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Eastern European Jews Not Satisfied with Governments’ Restitution Efforts

Jewish leaders from across Eastern Europe remain largely unsatisfied with their governments’ efforts to return communal property and commemorate the Holocaust.

The disappointment persists despite those governments’ interest in addressing Jewish concerns as they negotiate to join the NATO military alliance.

Officials from 10 Central and Eastern European Jewish communities gathered in the shadow of a NATO aspirant summit here March 25-26 for a roundtable discussion organized by the American Jewish Committee.

Leaders presented both written and oral status reports on Jewish affairs in their countries. The reports were circulated to prime ministers at the summit and officials from NATO.

NATO plans to admit new countries in November, and maintains that human rights is an important criterion for membership.

Jewish leaders from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia attended the conference, as did leaders from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which entered NATO in 1999.

Jewish delegates from Slovakia and Albania couldn’t attend, but sent written reports.

“Legislation exists for restitution and there’s a general willingness to restore community property, but there is a huge gap between legislation and the return of property,” said Nicholas Lane, chairman of the AJCommittee’s international committee. “No matter how good laws and rhetoric are, property does not get returned.”

The fight for restitution is the most pressing concern for Jewish communities, since returned property gives them a central space to rebuild themselves after six decades of Nazi and Soviet repression. It also stands as a source of income for communities that lease the property to support their revival.

Governments in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have all addressed the issue differently:

Poland has been returning Jewish property since 1997, when it passed legislation to accept restitution requests. Small properties like cemeteries are granted more often than those for more valuable real estate. In any case, the Jewish community lacks sufficient funding to maintain most of the cemeteries that have been returned.

In Hungary, negotiations between the government and Jewish leaders led to partial property restitution, while Jewish communities are still waiting for compensation in the form of an annual payment.

Still, according to Hungarian law, heirs of Holocaust victims receive 30 times less compensation than those who suffered from Communist-era crimes.

Jews in the Czech Republic made minimal claims in the early 1990s and found the government largely cooperative. Today, the Czech Republic’s Federation of Jewish Communities is the only self-sufficient community in Eastern Europe.

“My message” to other Jewish communal leaders “is to make appeals as quickly as possible, because in a couple of years it will no longer be an issue with the governments,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Jewish federation. “Before we entered NATO, everything was on the right track, but what is under the roof is what counts.”

Zagreb, Croatia expects to become the second self-sufficient Jewish community in 2002, when two valuable buildings in the city’s center are due to be returned, according to Ivo Goldstein of the University of Zagreb.

Lithuania and Romania plan to address the restitution issue in the coming year. Bruce Jackson, president of the U.S. Committee for NATO, says Lithuania’s slowness in restituting property is the most outstanding NATO issue in the Baltics.

Slovenia’s Jewish 130-member community functions in one 40 square-yard room, but community leader Andrej Kozar Beck expects NATO pressure will lead his government to return two synagogues this year — so the community won’t have to resort to a hotel for the High Holidays.

The problem, Beck says, is that Slovenia requires documentation before it will return property — and he doesn’t have any.

The documents “were all destroyed,” he said. “I wrote our prime minister three times and yesterday I met him for the first time. He shook my hand and nothing was said — no ‘hello’ or ‘how are you.’ Arrogant!”

Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria all boast good track records, though Bulgarian Jewish leader Victor Melamed won’t be satisfied until the state implements a 1995 court order to restitute 49 percent ownership of a hotel that formerly housed a Jewish school.

A Macedonian governmental committee prepared a report in 1998 outlining assets of cash, property and jewelry worth $16.5 million that Bulgarian fascists seized from Macedonian Jews.

But Viktor Mizraho, president of the Macedonian Jewish community, said there has been little cooperation from the Bulgarian and Macedonian governments, but hopes that will improve this year.

Holocaust commemoration, meanwhile, remains a controversial topic. In Estonia, which does not have a Holocaust museum or a Holocaust memorial day. What’s more, a mere three sentences on Holocaust history appear in state textbooks.

Cilja Laud, chairwoman of the Estonian Jewish community, approached the country’s culture minister on the issue but was told, “that’s enough.”

Still, the Bucharest summit gave Laud a chance to meet the Estonian prime minster, who promised to meet with her in Tallinn next month. Laud hopes eventually to have a Holocaust education center in the State History Museum.

In Hungary, whose 100,000 Jews constitute the biggest community in Eastern Europe, the government vowed to erect a Holocaust Museum two years ago — and last week recycled the announcement for the fourth time.

“It’s difficult to be excited anymore,” said Ferenc Olti, a Hungarian Jewish leader.

The Hungarian government recently opened a museum of terror, but Olti says it virtually ignores the Holocaust, while Communist crimes are extensively documented.

In Lithuania, a substantial Holocaust education program has been instituted in the schools and the military. Most of the literature deals honestly with the fact that Lithuania had the highest rate of collaboration with the Nazis in Eastern Europe.

Still, funding remains a problem, and most educational programs have not been fully implemented.

Since 2000 the Polish government has taken steps to rewrite its Holocaust history with self-critical vision.

“The Polish public and leaders support brave and truthful debate on those events,” said Stanislav Krajewski, a board member of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. “The very fact that everything can be discussed in major media is a great change, and I wish all nations in our region can reach this in an open similar manner.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee’s international director and moderator of the Bucharest conference, said he’s seen “good first steps” toward Holocaust commemoration.

The Romanian government informed Baker this week that it plans to institute a Holocaust memorial day this year. It also recently passed legislation to remove statues of Marshal Ion Antonescu, who led a Nazi military alliance in Romania during World War II.

Jewish leaders also reported briefly on anti-Semitism in their countries and how the Arab-Israeli conflict has been reported in the media.

Politicians aren’t outwardly anti-Semitic, but are conscious that promoting Jewish interests could jeopardize their political careers with publics that still view the Holocaust as a “Jewish business,” as an Estonian newspaper called it.

The most serious anti-Semitic concern comes from Hungary, where a Nazi-sympathizing party operates a radio station, despite a Hungarian law banning political parties from owning private radio frequencies.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not had a strong effect in Eastern Europe, which seems more pro-Israeli than Western European nations like France, Baker said.

Media reports in many Eastern European nations tend to be somewhat pro-Israel because the detested Soviet regime was the patron of the Arab world.

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