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Britain Pays out Millions to People Who Survived War in Enemy Countries

October 22, 2004
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After nearly six decades, Eva Baer believes justice has finally been done for her parents. Committed Anglophiles, the Hungarian pair decided to deposit their life savings in an English bank for safekeeping before the outbreak of World War II.

But after surviving the Nazi era, her Catholic father and Jewish mother were told the money had been confiscated.

After the outbreak of hostilities, the British government seized the assets of all residents of enemy countries — most of whom were Jewish — even victims of persecution who had seen Britain as a safe haven.

“My parents were pro-British all their lives,” says Baer, now 71 and living in Blacksburg, Va. “They were very upset to be considered enemy aliens.”

After the war, some heirs managed to reclaim their assets, but the process was so convoluted, requiring documents and witnesses few could access, that most received nothing.

Baer visited England in 1959 and made inquiries about the funds, but “the lawyer shrugged his shoulders and said I should forget about it.”

Which she did — until early 2003, when her daughter discovered a British reparations project for others who had lost assets under the same law.

That project, the result of a lengthy campaign by the London-based Holocaust Education Trust, was officially completed Aug. 31, although some cases have yet to be closed.

The trust’s director, Karen Pollock, said she is proud her organization had helped ensure “Holocaust survivors and their heirs had some sort of opportunity to get back what was rightfully theirs.”

A detailed study the group produced in 1997 finally publicized how the Enemy Property loophole enabled the government to keep the assets, including bank accounts and valuable possessions, of many Holocaust victims.

Overseen by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Enemy Property Payments Scheme, which organizers believe is the first and only one of its kind, was established in April 1999, with a projected timescale of just a few months.

But its independent tribunal went on to examine more than 1,100 claims. Three hundred and seventy-seven were successful, resulting in $29 million that has been paid out.

Nearly 30 cases are still ongoing, and the tribunal chair, Lord Archer, said any further claims will be dealt with on an ad-hoc basis.

“Nobody is going to be shut out,” he said.

For now, the only items that remain unclaimed are a gold-plated bracelet and tie-pin belonging to one Marck Kellerman, a brush salesman from Bratislava, Slovakia.

Until his heirs can be found, the items will go on display as part of the permanent Holocaust exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum.

Applauding the success of the scheme, Lord Janner, the chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust said: “This money is not compensation but the eventual repayment of assets that were left in Britain for safekeeping.”

A list of 30,000 asset holders was posted on the Internet, which was where Baer’s daughter found details of her grandparents’ assets.

The passage of time and family legend had inflated the account into a fortune, Baer says.

In fact, she and her sister, Judit Necker, who lives in Germany, shared slightly more than $27,000 in January this year.

“It’s not the money so much as a moral victory,” says Baer, whose parents both died in 1970. “Britain was for them their spiritual home, and the British system was the best.”

But not all those who received restitution are as happy as Baer. Romanian-born Yuval Racs, whose fabric merchant father deposited a sum of money in an English bank for safekeeping before the war, describes the system as “daylight robbery.”

The family tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the funds in 1951, and it was not until 2002 that Racs, 70, received some $54,000.

The architect and civil engineer, who now lives in London, was infuriated to discover that the sum did not include the interest incurred over 55 years in a British bank.

“The money was kept by force,” he says. “It’s absolutely revolting.”

However, Archer says calculating claims according to interest rates would have been too complicated. After widespread consultations, including discussions with the trust, the consensus was that the retail price index was much more sensible and transparent, he says.

The plan has managed to avoid much of the controversy incurred by other Holocaust restitution schemes, such as the lengthy legal wrangling over Swiss bank accounts held by victims of the Nazis.

But with an issue this difficult and emotionally charged, further complicated by the passage of time, officials admit it would have been impossible to satisfy the expectations of all involved.

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