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Croatian Jews hope to reclaim property

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ZAGREB, Croatia, April 3 (JTA) — Croatia is considering legislation that would return property to Jews who used to live in the Balkan nation.

But a leading Croatian Jewish official doubts that properties actually will be returned before their owners — many of them Holocaust survivors or their heirs — die.

Even so, the very possibility that the property may be returned has sparked an anti-Semitic backlash in some Croatian newspapers.

In a recent closed session, the Croatian government agreed to take up amendments to a 1996 law dealing with property restitution in Croatia. The Croatian Parliament is expected to vote on the matter before the fall.

The amendments would greatly expand the classes of people eligible to reclaim their property.

The current law was passed in 1996 under the nationalist regime of President Franjo Tudjman. Under its provisions, only those who were Croatian citizens when the law was passed — and whose property was confiscated by the Communists after 1945 — could submit claims for their possessions.

That disqualified Jews who left Yugoslavia after World War II. Many Jews who left in 1948 and 1949, as the State of Israel was being formed, were forced by Yugoslav law to give up their citizenship.

The proposed amendments would make it possible for individuals who are no longer Croatian citizens to claim property, as well as those whose property was confiscated during World War II, when the Nazi-puppet Ustashe regime ruled Croatia.

During the war, 20,000 of Croatia’s 25,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis or the Ustashe. More than half of the survivors emigrated after the war.

The vice president of Zagreb’s Jewish community said other countries had urged Croatia to change the law.

The amendments are “the result of pressure to adjust the legislation to European standards concerning human rights,” Dragan Ekstajn said.

The law will enable more people to demand what once belonged to them, Ekstajn said.

But “I have the feeling that the restitution is still being postponed and that even these amendments will not bring it nearer,” he said. “Now it is already 11 years since the collapse of the Communist regime and both the former owners, as well as their heirs, have been dying in the meantime. The former regime hesitated with the legal procedure, and the new elected government also needed more than one year only to start talking about the legal amendments.”

Even if the government acts in good faith, logistical problems remain.

Some 668 shops, factories, apartments and luxurious villas were taken away from Jews in Zagreb, according to documents in the Historical Archive of the City of Zagreb.

Most now belong to new owners who would be reluctant to relinquish them. Paying market value for the properties probably would bankrupt the state.

Nobody knows how many Jewish heirs might submit claims, but newspaper articles already are likening it to an invasion.

Unlike individuals’ property, Jewish communal property — including cemeteries and the land where Zagreb’s former synagogue was located — is being restored without problems, Ekstajn said.

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