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Jewish Group in Ukraine Seeks Restitution for Seized Property

September 17, 1996
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The Ukrainian Jewish community is quietly laying the groundwork for the restitution of communal properties that were confiscated by the state during the Communist era.

During the past three years, Ukraine’s Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, or KSEN, has been gathering archival documentation to prove communal ownership of the properties.

“We haven’t been negotiating the restitution issue with national authorities yet,” said Josef Zissels, chairman of the Ukrainian Va’ad, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, who added that Ukrainian officials are still not ready to deal with the issue.

One Jewish activist said, “When we try to put this issue to government officials, they react as if they have no idea what we are talking about.”

But all that may well change, given recent Jewish restitution efforts in other ex-Communist countries. Earlier this year, for example, the Hungarian government reached a restitution agreement with the local Jewish community.

“After Hungary, Romania and Slovakia may sign similar agreements,” Zissels said. “When that happens, Ukraine will realize that its turn may come soon.”

In the meantime, “we do not flaunt our activities,” said Zissels, who noted that some local authorities may dislike the idea of ever making restitution to the Jewish community.

Zissels said that if the authorities in some regions understood the purpose of KSEN’s activities, they might deny the researchers access to the archives.

According to Zissels, there are some 2,000 communal properties — including synagogues, cemeteries, old-age homes and hospitals — located in more than 80 Ukrainian cities and towns.

Of these, 250 properties have been thoroughly documented as belonging to the community, said Henry Filvarov, director of Ukraine’s Institute for Urban Planning, who has been heading up KSEN’s effort.

Ukraine’s Jewish community, which numbers between 500,000 and 600,000, is the second largest in the former Soviet Union.

In 1992, Ukraine passed a bill for the restitution of houses of worship that formerly belonged to a variety of religious communities.

Since that time, more than 20 synagogues have been returned to local Jewish communities.

But some communities found it difficult to regain possession of the properties because implementation of the bill was left in the hands of local authorities.

Some communities did receive the synagogues, but they had no funds to maintain the newly acquired property. The Jewish community in Kirovograd, for example, rents its synagogue to a local church.

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