(JTA) — When Luxembourg assumed the chairmanship of the world’s foremost international Holocaust remembrance task force, its government pledged energetic action.
“We have to act. We have to mobilize. We have to go against” revisionism and indifference, George Santer, Luxembourg’s ambassador to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said in a statement last month about his country’s assumption of the rotating chairmanship of that task force of 32 nations.
Nearly two months on, though, Luxembourg still makes it harder than any other Western European nation for Jews to reclaim property and assets lost under the Nazis.
Critics say the country’s laws make even applying for restitution impossible for most of the Jews who had lived there during World War II and their descendants.
The controversy is rooted in a 1950 law that restricts restitution eligibility to citizens and some “stateless persons” who immigrated to the tiny country prior to 1931. Unique in the continent’s west, Luxembourg’s restitution law excludes about 75 percent of about 4,000 Jews who had lived there before the Nazi invasion of 1940.
“This law is certainly unusual among Luxembourg’s neighbors,” said Vincent Artuso, a Paris-based historian.
In 2015, Artuso published a damning report on the collaboration of Luxembourg’s authorities with the Nazis. Whereas other Western European nations reformed their restitution laws by the 1990s, “Luxembourg’s remained the same,” he said.
This means that Luxembourg “is the only country in Western Europe with major, unaddressed restitution issues,” according to Gideon Taylor, the chair of operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
At stake are hundreds of real estate properties in Luxembourg City, one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals and expensive cities. But even that may be dwarfed by the money locked in dormant or stolen funds lost in Luxembourg’s opaque banking sector — the leading industry in this nation of 500,000 that’s about the size of Rhode Island.
Luxembourg has about 140 banks with a combined work force of about 30,000 employees. It consistently tops Europe’s chart of gross domestic product per capita with $114,000. That’s four times the European average and 36 percent higher than Switzerland, the list’s runner-up.
Banking secrecy and laws in Luxembourg “make it impossible to know what we lost,” said Marcel Salomon, a native of the country who survived the Holocaust as a boy because his family obtained visas to the Dominican Republic.
The fact that Luxembourg is a major banking hub seems to be connected to the country’s apparent difficulty in reforming its restitution laws, Artuso said.
“The issue here is likely not about returning the money and properties of a few hundred Jews,” he said. “The concern, I think, is that a review of what happened to Jewish property would open up to scrutiny the absorbing of funds from countless dormant accounts into the banking industry. It could start an avalanche.”
That very reason led other banking powers, including Belgium and Switzerland, to resist scrutiny of their handling of Jewish-owned property for many years until they finally relented, incurring billions in losses.
“Luxembourg’s restitution laws will also have to change,” Artuso opined.
There are signs that the issue is already changing.
In February, Luxembourg agreed to set up a working group that would examine restitution issues following a meeting between its prime minister, Xavier Bettel, and the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, Tom Yazdgerdi.
“There’s specifically issues with dormant bank accounts that we’re looking at with the government, and there’s a bill in parliament to resolve this,” Yazdgerdi told the Luxembourg Times during his visit.
The working group’s establishment is a “breakthrough,” said Taylor, the head of the world restitution group. He also said that Luxembourg was “a victim nation” of Nazi occupation, despite some collaboration.
For now, the restitution issue is “an ongoing injustice,” according to Karin Meyer, a member of Luxembourg’s Jewish community whose open letter last year to her government triggered a parliamentary query. It did not result in change, as the government reiterated its position against reform. But it focused the attention of local media on the problem.
“Betrayed by a neighbor to the Nazis in 1940, my grandparents and great-grandparents lost everything: their painting business, their apartment, their furniture and equipment, their money and possessions, and their dignity,” Meyer wrote. Their money “remains stashed away in mysterious dormant accounts in Luxembourg banks.”
Santer, the ambassador to the IHRA, did not reply to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s request for comment on this issue, referring it to the Prime Minister’s Office, which did not respond immediately to JTA’s query.
Artuso said the amount of money stolen from Jews and absorbed into Luxembourg’s national wealth is unknown “because there is no political will to find out.”
Luxembourg’s 1950 law seems to have been designed specifically to bar refugees from seeking restitution, he said.
Specifically the stipulation that bars people who came to Luxembourg after 1930 from seeking restitution “speaks for itself,” Artuso said. Predating Adolf Hitler’s rise to power by two years, it excludes at least 2,000 Jews who fled to Luxembourg after 1933, doubling the country’s Jewish population.
Marcel Salomon’s father, Aron Joseph Salomon, was a Polish immigrant who opened a successful shoe repair shop in Luxembourg after 1930. He was never naturalized “because becoming a citizen was impossible,” his son told JTA. Before fleeing, the father managed to convert much of the family’s cash into diamonds.
“But we have no idea what remained in the banking and insurance companies, and the real estate,” Salomon, 84, said.
The Salomons fled Luxembourg soon after the Nazis invaded in May 1940. They boarded a train to Portugal, but were detained in Spain and sent back to France. At the age of 5, Salomon spent days on end in the train with his parents and dozens of other Jews, unable to exit a carriage that quickly became flooded with urine and excrement.
“A woman and her baby had died during childbirth in the wagon,” he recalled. “Their bodies were left in the wagon for days until the Germans let us take it out.”
Salomon said the conditions aboard the train were so horrid that the Jews on it were relieved to be taken from Spain into Nazi-occupied France even though they knew they were bound for concentration camps.
Trailing most other Western European nations by about two decades, Luxembourg in 2015 finally apologized officially for its authorities’ collaboration in rounding up Jews to be murdered.
It was part of a broader change that followed the formation in 2013 of a left-leaning coalition headed by Prime Minister Bettel (he’s also Luxembourg’s first openly gay head of state). It ended a decades-long hold on power by the center-right Social Democrat Party, “and there was a feeling of wanting to do the right thing and speak the truth on the Holocaust,” the historian Artuso said.
But, over time, “it became apparent that the good will extended to saying the right thing,” he said. “It was not enough to carry over into action and material compensation.”