Getting property returned still uphill task

By David Peleg, August 13, 2009
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It is just over a month since representatives of 46 countries gathered in Prague for the Holocaust Era Assets Conference; possibly the last chance, as US Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat described it, to see that justice prevails.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, attention, understandably, was focused on rescuing people, not property. But the scale of the looting, first by the Nazis and then, in Eastern Europe, by the Communist regimes, demanded an international response. In the late 90s, gradually Western governments — urged on by the World Jewish Restitution Organisation (WJRO) — began to put pressure on the successor governments in eastern Europe to make restitution of private and community property to their former owners.

It has been an uphill task and the achievements have been mixed. There has been success in restoring some looted art, for example, where international museums agreed to look more closely at provenance, and some valuable artwork has been returned to the heirs of Holocaust victims. Less good has been the record in some countries in Eastern Europe: Latvia has carried out personal restitution, but not that of immovable property (communal buildings, for example), while Lithuania has done neither.

The Prague conference was called to review the Washington Declaration of 1998, which set in motion art restitution.

At its conclusion, it adopted the Terezin Declaration, a comprehensive document with a commitment to securing just solutions to property restitution.

But there is no legal enforcement mechanism in the Terezin Declaration, and critics fear that it is not enough to prod recalcitrant countries into action.

Poland, home to the largest prewar Jewish population in Europe, has not passed legislation on private property restitution. In 1997 it enacted legislation on the restitution of communal property, which provided either for the return of the actual property, or compensation.

A foundation was jointly established by the WJRO and local communities, so that the foundation could file claims in areas where there was no longer a viable Jewish community. In areas where there was still a functioning Jewish community, claims were filed directly.

Between 1997 and May 2002, the foundation filed 3,500 claims with the Polish government. The local Jewish communities filed a further 2,000 claims, including around 1,000 cemeteries.

In May 2009, the government had adjudicated on 1,600 claims, around 700 of which are deemed to have had a positive decision, or a settlement by agreement. Just 52 cemeteries have been restored out of the 1000 claimed.

Decisions have been made in only 29 per cent of the original claims and the WJRO is pressing for a speeding up of the adjudication process.

Personal restitution is another problem. Over the years Poland has enacted numerous restitution bills, but legislation has never been enacted. Some of the provisions in these early proposals have caused tremendous concern, such as the suggestion — now dropped — that only those who resumed Polish nationality would be eligible to apply.

The most recent draft legislation, put forward in May this year, only discusses compensation, not restitution. It would cover properties confiscated during the Communist era — Jewish claimants would comprise only about 20 per cent of the total. Further, it does not include property in Warsaw, which the government says is subject to different legislation; there will only be limited compensation, and even then, it will only be paid over a 15-year period.

Stuart Eizenstat, deputy treasury secretary under President Clinton, has led the international restitution drive. He says: “It is hard to create the political will for restitution to take place.” How the countries of Eastern Europe respond to the Prague Conference will be a test of that political will.

Global response

December 1997 - London Conference on Nazi gold. Established research on gold looted by Nazis from individuals and occupied countries

November 1998 - Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.

January 2000 - Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust

June 2009 - Holocaust Era Assets Conference, Prague; Terezin Declaration

By the numbers

5,500 - Number of claims filed by the World Jewish Restitution Organisation and local Jewish communities in Poland

1,000 - Jewish cemeteries were claimed for

52 - Jewish cemeteries were restored to the community

700 - Number of claims which have had a positive outcome in Poland

David Peleg is director general of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation

Last updated: 11:47am, August 13 2009

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