More than a half century elapsed from the end of World War II before Jewish leaders were able to begin pressing their demands for the return of Jewish property seized from its rightful owners during the war years.
“I see a historic opportunity for a united effort to right, in some but still significant way, a piece of the wrongs done to Jews and others in Central Europe during World War II,” Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. Department of State’s special envoy for property claims in Central and Eastern Europe, told delegates at the recently held 10th Global Assembly of the World Jewish Congress.
The opportunity of which Eizenstat spoke came as a direct result of the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the region, democratic forms of government were established, legislation envisioning the restoration of private property was discussed in some countries, and there was even some public discussion about each state’s responsibility for the wartime plight of its Jewish citizens.
Created in 1992 by the World Jewish Congress and other leading Jewish organizations, the World Jewish Restitution Organization set out to secure the return of Jewish property seized during the war years in 13 eastern and central European countries: Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
The property sought falls into three broad categories: communal properties, including synagogues, schools, cemeteries, hospitals and old age homes; individual properties whose owners or heirs are still alive; and heirless individual properties.
The WJRO has signed agreements with the local Jewish communities in 10 of those eastern European countries – excluding Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Estonia – to work together for the restitution of communal property and to establish foundations to jointly manage returned properties.
Eizenstat, whose status as State Department envoy reflects the U.S. government’s firm backing of the WJRO’s efforts, provided the delegates at the Jan. 22-24 WJC assembly in Jerusalem with an overview of Jewish restitution efforts in Eastern and Central Europe.
After visiting most of those countries last year as part of a fact-finding mission he carried out in his role with the State Department, he found that in each country there had been some progress in restoring Jewish property to its rightful owners.
But just the same, he added, much remained to be done.
The most progress, he said, has been in the return of communal property; private property restitution was a more difficult issue – particularly heirless individual property.
We hope that success with communal property can be used to build momentum for dealing with private property,” he said.
Throughout the region, private property restitution has been hampered by restrictive citizenship and/or residency requirements – which create huge hurdles for Jewish claimants, many of whom had no choice but to emigrate during the war and are now being penalized for what was in effect a decision that had been forced on them.
Eizenstat spoke of a number of successful restitution efforts: in Bulgaria, which, he said, was lauded by the local Jewish community “as having some of best laws on property return in the region”; in Latvia, where about a dozen communal properties have been returned to the local Jewish community; and in Estonia, where Jewish communal buildings have been returned and other claims are being processed.
In Slovakia, too, restitution efforts have proven successful – with important results for the local Jewish community.
Fero Alexander, executive chairman of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia, spoke in an interview about the status of restitution efforts in his country.
“It’s not easy to get things back,” he said. “But profitable communal properties have been returned – and as a result, the community will be able to be independent and survive.”
Across Europe, however, those seeking restitution are encountering a number of difficulties.
In several countries, significant government initiatives have not been implemented or have been blocked at the local level, Eizenstat said.
In the Czech Republic, for instance, the government has committed itself to return Jewish communal property controlled by the state and has indeed in some cases already done so.
But at the same time, local municipalities have refused to return some important income-producing communal properties under their control – and the central Czech government has not enacted legislation that would force the municipalities to do so.
Similarly, in Belarus and Ukraine, the disposal of Jewish communal assets has been left to municipal authorities – resulting in only a minimal transfer of properties to the local Jewish community.
In Hungary, the government has committed itself to resolving both communal and individual property claims. But, as Eizenstat said, “restitution of communal properties has yet to start.”
Poland, which had a prewar population of some 3.5 million Jews, has made little headway on individual property restitution, which could present substantial problems for the government, given the sheer magnitude of the property at issue.
But, in a more hopeful sign, Eizenstat noted that the Polish government has prepared a bill on the restitution of Jewish communal properties and that Warsaw hopes the Polish Parliament will pass the bill in the spring.
In Romania, too, a bill for Jewish communal property restitution faces a parliamentary approval process.
In many of these countries, restitution of Jewish property will prove central to the ability of the local Jewish community to care for some of its elderly members, particularly Holocaust survivors.
Eizenstat put a human face on some of the potential beneficiaries of the restitution efforts of the WJRO and local Jewish communities.
“I have been struck during my mission with the desperate condition of the Holocaust survivors in these countries,” he said. “They are, by definition, old, and most are destitute and living out what has already been a tragic life in very difficult circumstances.
“They demand first priority in terms of attention.”
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, also spoke before the WJC assembly to address the needs of some of the 100,000 survivors his group represents.
In a moving, heartfelt speech, he spoke of how Germany, which has paid millions of marks in compensation to survivors since World War II, has given no compensation to those survivors living in countries formerly under Soviet domination.
Moreover, Meed said, under the terms of the so-called Article 2 Fund established after German reunification, significant restrictions were imposed on compensation to survivors.
In order to receive compensation, he said, survivors had to have spent at least six months in a concentration camp or 18 months in a ghetto.
Moreover, survivors have to pass a needs test, with those earning more than $14,000 per year exempt from compensation – a situation, Meed said, that “turns the payments into welfare.”
“We must demolish all these restrictions,” said Meed, who called on the worldwide Jewish community to press Germany “to meet its obligations.”
Noting the advanced age of survivors, whom he said had an average age exceeding 75, Meed said that Germany could well afford to play a waiting game.
“Time is Germany’s ally. As nature takes its inevitable course, we daily learn of the death of yet more survivors,” he said, urging swift pressure on the German government.
Eizenstat, also alluding to the survivors’ advanced age, suggested that the international Jewish community take immediate action on their behalf while restitution and compensation efforts drag on.
Noting that successful restitution claims will enable local Jewish communities to care for survivors, he said that “this may take time – time that the survivors do not have.
“In the interim, I would encourage international Jewish organizations to take a moral decision to use their own financial resources – at least until there are sufficient revenues generated from returned communal property – to ensure that survivors can live out the balance of their lives in dignity.
“Other issues or disputes should be subordinated to this consideration.”