Dispute over returns of property to WWII victims still going on

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Almost sixty years after the Second World War, its wounds have not fully healed yet. One of the issues still open are restitutions of property of former Czechoslovak Jewish citizens who either became victims of the Holocaust or sought asylum in foreign countries. Find out more in this week's Talking Point with Pavla Horakova.

Amid the recent war of words between Prague and Vienna that has been going on for several weeks, the general secretary of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party Peter Sichrovsky accused Prague of insufficient compensation of Holocaust victims and called on the Czech government to "reassess its attitude to the people who were persecuted under Nazism for racial reasons."

His statements were promptly condemned both by the Czech government and the Prague Jewish community. On the 28th of January, the Czech deputy prime ministers, Jan Kavan and Pavel Rychetsky, in agreement with Prime Minister Milos Zeman, decided to send a protest note to the Austrian government against the Freedom Party's accusations. The Czech government's spokesman Libor Roucek had the following to say.

"This criticism is very unfair and unfounded because the Czech Republic was among the first countries that started to deal with this situation and also started to solve this problem. So it is very unfair that Mr Sichrovsky accuses the Czech Republic of doing nothing. On the contrary, the Czech Republic was among the first countries that dealt with this issue and the reaction of the Czech Jewish community is a witness to the standpoint of the Czech government."

Tomas Kraus is the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.

"Concerning Mr Sichrovski and his statement, the Federation released a statement which says that the restitution issues are very complicated and long-term based, so we are not ready to get in any conversation with Mr Sichrovski because this is and internal affair and we don't think anybody from outside, be it from Austria or anywhere else, is entitled to interfere into this."

However, many unsuccessful claimants from abroad who disagree with the Czech government's protest against Mr Sichrovsky's statements say he was in fact right. What steps has the current Czech government taken? Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky.

"We were the first government and the first country in the world which did not even wait for the Washington International Conference on Holocaust-era Assets in December 1998. More than a month before that we set up a joint government commission of which I was the chairman. Among the members of the commission were representatives of Czech Jewish communities. Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee and dr. Avi Beker of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation also attended. The Israeli ambassador took part in the meetings, too. We were - and still are - the only country in the world, which a year ago achieved results that are unprecedented in this part of Europe, which was affected by the Holocaust."

Let´s hear Tomas Kraus of the Federation of Jewish Communities telling the restitution story from the beginning.

"The restitution as such has been very complicated and many times not successful, especially in the years after the war when the legislation came into force in 1946 based on the Presidential Decree No. 5 and based on the Law No. 128 from 1946 which enabled restitution for individual persons. The term for it was three years to apply but then in February 1948, the Communists came and everything was over again. In addition, the burden of documenting the possession of the respective property was on the one who was damaged by the confiscation, so on the claimant, so in many cases it was very unfortunate and the real chance to get back the property was only after 1990."

In the 1990´s, many people both in Czechoslovakia and abroad hoped to regain the property they had been deprived of during the Holocaust - or even earlier than that.

"There were several laws which enabled many people to get back their property but, of course, not everybody. The legislation had some gaps and we, as the Federation of Jewish Communities, have pointed out that there were some people who were not affected by the legislation. So far we were able to amend the existing legislation from 1991, respectively 1994. The original law enabled [restitutions of property] only of those whose property was confiscated after 1948. But we have pointed out our cases where people lost their property ten years before that, that means by the Munich appeasement and, of course, by the German occupation of the country and the so called Aryanization."

However, not every claimant was eligible - Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic limited the return of confiscated property to people who had Czechoslovak or Czech citizenship at the time they applied for the restitution.

"In 1994 there was this amendment, Law No 116, but still it did not cover especially two groups of people. It was people who were owners of agricultural property, and people who were unfortunately not able to claim even because they didn't have citizenship of the Czech Republic - which is a vast number of people, as far as we know. For the first group, for those who were owners of agricultural property, especially of land, we were able to incorporate this possibility to claim into the law which was passed in 2000. And these people as far as we know have been in most cases successful in getting this back. For the second group of people which is the most complicated, those who are not Czech citizens and who cannot therefore claim, we have prepared something what we call an extra-legislative solution and that is a special foundation which was created in the framework of the Joint Commission headed by vice Prime Minister Rychetsky. This Joint Commission established together with the Federation a foundation, the so-called Endowment Fund. In this Endowment Fund the Czech government put 300 million Czech crowns from which one third is reserved exactly for those cases."

What was the reaction of the claimants from abroad to these efforts of the Joint Commission? Tomas Kraus again.

"We made a term for this, for six months, for everybody to claim it. It was announced through the media all around the word and until December 31, 2001, we received more than 1,000 applications from those people who lost their property and were not able to claim it because of the non-existence of the Czech citizenship. Of course, we have to evaluate this, because we were not sure how many people we would get and we are not sure if these several hundred million crowns is really appropriate for accommodating everybody's claim. And this is something which will be negotiated with the government because the work of the Joint Commission has not been concluded. It will be concluded with this term of this government but we hope that the agenda of the Commission will be continued and we will be able to negotiate on either expanding the sum or find some other solutions."

Although the process of restitution is not finished yet, Tomas Kraus is optimistic.

"We are not saying the restitution was completely successful because there were many things which have been privatised, many real estates which have been transferred to municipalities and various cities, there were many cemeteries and synagogues of very high value which have not been returned to us. Unfortunately, this is a matter of negotiations which carried on in the early 1990's. This government which is really trying to mitigate some of the injustice is not the one who should be responsible for it. The responsibility lies mostly, as I said, with the privatisation. We still do not consider the whole issue of restitution finished, closed. On the contrary, we think that we have been successful in many cases. We can say that the whole process was successful but it's not finished, it's not completed and we hope we will be able to complete it within a year or two."