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After fleeing the Nazis and a Siberian camp as a child, L.A. woman fights for family's legacy

She fled the Nazis. Escaped a Siberian prison camp. Survived hunger and homelessness in Central Asia. Battled malaria, dysentery and lice on deportation trains and overloaded ships. Landed, finally, in Middle East exile.

All by the age of 7.

Miriam Finder Tasini, now a spry 79-year-old retired UCLA professor and Bel-Air resident, endured a lifetime of hardships before most children enter second grade. It could have left her bitter and angry. Instead, she deals with the world, including what she sees as the latest injustice, with patience and serenity.

Tasini recently learned from a lawyer that her nearly quarter-century quest to recover her family's multimillion-dollar property in their native city of Krakow is being dropped from the Polish claims registry.

She was told it was because she has no original documents proving her ownership in the flour mill complex founded by her grandfather in 1928 and now transformed into trendy loft apartments.

"My grandfather was shot and killed by the Nazis when he refused to board the train for Auschwitz," said Tasini, seeming more baffled than indignant. "He didn't have the opportunity to take his shares with him."

Tasini was 3 when she last saw her grandfather, Jacob Finder, in the early days of their flight from Krakow under German air bombardment. Her only memory is of the gnarled hand he kept wrapped around the silver handle of his cane, a hand she was expected to kiss in respectful greeting as soon as she learned to walk.

More than 75 years later, she is still waiting for her homeland — the only Eastern European state that has failed to adopt a national restitution program — to make amends to the heirs of millions of Polish Jews who were stripped of their property, dignity and, in many cases, their lives.

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Nazi Germany's invasion of western Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, was announced at the Finders' elegant hilltop villa by the 5 a.m. barking of the family dog, Wolfie.

According to the tales recounted by older relatives for decades, 3-year-old Miriam's parents, Rena and Markus, watched from their bedroom window as planes marked with swastikas swooped down and unloaded their bombs on a refinery across the river from their own property on the nearer bank.

Most of the family, including Miriam, her baby sister Lisa, her mother and grandfather Jacob, left to take refuge at her aunt's home in the Carpathian Mountains. But the car ran out of gas a mere 30 miles out of Krakow, amid the throng of thousands fleeing the invasion. Rena was forced to negotiate with local peasants to take her family by horse cart to the city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine), where she had a distant relative.

As the chaos and dislocation dragged on in Poland and Jews were targeted for deportation or internment, mother, daughters and grandfather holed up in a tiny Lvov apartment rented with Rena's dwindling cash and jewelry. They were soon joined by Markus and other relatives.

But eight months later, Soviet agents arrested the Finders as "undesirables" and banished them to a Siberian labor camp. (All Poles were considered Soviet enemies during the initial war years.)

Grandfather Jacob, who hid behind a bed when the secret police arrived, was spared deportation then but met a worse fate the following year when the Nazis invaded Ukraine.

The rest of the family was packed into a cattle car and taken on a weeklong rail journey without heat, toilet or much to eat. Seven members of the family arrived at Gulag 45, where they were given three sacks of potatoes and told to plant them, not eat them, as they were all the food they would have for the next winter.

Miriam was sent to forage for mushrooms and berries while the adults cut timber to meet the labor camp's production quotas.

Her earliest memories are of the family's next enforced sojourn. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poles were no longer viewed as enemies of Josef Stalin, and the Finders used their last hidden valuables to buy train and bus passage to the refugee-overrun Uzbek city of Samarkand. There Miriam, then 5, lived with abject hunger, an ache she can readily recall today.

"I remember having just one pita and I had to share it with my sister and cousin," she said.

It would take another year of grueling travel and constant fear, from the filth of a Caspian Sea voyage to Iran to a storm-tossed passage around the Arabian Peninsula, before the family reached refuge in Tel Aviv, then in the British mandate of Palestine.

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Tasini eventually earned a doctorate in psychiatry and psychoanalysis from New York's Yeshiva University and moved to Los Angeles in 1977 with her second husband and three children. She practiced and taught at UCLA, and when Poland threw off communist rule in 1989, she embarked on her quest to recover what had been taken from her family.

In 1991, on her first visit to Krakow in more than half a century, she learned that the hilltop home no longer existed.

"I don't know if the Germans tore it down or the communists destroyed it," she said. "By the time I got there, it was gone."

The only property she managed to recover for surviving family members was her maternal grandparents' four-story home and ground-floor tavern that, though still standing in 1991, was so run-down that "the only living things inside were rats," Tasini recalled.

The family sold the house to developers in 1993 for $250,000, which provided her widowed mother with enough to support her for the last six years of her life.

It turned out to be one of only a few hundred property challenges that have been resolved since Poland elected a democratic Parliament in 1991 after decades under Soviet-installed leaders, who nationalized what private property had survived.

A few of the early 20th century brick buildings in the Finders' flour mill complex sold recently for $17 million. Tasini is challenging the developers and Polish government over rights to the property from an office in her Bel-Air home piled with Polish documents, letters, affidavits and emails.

"In some ways I can say I don't need the money," Tasini said. "But my parents needed the money. My sister and I supported them when they were older because they had little money. There are still some people like that in Poland and around the world — barely living on subsistence."

Polish politicians say the war destroyed most evidence of who owned what when the war began 76 years ago.

Alexander Pociej, a senator with the governing Civic Platform coalition, has spent two decades navigating legal channels in an attempt to recover his family's country villa and nearly 10,000 acres. He says he has come to the conclusion that most Poles, including non-Jewish property owners dispossessed by the communists, will never get back the land or receive compensation.

Studies by the Polish Treasury Ministry, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Israeli government's Diaspora Affairs Ministry have estimated the value of property seized from Polish Jews during and after World War II at $30 billion to $40 billion, compensation that would plunge Poland into a deep debt crisis, according to lawmakers.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised to resolve the restitution standoff by the end of the following year. But the worldwide recession united Poland's fractious political forces, which argued that paying out such huge sums would bankrupt the country.

"I strongly believe that some sort of compensation should be paid to everyone who lost property, but it can't be 100% of the budget," Pociej said.

Former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stirred controversy in 2011 when he said the United States "gave up the right to represent its citizens" in restitution cases when U.S. diplomats signed a claim settlement agreement in 1960 in exchange for $40 million to compensate Americans who lost property to the Nazis.

Sikorski told The Times in a March interview that the 55-year-old agreement resolved the restitution issue for U.S. claimants. "It's not my position, it's in the text," he said. "It said that after Poland makes this indemnity payment to the United States that the United States will never again raise the issue."

Although the agreement doesn't preclude Tasini from pursuing her case, she acknowledges her battle appears to have been lost.

"I think the Polish government wants the last of us claimants to die off," Tasini said.

Bolstered by a lifelong capacity for resilience, she says she won't stop fighting until that happens.

carol.williams@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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