ZAGREB (Nov. 7)
The U.S. government is pressing for an agreement with Croatia concerning the restitution of former Jewish property that was held by Croatian Jews or their descendants who now are American citizens. On a mid-October visit, Ambassador Edward O’Donnell, the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, informed Croatian officials that the United States is ready to negotiate a bilateral agreement that would allow American citizens access to Croatia’s 1996 Restitution Act.
The vast majority of American citizens who lost property under the Yugoslav government were covered under restitution agreements between the United States and the former Yugoslavia, but a number of American citizens of Croatian background have claims that were not covered under those agreements.
Just as Croatian citizens have full access to American laws, the United States seeks to provide access to the Croatian restitution law for American citizens not covered under previous agreements, a U.S. official told JTA.
Croatian Jews had their property seized first in 1941 — when the Ustashe regime, a Nazi puppet state, ruled Croatia — and again after 1945 by the Communists.
The Globus newspaper reported that the American initiative was sparked by the fact that the Croatian and Austrian governments have been negotiating property restitution with the former German minority in Croatia, the so-called Volksdeutschers, who were forced to leave the country after 1945.
The name Volksdeutschers refers to Germans who came to Croatia while it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Restitution of the Volksdeutschers’ property has been raised in connection with Croatia’s future membership in the European Union. The problem is that in many cases, property that the Volksdeutschers acquired between 1941 and 1945 had been owned by Jews, who were either forced to escape the country or were deported to concentration camps.
In June 1941, all Croatian Jews were by the pro-fascist Ustashe government to report their possessions, including houses, apartments, jewelry, bank accounts. The assets were then seized.
Subsequently, many Volksdeutschers — as well as Croats attached to the Ustashe regime — were listed in the land registry as owners of the former Jewish property.
In his book “The Holocaust in Zagreb,” historian Ivo Goldstein cites a case where the family of Imbro Berger, a Jew, was thrown out of its apartment in Zagreb in April 1941. Six days later, an Ustashe lieutenant moved in while Berger was deported to the Jasenovac death camp, where he died a few months later.
In August 1942, Berger’s wife, Margaret, was deported to the Stara Gradika camp, where she was killed, while the couple’s son, Milan, died in Auschwitz. Descendants of the Ustashe lieutenant still live in Bergers’ former apartment and have become its legal owners.
Globus cites the case of the former Croatian industrialist Manfred Sternberg, who escaped from Croatia with his wife and two children in April 1941. He lives out his life in New York.
His daughter Lucy Rosenberg, now an American citizen, hopes to get back several houses in the center of Zagreb. There are hundreds of similar cases.
In Israel, there are many Israeli-born descendants of Holocaust survivors who left Croatia for Israel after the war, while their property was nationalized by the Communist government.
Their descendants often don’t want to take back Croatian citizenship. As one 45-year-old sabra told JTA, “It’s a matter of principle. I don’t want to take the citizenship of a country from which my parents had to flee in order to save their lives. I do want their property to be restituted to me, but without taking the citizenship. I’m an Israeli and this is what I’m going to stay.”