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Belgian restitution snags on lack of proof

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Joseph Novak, a Belgian Holocaust survivor. (Joel Clark)

Joseph Novak, a Belgian Holocaust survivor. (Joel Clark)

BRUSSELS, June 20 (JTA) — Nine years after the Belgian government began to address Holocaust restitution, many survivors feel cheated. There is a restitution fund of $138 million, paid by the Belgian government, banks and insurance companies in 2002. The distribution of that money is running into snags, however, such as the pace of the government-appointed commission and its demands for documentation that many survivors cannot provide. The Buysse Commission has spent four years going through more than 6,000 claims brought by Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims. The commission expects to complete its work by the end of 2007. Nearly $25 million has been paid out, but survivors who are unable to prove what they owned during the war — either because records do not exist or because they were too young to know the full extent of their families holdings — do not receive full compensation. Before the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, 65,000 Jews lived there; by the end of the war, 28,000 had been deported and killed. Joseph Novak was born in Brussels in 1935. During the war, he was hidden in a nearby convent for more than two years. His mother was deported in 1942 and his father had died before the war. Having rebuilt his life in Belgium, Novak, 71, now seeks compensation for his parents’ apartment and possessions. Since he was just five years old when he went into hiding, however, Novak lacks the evidence and the memory to satisfy the Buysse Commission. The result is that he received $3,100 in restitution. The amount is based on his mother’s business and a deposit account his parents had created in his name, the only two elements of his family’s pre-war belongings for which records survive. “I have behaved very well toward Belgium all my life, but have been denied everything I have ever asked for,” Novak told JTA. Novak’s case and others like it have received sympathy from the Fondation du Judaisme de Belgique, an organization that originally lobbied the government to address restitution and is now looking into the best ways to use the remnants of the restitution fund to ensure Jewish continuity in Belgium. “At the foundation, our first and most important duty is to the survivors,” said Philippe Markiewicz, a foundation board member and president of the Coordination Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium. Markiewicz last year helped to set up Solidarity 3000, a framework by which survivors who lived in Belgium during the Nazi occupation can receive a minimal amount, regardless of documented evidence. Solidarity 3000 is funded by interest earned from the restitution fund and enables any survivor who has received compensation of less than 3,000 euros, or some $3,800, to claim the difference from the foundation. “Only when we have made sure that every survivor has received this amount will we look at putting restitution money into Jewish institutions,” Markiewicz said. But that’s small comfort to a survivor like Novak, who says he can’t face the emotional upheaval of applying to another organization to bridge the gap from what he has already received. “In the end, I just gave the 2,506 euros ($3,100) to my son as the inheritance from his grandmother,” he said. “It’s not that I’m short of money to support my family, but it’s what that small amount of money symbolizes — all that my parents lost.” Other survivors feel equally cheated by Belgium’s restitution system. Betty Schaffel, born in Brussels in 1937 and hidden during the war, claimed compensation for a pre-war family business that included five valuable textile machines. Schaffel was unable to prove pre-war ownership and received $1,900 from the Buysse Commission, despite contesting the decision in court. “It’s an injustice that a lack of proof from so long ago can mean such small amounts being paid out,” she said. Even those who originally fought to get restitution on the agenda feel disillusioned. Belgian politician Viviane Teitelbaum Hirsch, former president of the Belgian section of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, is disappointed that despite years of government-sponsored research and the large amount of money that was invested, survivors still aren’t being fully recompensed. “I really regret that Holocaust survivors, even those who were too young to know what their families owned, are receiving so little in compensation,” she said.

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