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Czech Jews Blocked on Return of Government-held Properties

April 14, 2003
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Czech Jewish leaders are considering legal action against the Czech government after it withheld two pieces of real estate due to be returned to Jewish hands under restitution laws.

The government recently approved the return of 16 state-owned properties confiscated by the Nazis or the former Communist regime but exempted two others currently owned by the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

The government accepted arguments from the ministries that the properties — tennis courts and an administrative building — were required to conduct their business.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, said such properties “hardly qualify” as exceptions enshrined in the law passed in 2000 on mitigation of losses sustained by Jews in the former Czechoslovakia. Exceptions, he argued, referred to cases such as national parks, nuclear power plants or a military airport.

Kraus suggested that the process of restitution had been complicated by vested political interests.

“The genuine attempts of many top politicians” to right property wrongs “are being hampered by others in any way they can,” he said.

Kraus also argued that the reputation of the Czech Republic is at stake.

“The Czech state tried to solve the restitution of Jewish properties almost in a model way but this model still malfunctions, mostly because of bureaucracy,” Kraus said.

In a statement released last week, the Federation said it was considering legal steps. It described the decision not to return the two properties as “unacceptable,” particularly because the ministries had agreed during negotiations that nothing stood in the way of handing them back.

“It appears that specific interests overwhelmed attempts to reach at least partial justice,” the Federation said.

It argued that the process of expropriating Jewish properties by the Nazis and former Communist regime had been very quick, but righting “these wrongdoings” had already taken more than a decade.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, Jewish communities presented a list of some 1,500 properties which had been in Jewish hands before the World War II. By 1994 the claims list had been whittled down to 200 items because many properties were no longer in state hands.

Since then nearly 100 pieces of real estate — including the latest batch — have been returned.

The Federation expects the government to consider a fourth and final list of a dozen or so properties for possible return to Czech Jewish communities.

“After that we will draw a line and balance the outcome,” Kraus said.

The Federation, which will be compensated for those properties that were not returned, already has received a down payment of some $10 million. Part of this sum, however, is to be spent on property compensation to individual former owners.

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