In the Hungarian movie “1945,” as two Jewish men return to a village soon after the Holocaust, the villagers are thrown into turmoil. They are worried that the Jews have come back to reclaim property taken at the time of their deportation to the death camps.
“They’re here” is the refrain heard throughout the movie. But of course, most of the Jews never came back.
The range of villagers’ emotions captured in the film, from denial to defensiveness, provides a vivid contrast with the solemn dignity of the two Jews as they wend their way through the village on foot.
At the same time that this moving film is playing in theaters in New York and Budapest, a piece of legislation is proceeding through the U.S. Congress, a measure that would demand accountability from countries across Europe for precisely those actions portrayed so vividly in the film.
A unanimous U.S. Senate recently passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, introduced by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and in the House of Representatives by Joseph Crowley (D-Queens) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.). The JUST Act would require the State Department to report on the progress of countries in helping people identify and reclaim properties wrongfully seized during World War II and its aftermath.
The bipartisan effort, initiated by lawmakers from across the political spectrum, is a profound statement about the importance to the United States of countries addressing the history of the systematic looting of Jewish assets during the Holocaust.
Sen. Rubio said that “by enhancing ongoing efforts between the State Department and European countries, this bill will help facilitate long-deserved restitution to survivors and their families whose property was stolen during the Holocaust.”
Sen. Baldwin echoed those remarks, saying, “These individuals have waited far too long to recover, or receive compensation for, what is rightfully theirs, and by highlighting this issue as an American foreign policy priority, we will spur action in countries that are falling short of their obligations.”
This heightened focus on the remaining injustices faced by Holocaust survivors and their families comes at a pivotal time. Today, more than seven decades after the Holocaust, the world has precious little time left to ensure a small measure of justice for survivors; much work lies ahead.
In 2009, 47 countries endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues pledging to provide restitution. The declaration set out standards for the return of, or compensation for, Jewish private, communal and heirless property taken during the war.
The countries recognized that restitution of Jewish private property could help survivors meet their physical and emotional needs as they age. Moreover, the return of communal properties helps the remaining Jewish communities in Europe sustain and revitalize themselves after the devastation of both the Holocaust and the subsequent Communist era.
Yet the Holocaust (Shoah) Immovable Property Restitution Study, commissioned by the European Shoah Legacy Institute and issued earlier this year, concluded that “over 70 years after the Holocaust, a substantial amount of immovable property confiscated from European Jews remains ‘unrestituted.’ While there have been significant steps forward in a number of endorsing countries, in the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe there remains much to do regarding return of private and communal property.”
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In short, former Jewish communal and private property often sits in the hands of governments and, even at this late date, nations that endorsed the Terezin Declaration have not fully addressed the issue. For instance, properties across Latvia are still owned by the government and municipalities. And Jews from Poland cannot claim buildings that they or their families owned. In other countries, obstacles prevent the return of property to the owners and their heirs. Other world leaders, in addition to American officials, care about this issue. Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said recently, “Restitution, together with remembrance and reconciliation, is a fundamental element to restore justice after the Holocaust.”
Further, in a joint memorandum signed earlier this year, the Government of Israel and the World Jewish Restitution Organization reaffirmed “their firm mutual commitment to join efforts to secure greater restitution of or compensation for Jewish private, communal and heirless, immovable and movable, property confiscated during the Holocaust (Shoah) era between 1933 and 1945 and its aftermath.”
Restitution will not compensate Holocaust survivors for what they lost. However, it can serve as an acknowledgement of what happened to them and a means to help elderly survivors live out their lives with a measure of dignity.
The contrast is powerful between the passage of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors through an unwelcoming village in “1945” after having suffered the ravages of the Holocaust, and the sight, 82 years later, of legislators in the U.S. Senate unanimously supporting the call for justice for those who suffered so much.
“If they come here, I’ll give the store back,” says the son of the leader of the village in the film.
“The hell you will,” replies his father.
“It isn’t mine, never was. You know that,” the son responds.
During their journey through the village, the two Jews pause. One of the locals points to a house that has no windows opening on the street, and then to another, smaller, building; a simple peasant house.
“They prayed here and in that other building they studied,” he tells the two Jews.
The accountability demanded by the JUST Act is not just about property. It is also about ensuring memory and remembering history.
Gideon Taylor is the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which works toward the restitution of private property and Jewish communal property seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Working together with local Jewish communities, WJRO negotiates with governments to reach agreements and obtain legislation concerning such restitution.