Little progress seen in central and Eastern Europe on Jewish property restitution

Immovable Property Review Conference, photo: Robert Janás, Czech Foreign Ministry

Leaders of Jewish organizations, government officials and experts from a number of countries came to Prague this week to review the restitution of Jewish property taken during the Holocaust. The conference, which focused specifically on the area of immovable property, was held three years since the adoption of the Terezín Declaration, a document that sought to ease the process. The conference found that although some progress has been achieved, the declaration seems to have failed to accelerate the restitution of Holocaust-era assets.

Koh-I-Noor haberdashery factory in Prague | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio
In 1994, Jiřina Nováková began a legal battle to get back the property that once belonged to her grandfather, a Czech Jewish industrialist. His Koh-I-Noor haberdashery factory in Prague, a large art collection, and other assets were first stolen by the Nazis and then confiscated by the communists. But 18 years later, Ms Nováková is still waiting for a final ruling in her case.

“After 18 years of legal proceedings, the case is now at the Constitutional Court which already ruled on it once. Before that, it was had gone thought all the levels of the Czech justice system form district and regional courts to the Supreme Court. All of them ruled in favour of the restitution. But in the end, it was all stopped by the Constitutional Court.”

Ms Nováková along with other descendants of Holocaust survivors in the Czech Republic and elsewhere was hoping that things would finally begin moving when, in June 2009, 47 countries endorsed the Terezín declaration. The document called on the countries’ governments to ease the restitution of Jewish property, private and communal, stolen by the Nazis.

Three and half years later, a conference held at the Czech Foreign Ministry in Prague this week to examine the progress achieved since the adoption of the 2009 document found out that most central and Eastern European countries have done very little. Herbert Bloch represents the US Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Some countries have made progress. For example, Lithuania enacted a law for partial compensation for Jewish property which was a significant step albeit it does not provide full compensation for the property taken. Serbia passed a law on private property which enabled the start of the implementation of legislation on communal property and the country deserves credit for passing that law.”

“There are some countries that have stalled the process totally like Romania where it has been mired in bureaucratic problems and delays that have effectively made restitution not made forward at all in that country in the last couple years. The most egregious example of lack of progress is Poland.”

Immovable Property Review Conference,  photo: Robert Janás,  Czech Foreign Ministry
Poland has so far adopted no legislation on the restitution of private property taken during the Holocaust. Shortly after the 2009 conference, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski denounced the Terezín Declaration as an “escalation of demands”, and the Polish government dropped draft legislation providing for the compensation of private Jewish property. Monika Krawczyk is the executive officer for Poland’s Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage.

“Poland was working very intensively on draft legislation on the restitution of private properties. It in fact came to the conclusion that it would be better to introduce a compensation system rather than return the original property. But about two years ago, the Finance Ministry decided the programme would cost Poland too much and it was officially suspended. So we are not probably talking about the end of it but there has definitely no progress.”

Those who seek the return of the property stolen during the Holocaust therefore have to take their claims to the court individually. They usually win, although the decision to go to court entails lengthy legal procedures. But Ms Krawczyk says this might cost the Polish state more than the proposed compensation programme.

“They do win their cases and the Finance Ministry now reports that the amount of compensation they have to pay as a result could be in effect higher than the suspended compensation programme. So this could be yet another argument for the Polish government to put the legislation back on track.”

No representatives of the Polish government attended the Prague conference this week to clarify the country’s position on the issue. For its part, the government of the Russian Federation did send a delegation, headed by Mikhail Khorev from the Russian Foreign Ministry who explained why his country decided not to adhere to the Terezín Declaration, either.

“The declaration does not contain the principles that are essential to our country. We consider it important to deal with these issues on the basis of post-war settlement principles fixed in the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of the Allied powers. We would also like to emphasize that it’s necessary to regard the Holocaust era as fixed in the declaration, which means from 1933 to 1945.”

This means Russia would not consider any demands for the restitution of property confiscated before 1933 or after 1945, and the rest should be paid for by the aggressor states, mainly Germany.

Tomáš Kraus,  photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
In the Czech Republic, individual property claims have to be taken to courts one by one. Jewish organizations got back the majority of their communal property in the 1990s. For the rest, they will be compensated as part of a deal on the restitution of church property adopted by the Czech Parliament earlier this month. Tomáš Kraus from the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic says that if the deal does enter into force, it will meet all their demands.

“The implementation of the deal brings two issues – the restitution of the property in rem, and financial compensation. We hope this will not be tackled by the opposition as we have seen in the past, and that there will not be any excuses, let’s say, from those who hold our property today. So if these conditions are met, we can say that our claims have been met.”

Another country that has been heralded as an example of good practice in dealing with the wrongs of the past is Austria, where a fund has been set up to compensate for property claims. Its director Hannah Lessing says the Austrian government moved to action after several class-action lawsuits were filed against the country.

“Around 1999, there was a class action against Swiss banks and against Germany over the issue of forced and slave labour, and also against Austria. So it was not on our ‘free will’ that we decided to restart to process; it was due to class actions from the US. We had to deal with the issue, and this is how we came up with the system that helped.

“But I do accept the criticism that we only have a fixed amount of money in the fund for private property compensations which was fixed at 210 million US dollars. At the beginning, we didn’t know how many claims we would have, and we have received 160,000 claims. So only a tiny portion of the real value could be compensated; it was 12 percent which is very low.”

One of the reasons why the Terezín Declaration seems to have failed to become a turning point in the long-standing issue of Jewish property restitution in central and Eastern Europe is the fact, as a non-binding document, it puts the countries under little pressure to follow its principles. I asked restitution specialist from the US Claims Conference, Arie Bucheister, for his thoughts on the reasons why the process has been so slow.

Terezín,  photo: CzechTourism
“I think that the leverage that may have once existed – certainly after the war, maybe after the fall of communism when many central and eastern European countries wanted to be in NATO, and leverage that existed when people these countries wanted to join the EU – that was the time to use it. But it wasn’t used.

“And now – what’s left? Keeping raising the issue, talking of the morality of it, and I think the continuation of the process plus maybe high-level delegations from countries that interested going to the countries where more work is to be done.”

Jiřina Nováková sat through the conference on Tuesday, and listened to people from various countries reporting on the progress that has or has not been achieved. I asked her if she thought that the efforts of the Jewish organizations will eventually help her case as well.

“These conferences bring such nice people together who are very enthusiastic but they don’t really help my case. It’s just to say, we are still here and it goes on but I don’t know anyone who would be successful since the last conference three years ago.”