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Across the Former Soviet Union Proposed Latvian Restitution Law Would Return Jewish Properties

January 23, 2006
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The dilapidated carcass of a wooden synagogue that dates back to before World War II stands on a side street of Jurmala, a 30-minute train ride from the capital Riga. This synagogue is one of many such Jewish communal properties in this Baltic nation currently in the government’s possession. But this may change soon: A proposed Latvian law would return some 200 properties to the country’s Jewish community — and could go a long way toward making the community self-sufficient.

Latvia’s prewar Jewish population numbered 100,000, and the community owned a large number of communal and private properties here.

In 2003, the Council of Latvian Jewish Communities was organized as an umbrella organization to unite 12 Jewish organizations scattered around eight Latvian cities, representing roughly 10,000 Latvian Jews.

One of the primary objectives of the council was to facilitate the restitution process, says Gennady Trifsik, a representative of the Jewish community of Jurmala.

The cash-strapped community is in dire need of a resolution to the current property situation. The Jurmala synagogue, for instance, is rented by the state to the Jewish community, which formerly owned the building. But as long as the future of the property’s ownership is uncertain, the community is not ready to make the costly repairs the synagogue needs in order to function.

Instead, to cover costs, the community is subletting the building. It now houses a small produce market and deli, which, ironically, sells pork.

According to Arkady Suharenko of the Council of Latvian Jewish Communities and Congregations, a 1992 Latvian law allowed for the restitution of Jewish property, but required only the return of communal properties to observant Jewish communities.

Thanks to this law, a number of historic Jewish properties were regained, including Riga’s Jewish Theater and Jewish Hospital, as well as some prayer halls and synagogues around Latvia.

But at the time, Latvia’s Jewish communities were poorly organized and many missed the 1996 deadline to make their claims. Additionally, a number of communal properties in prewar Latvia were actually registered as private property and thus could not be claimed by the Jewish community under the previous law, local Jewish leaders say.

The new proposal will instead create a centralized list of all the contested properties and the compensation requested for each of them — either in the form of the property itself, an alternative property or a monetary compensation.

By pre-negotiating the properties, the community hopes to expedite the legislative process. To further smooth the process and possibly to minimize anti-Semitic reaction, the bill will not make claims to Jewish property in private hands.

“We want to push this through the Cabinet and Parliament as fast as possible,” Suharenko said.

There is a parliamentary election this year in Latvia, and new lawmakers could make the law’s passage uncertain.

There is a potential problem with the new law: Ninety percent of the prewar Latvian Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. Most of the Jews now living in Latvia arrived during the Soviet period — Latvia was part of the Soviet Union 1945 to 1989 — and cannot make a direct hereditary claim to the property of the prewar Latvian population.

Solomon Bukingolts, a Jewish economic adviser to the Latvian president, said the issue is being resolved “according to fair and mutually respectable principles.”

Suharenko was optimistic about the outcome, calling the attitude of the Cabinet members involved in the drafting “well-intentioned and constructive.”

Since the proposal still being drafted, neither the list of the claimed properties nor the estimated value of the restitution is being disclosed.

At the moment, Latvia’s Jewish community heavily relies on financial aid from international Jewish organizations for survival — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad are two of its biggest sponsors.

But that may change. If the process is successful, the community plans to establish a trust fund overseen by a board of Jewish organizations to manage to the assets of the restitution, which may be in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The Jewish community in Latvia has been on its way to self-sufficiency. If the restitution process goes as planned, the community will be able to fully support itself and also help other Jewish communities,” said Andres Spokoiny, the Paris-based JDC country director for the Baltic states.

Though Jewish leaders here praise the government’s intentions toward their communities, the country frequently makes waves with international headlines of a nationalistic flavor.

Last spring, protesters clashed with World War II veterans of a Latvian Waffen SS Legion march in Riga. The demonstration was approved by Latvian authorities and was organized to celebrate those who fought for their homeland on the side of the Germans against the Soviet threat.

Although several former KGB agents accused in Soviet-era crimes have been convicted, no Latvian quislings have ever stood trial for war crimes.

Still, local Jews do not believe there will be a strong anti-Semitic reaction to the restitution process.

“I think there will be a reaction, but it will not be drastic,” Chabad leader Rabbi Mordechai Glazman said.

Glazman, who has lived in Latvia since 1992, said anti-Semitic reactions are quite common in Latvia. Any news touching upon Jewish life in Latvia gets some anti-Semitic comments on Latvian Internet sites and forums, he said.

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