polish judges found against the Polish Catholic Church. The thinking among legal circles is this was a last gasp of independence by a threatened judiciary. Whatever the reason for their actions, the court’s decision was a brave one. Further legal action will eventually determine the amount of compensation payable, which could be about $2 million – much of which will go towards Drillich’s legal expenses. It’s not a lot of money when you consider what her family has endured, but I like to think that if Blanka Goldman were alive she would be proud of her daughter, the diligent, documenting doctor who brought the Catholic Church and a “righteous” Pole to justice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Bad faith". Subscribe here.

Jill Singer
is a Melbourne-based journalist.