Along with the decimation of European Jewry, World War II was marked by the systematic confiscation of Jewish property in communities large and small throughout Eastern and Central Europe.
Whether they were herded off to death camps or driven away to safer shores by the Nazi threat, Jews left behind millions of dollars in property, both communal and individual, that has never been returned to its rightful owners.
Now, more than 50 years after the end of the Holocaust, international and local Jewish leaders are showing gradual success in bringing to a close what an American diplomat closely involved with the issue has called “the last sad, unfinished chapter from World War II.”
The restitution of Jewish property claims dating back to the war years in Eastern and Central Europe is the “most important political work of the World Jewish Congress,” said Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC-affiliated World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The WJRO was established in 1992 by the WJC in coordination with the State of Israel and several international Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors groups.
Its goal is to work with local Jewish communities to jointly pursue property claims in 13 eastern and central European countries: Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
In addition, the WJRO has recently expanded its scope of operations to pursue property claims in Western Europe, where millions of dollars more in Jewish- owned land and valuables was looted from or abandoned by Jews during the Holocaust.
“This will include France, Norway, Holland, Belgium – every country that was overrun by the Nazis,” Singer said in an interview.
“There are countries in Western Europe and Eastern Europe that have our property. We want it back – and we will do anything to get it.”
The issue of property restitution was a prime focus of the recently held 10th Global Assembly of the World Jewish Congress, at which some 1,200 delegates from 80 countries convened in Jerusalem to learn about the major issues confronting the Jewish world today.
During the Jan. 22-24 assembly, eight government officials from Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine pledged in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, WJC President Edgar Bronfman and Singer to seek a prompt and just resolution of Jewish property cases in their respective countries.
Although each of those countries had already taken some steps – albeit in some cases very halting ones – to deal with the restitution issue, the pledge was a significant step forward, according to Singer.
“The announcement was made not only with a Jewish organization, but with a country,” he said. “It has become a bilateral agreement.”
An entire afternoon session of the assembly was devoted to the restitution issue. Delegates heard from the Clinton administration’s point-man on the issue, Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Also addressing the session was Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, who made an impassioned plea on behalf of the aging community of survivors.
The delegates also heard from Amb. Ronald Lauder, who focused his remarks at the session on the other end of the age spectrum of eastern European Jewry – Jewish children. He asserted that a portion of compensation and restitution funds should be devoted to furthering Jewish education among the community’s youth.
Lauder, a former U.S. envoy to Austria, is respected by Jewish communal officials and local politicians as a result of the Jewish kindergartens, schools and summer camps he has helped to establish in several eastern European countries via the foundation that bears his name.
Elected treasurer of the WJC during the assembly, Lauder is expected to play a leading role in seeking a prompt resolution of restitution claims, according to a number of WJC officials.
Discussion of the restitution issue was also very much in evidence in the hallways of the conference.
Delegates from a number of eastern European countries could be seen meeting informally between conference sessions with Singer and other WJRO officials to seek advice or help in securing the return of local properties – whether they were a Jewish cemetery that had fallen into disrepair or a communal center whose ownership title was difficult to secure.
“These meetings here in the hallways, this is the real work of the WJRO,” said Singer.
Since its founding, the WJRO has secured two powerful allies for its cause: the United States and the European Union.
In a letter dated April 10, 1995, the Republican and Democratic leadership of the U.S. Congress informed Secretary of State of State Warren Christopher of their firm backing of the efforts of the WJRO.
“It should be made clear to the countries involved,” the letter stated, “that their response on this matter [of restitution] will be seen as a test of their respect for basic human rights and the rule of law, and could have practical consequences on their relations with our country.”
Shortly after the letter was written, Eizenstat was dispatched to serve also as the U.S. Department of State’s special envoy for property claims in Central and Eastern Europe.
In meetings during the past year with senior government officials in nine eastern European countries, Eizenstat emphasized “the importance the U.S. government places on non-discriminatory and internationally credible resolution of property claims – Jewish and non-Jewish,” he told the WJC delegates.
The European Union solidly threw its support behind the WJRO’s efforts when the European Parliament, the E.U.’s legislative body, issued a resolution last December calling on the E.U. executive and all its member states to recognize the just claims for the return of Jewish property lost in Eastern Europe during World War II.
The resolution “calls on all countries of Central and Eastern Europe which not have already done so to adopt appropriate legislation regarding the return of plundered property so that the property of Jewish communities may be returned to Jewish institutions, in accordance with the principles of justice and morality.”
Giving the resolution added bite, the European Parliament decided to link the restitution policies of the countries in question to their pending applications for membership in the European Union.
Sir Leon Brittan, vice president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, gave voice to this linkage between restitution policies and E.U. membership during a speech before the WJC assembly.
Describing restitution policies as crucial to the survival of some Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe, he said, “Any country that does not pay sufficient attention to this issue is also one that does not give sufficient respect to the principles of human rights that are part of the basic principles of the European Union.”
This stance of linking restitution payments to E.U. membership may prove to have real bite given the fact that, as Eizenstat put it, “The chief domestic goal of eastern European countries is joining the European Union.”
But will the WJRO’s plans to launch restitution claims in Western Europe undermine the E.U.’s ability to pressure eastern European countries to return Jewish property to its rightful owners? Is there the chance that eastern European countries will accuse their western neighbors of hypocrisy on the issue if the WJRO also presses its claims in Western Europe?
“I hope that won’t be the case,” Eizenstat said in an interview. “I hope that the E.U.’s making a forthright statement to Eastern Europe will help them clear up their own situations.”
One WJC official who asked to remain anonymous put the matter less diplomatically.
“It doesn’t matter what eastern European countries think about restitution claims in Western Europe,” the official said.
“What does matter is the desire of eastern European countries to become part of the European Union. And to accomplish that, they will have to put their own houses in order where Jewish restitution is concerned.”
Meanwhile, the WJRO’s efforts in Western Europe began recently as the result of several factors.
“It took 50 years to build the ideological sensitivity to address these questions in Western Europe,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC. “It also took 50 years for European Jews to assert their Jewishness in the political arena.”
Steinberg pointed to one other crucial factor – “the presence of archival documents indicating cash flows that became available at the end of the Cold War.”
One set of documents recently discovered by a graduate student in Norway led the WJRO to begin pressing the Norwegian government last year to return millions of dollars in property and cash that was confiscated from Jewish individuals and businesses during the war.
The WJRO is now waiting to see how a recently appointed Norwegian government commission deals with the matter.
“The next step is to see what the commission comes up with,” Bronfman said at a news conference held during the WJC assembly, promising further pressure on Norway if necessary.
Bronfman also spoke about another WJRO effort launched last year – the return of unclaimed Swiss bank accounts opened by Jews prior to World War II.
After negotiating with the Swiss Bankers Association, the WJRO will soon open a new line of attack: Singer will be testifying before a Swiss parliamentary committee later this month to seek restitution of the accounts.
At the news conference, Bronfman gave a clue as to the approach the WJRO is adopting with the Swiss – and, by extension, in future cases with other Western European nations.
Noting that the Swiss bankers were offering lump sums to settle the matter, Bronfman said the WJRO wants strict monitoring in place to ensure that the restitution is made in an open and accountable manner.
“I don’t want to talk money,” Bronfman said. “I want to talk process, to discuss how the sums are determined and distributed.
“This has to be monitored by a fair and independent party.”