Koh-i-noor - a tale of two brothers, a famous painting, and the Holocaust
Two years ago, representatives of 46 governments gathered at the former Nazi concentration camp in Terezín, an hour’s drive north of Prague. Among the many pledges contained within the pages of the Terezín Declaration was a promise to expedite the return of private property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and still not returned. Many descendants, however, are still waiting to get their family's property back.
Then, in 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The Waldes family lost everything – their property ‘Aryanised’, stolen in other words, under the Nuremberg Laws. Sigmund Waldes fled to New York with his family. Jindřich, a Czechoslovak patriot to the end, stayed, and was interned in Buchenwald. In 1941 he managed to get out, but he died in uncertain circumstances en route to America.
There the story should have ended, like so many others – a Czechoslovak Jewish family broken up and forced to flee for their lives, their property lost forever. Now, 70 years later, Sigmund Waldes’s grand-daughter Jiřina Nováková is trying to win it back:
“I would like this factory back not because I think I must have a factory, but because I think things should be done correctly. This property wasn’t transferred properly. And I think if we want to change your country socially, politically, economically, we must also do these things correctly.”
Mrs Nováková was told in order to win custody of the painting, she’d first have to win back the factory. So in 1994, she went to court. After fifteen years of litigation, she won a pyrrhic victory, being awarded one half of the factory’s buildings and one half of all of its property – including one half of the famous painting. Koh-i-Noor’s owners appealed, and last year the Constitutional Court ruled in their favour. Koh-i-Noor’s management declined requests for an interview, but Oldřich Choděra is the company’s lawyer:
Jiřina Nováková says the Constitutional Court verdict is flawed – for a start Koh-i-Noor didn’t have 500 employees in 1945, and anyway her family made it abundantly clear in 1994 they were claiming the property, and so it should never have been privatised in the first place. So far that argument has fallen on deaf ears, but Jiřina Nováková hasn’t given up the fight – a fight she says her grandfather and his brother would want her to carry on to the end.