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Focus on Issues: Hungarian Restitution Accord May Be Model for Other Nations

July 10, 1996
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An agreement reached last week with the Hungarian government is being hailed as a breakthrough in efforts to obtain restitution for property seized during the Holocaust.

The agreement “is a model for all other countries in the region,” said Gusztav Zoltai, executive director of the Hungarian Jewish community.

“This is a landmark event,” said Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which joined local Jewish leaders in negotiating the agreement with the Hungarian government.

“This establishes the precedent by which the other countries with whom we are negotiating can arrive at an agreement.”

As a result of discussions that concluded July 3, the agreement establishes a Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation to be headed by a board of directors that will include local and international Jewish leaders, Hungarian government officials and independent members.

The foundation, expected to be set up before the end of the year, will manage Jewish-owned communal properties that will be returned to the community under the terms of the agreement.

These properties include synagogues and old age homes, which will be put to direct use by the community, as well as commercial real estate and art treasures.

The foundation will also manage the disbursement of millions of dollars contributed by the Hungarian government.

The agreement did not call for the restitution of personal properties even if the owners or descendants could be found.

The foundation will be headed by Ronald Lauder, treasurer of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder has been active in Jewish renewal projects in Eastern and Central Europe through the foundation that bears his name.

The agreement calls for the issuance of compensation coupons, or vouchers, from which annuities will be paid to needy Holocaust survivors.

The Hungarian government provided seed money of about $27 million for the voucher program.

Additional funding will come from income derived from the communal properties being managed by the foundation, Singer said.

Some 16,000 to 18,000 Holocaust survivors will get a monthly pension of $40 from the vouchers, Zoltai said.

Hungary had a prewar population of 800,000 Jews. About 600,000 died in death or labor camps under the Nazis.

The Hungarian Jewish community, which now numbers between 80,000 and 130,000, is the largest in Central Europe.

According to the agreement, only those Jews who live in Hungary will get the pension from the foundation.

Establishment of the foundation must still be confirmed by the Hungarian Parliament when it reconvenes from summer recess in September.

Although the foundation is expected to be hotly debated by parliamentarians, the local Jewish leadership expects that it will nonetheless be approved.

Since its founding as an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress four years ago, the WJRO has been negotiating the restitution issue with Hungary and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

Singer said ongoing negotiations with Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria are proceeding along similar lines to the agreement reached with Hungary.

He added that those talks were making “significant progress,” but that no agreements with those three countries had yet been reached.

He said the accord with Budapest “stands in marked contrast with the non- cooperation we have been receiving from Poland and the Czech Republic.”

In the negotiations with those two countries, Singer said, “we have simply been stonewalled.”

The Hungarian government’s agreement with the Jewish community has sparked criticisms, some of them laced with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, from opposition party members and from some church officials in Hungary.

The opposition newspaper Uj Magyarorszag quoted one politician as saying that the “value of the Jewish compensation is equal to the total value of Hungary’s national assets.”

Catholic Archbishop Endre Gyulai, in an article published last week in a Hungarian daily newspaper, charged that the state had already given the Jewish community twice as much communal property than had ever been seized.

Since the fall of communism, the Catholic Church has been engaged in its own negotiations with the state for the return of confiscated church properties.

(JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)

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