Kraft Foods entered Poland in the early 1990s, buying a factory that makes the popular Prince Polo chocolate bar, and today its prosperous plant employs 250.
But Kraft Foods Polska S.A. has a history: The same facility in the town of Cieszyn once belonged to a Jewish family, and questions remain about its ownership in the aftermath of Nazi and communist regimes.
Today, Congress is set to take up the latest chapter in Holocaust restitution, through hearings before the House Financial Services Committee on unpaid insurance claims. The testimony, following similar hearings in October, is expected to focus on Poland, among the few European nations with no special legal framework addressing Holocaust claims that amount to billions of dollars.
"Poland is to this day one of the last countries with no restitution or compensation legislation whatsoever," said Gideon Taylor, a top official with the Claims Conference, a Holocaust victims' group.
The chocolate factory is not specifically on the agenda for today, but in many ways it has a typical past, Holocaust advocates say. The Schramek family lost it when German invaders confiscated Jewish-owned property in 1939. It changed hands again in the late 1940s when the communist government of Poland nationalized it. Then a new Polish government sold it to Kraft in 1993, prompting objections from surviving family members, including one who penned a self-published book, "They Stole Our Chocolate Factory."
Advocates contend that companies acquiring confiscated assets "certainly have moral obligations to the former owners," as Taylor put it.
"Kraft should have done due diligence to look at this before they bought the chocolate factory. There should have been a conversation with the family," said Sidney Zabludoff, an economist and activist. "If someone steals something then you try to (buy) it, you're an accomplice."
In a statement, Kraft maintains it owes nothing to the candy plant's previous owners: "We purchased the factory directly from the Polish government in 1993, 45 years after the government had nationalized the facility. We purchased it in good faith as part of Poland's post-Communist privatization program."
Kraft said the Schrameks challenged the 1948 nationalization in Poland, where the judiciary, including its Supreme Administrative Court, "repeatedly upheld the legality of the original nationalization."
Family spokeswoman Lynn Schramek of Pittsford, N.Y., said in a brief interview "a lot" has happened since 2001, when she self-published her book on the plant's history. Schramek would not elaborate, or respond to additional requests for comment, and it is unknown if Kraft or Polish officials have contacted the family recently.
Schramek's book focuses on the memories of her father-in-law, Hans, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2006 at age 86, public records show.
His father and uncle started a cookie-making venture in a basement after graduating from business college in Vienna during the 1920s, according to published reports. The pair expanded into chocolate, and their factory employed as many as 500 in three shifts when Germany occupied Cieszyn 69 years ago. A German official bought the facility from the Nazi government at a steep discount.
Some family members fled, but Hans Schramek remained, interned in a ghetto, then held in concentration camps. In 1950, he and his mother migrated to Cleveland, where he worked in the steel industry.
After Poland's communist government collapsed in 1989, Schramek and a relative hired a Polish attorney to recover family property, reclaiming the title to a house. Philip Morris, at the time Kraft's parent, turned away family inquiries, directing them to the Polish government, according to a published report in 2001.
Before he died, Hans Schramek told the Cleveland Jewish News he did not expect compensation from Poland because of the huge scale of its Holocaust debt: "It would come into the billions of dollars. Poland does not have that money."
The family's book highlights the scarcity of documents needed to validate claims, a common problem in Eastern Europe, a spokesman for the Financial Services Committee noted. "The further you go East, the poorer the records."
Taylor, of the Claims Conference, said companies typically had better paper trails establishing their ownership than certain other property seized in the Holocaust, such as fine art. Over the years, culpable parties such as Germany have paid billions of dollars in compensation.
Congress has raised awareness by holding a series of hearings during the past decade addressing competing property claims in post-communist Europe. Successive U.S. administrations have urged Poland, among other new European democracies, to pass comprehensive laws that do not discriminate among claimants based on citizenship or ethnicity. A spokeswoman for the Polish government did not respond to requests for comment.
The issue has taken on urgency in recent years as Holocaust survivors age, with as many as one-quarter living in poverty, according to testimony in the October hearings.
As it stands, many owners of lost bank accounts, real estate and insurance polices - the subject of today's hearings have gone uncompensated, noted Samuel Dubbin, a Holocaust victims' lawyer in Miami.
"I hope the disclosures about the unfinished business about insurance restitution will rekindle a sense of outrage," Dubbin said.
Before he died, Schramek had a chance to sample Kraft's Prince Polo bar. He complimented its "very good quality," telling the Cleveland Jewish News: "They probably still use our recipes."