Romanian restitution is in the dock

Roger, Hortense, Jack and Argot in Braila, 1936

Roger, Hortense, Jack and Argot in Braila, 1936

The British great-grandson of a prominent Jewish businessman from Bucharest is launching legal action against the Romanian government over his family’s fight for compensation for assets seized.

David Fresco Corbu’s claim dates back to the Communist era, when the bulk of the Romanian Jews who survived the Holocaust fled to Israel.

In 1952, his great-grandmother Hortense was forced out of Bucharest after the Soviet-backed leaders nationalised the assets of Jewish and other minority citizens, or took them as the price for safe passage.

Hortense’s husband Jack, once British vice-consul of Romania, had died in 1938, leaving significant assets, including a large property in Bucharest.

Great-Grandma Hortense was a citizen of Romania until the day she died

“We only have a ballpark figure for the assets,” said Essex businessman Mr Fresco Corbu. “But we know the address and the size of the property they lived in, and think the figure is in the region of between £2m and £10m.”

The family had started in business in 1866 along the Black Sea — when Jews were mostly prohibited from doing civic jobs — trading in goods including fabrics, mohairs and timber, and even, for a time, supplying the Ottoman army with uniforms.

Hortense fled to Israel, then settled in Paris. Her son had moved to England in the 1930s, and his daughter Patricia, David’s mother, is now the sole heir to the family fortune.

In 2001, after hearing that Romania’s parliament was passing legislation covering private property restitution, as the country pushed for EU membership, David Fresco Corbu’s mother contacted the authorities and wrote multiple letters to the embassy and consulate. But she faced obstacles, including not speaking the language, and not being a Romanian citizen.

“She was sent round the houses… no one would give her an answer,” said Mr Fresco Corbu. “On the phone, the consul told her that they were ‘not sure what she was talking about’.”

To his knowledge, only around 15 per cent of claims have been paid out, and the legislation included a deadline of February 2002 for all claims to be submitted, which his mother did not meet. “The law also said you have to be a Romanian citizen to receive compensation, but my family was pushed out.”

The Claims Conference, which focuses mostly on restitution of assets seized by the Nazis, agreed that “it has been difficult for applicants living outside Romania to file their claims”.

In 2006, it reported that, in the previous three years, of 1,980 claims submitted by an umbrella organisation representing Romanian Jews, “only 45 have been positively resolved”.

Nachliel Dison, acting general director of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, said that, while there had been some success in seeking restitution from Romania for communal assets, the process had been slow for private property.

“The government has not been particularly co-operative. There have been bureaucratic obstacles. They say they don’t have the money, there is difficulty in the economy. But they can’t just drag people on and on. People are not young.”

The website of Romania’s National Agency for Properties Restitution is only available in Romanian.
A spokeswoman for the Romanian Embassy in the UK said the law was open to anyone who lost their properties during Communism, irrespective of their current citizenship, but that “unfortunately” the time limit had now passed.

Mr Fresco Corbu is looking for others with similar compensation claims to get in touch.
“The constitution was backdated to 1965 and Hortense was still a Romanian citizen until the day she died in 1980,” he said.

Last updated: 12:33pm, March 22 2013