Ukraine has become the first of the Soviet successor states to establish a clear legal process under which Jewish communities should be able to reclaim hundreds of communal properties confiscated during the communist era.
In contrast to the other former Soviet republics, which so far have returned relatively small amounts of Jewish communal property, Ukraine has already returned some 30 buildings to the Jewish community.
Eventually, the Ukrainian statutes could lead to the return of hundreds of Jewish community buildings, such as synagogues and social centers, seized by the former communist government.
While many of the buildings were destroyed, especially during World War II, many others were converted into warehouses, archives, factories and athletic clubs.
The recent passage of a parliamentary law and a presidential decree now allows all established religious communities to file claims with the local government for the return of confiscated property.
Responding to the opportunity, the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations in Ukraine, an umbrella group representing over 50 communities throughout the country, sponsored a two-day seminar last week in Odessa to help individual communities and congregations begin work on the restitution process.
So far, Jewish communities have filed claims on roughly 200 buildings in over 60 different cities. It is expected that hundreds of other buildings will be claimed within the next year.
Yuri Polansky, a Ukrainian lawyer who is working with the union on the restitution process, said it would help those Jewish communities which are trying to rebuild themselves.
“In these difficult times, when so many Jews are leaving, the return of Jewish communal property represents one of the most important opportunities to preserve and save Jewish culture in Ukraine,” Polansky said.
RELIGIOUS ARTICLES TO BE RETURNED TOO
In addition to buildings, the law also provides for the return of confiscated religious articles.
Under the communist regime, Torah scrolls, menorahs and other ritual pieces were taken from synagogues and placed in museums, archives or storage facilities, where they still remain, In his address to the conference in Odessa, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Ukraine and chairman of the union, said: “It is a tragedy that there are still communities without a single kosher Torah scroll, while hundreds are sitting in archives.”
Since the seized religious articles have been dispersed throughout the country, it is assumed that they will be much harder to track down than the confiscated buildings.
Starting Jan. 1, 1994, local government offices are scheduled to begin making decisions on all claims put forth by religious communities.
In order to file a claim, the present-day community must document that the building previously belonged to it before the property was confiscated.
As a result of the absence of official records in most cases, other forms of documentation must be found to support the claim.
The difficulty in documentation is compounded by the fact that the western regions of Ukraine were controlled by Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia until World War II, and the necessary building records still remain in those countries.
At the conference, advisers presented the different ways a community could find information on Jewish property from archives, museums and even such informal sources as guidebooks and postcards.
Though the restitution procedure is backed by presidential decree, it is clear that doubts remain in the Jewish community about the possibility of a large-scale return of communal property.
Some Jewish leaders, believing that the Ukrainian government may just be mouthing sentiments, have adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Other communities are almost completely ignoring the restitution procedure.
“We can hope that communities will overcome the Soviet mentality of complacency, and reclaim what rightfully belongs to the Jewish community,” Bleich said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.