Restitution body doing 'nothing' for claimants

Under fire: Jaroslav Sonka (left), head of the Shoah Legacy Institute

Under fire: Jaroslav Sonka (left), head of the Shoah Legacy Institute

A Holocaust restitution organisation has been widely criticised by survivors and experts who say it has ignored compensation claims and neglected its duties.

Backed by £300,000 of Czech Foreign Ministry funding, the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) pledges to work with governments and restitution groups to return property, art and assets stolen by the Nazis.

The ESLI was set up in January last year by the Foreign Ministry following the earlier Terezin Declaration, signed by nearly 50 governments at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague.

The Institute is awaiting funding decisions from the US and Israeli governments, but British experts questioned why the two countries would want to donate to the group given the Czech government's reluctance to take restitution issues more seriously.

‘I would not advise claimants to contact them’

British restitutioners describe a litany of Czech government failings over the issue, including failure to settle cases, the imposition of export bans on art pieces returned to families and preventing heirs who are not direct descendants from receiving making claims.

None of the survivors and their families who have made claims to the Institute have received compensation.

An institute spokeswoman said it had not been set up to handle
individual restitution cases and that families making claims were "mistaken" to think they would receive help from the organisation.

Tomas Jelinek, the former chairman of Prague's Jewish community, said: "There are no tangible results. The only work you can see from outside is that they set up a web page.

The new director, Jaroslav Šonka, started in April but he has made no real improvement.

"I asked Mr Šonka what the outcomes were after one year and he said 'we opened discussions', but even that's not true.

"I would not advise anyone to approach them or waste their energy. What are they here for? There is a commitment to do something but we have the reality that nothing has happened for individual restitution cases."

Shoah survivor Kitty Maruani is one claimant who feels let down by the ESLI. She said families which could not afford to go to court to seek property returns were losing out.

Her father was a businessman working in metal and had a number of properties in the Czech capital, but arrived in Britain with nothing after fleeing Prague following the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Mrs Maruani, 74, said: "For 60 years we have tried to get compensation. We have continually tried to scrape something back but I had given up after so many setbacks. When I heard about the Terezin Declaration I started again and made a claim to the ESLI but was told my parents had 'emigrated' to Britain and so I was not entitled to any compensation. We didn't emigrate, we fled for our lives.

"I've had years of disappointment but if I just give up it means the Nazis have achieved what they wanted. The ESLI is a disgrace. I just want them to spit out money to claimants."

ESLI spokeswoman Michaela Rozov said: "The Institute has not been set up to handle individual cases. It has no apparatus or lawyers to do so. Our task is to promote restitution and to lobby for legislative changes.

"Unfortunately, people do make claims through us but this is not the right place, it's a misunderstanding."

Ms Rozov said there had been "very few" individual claims made in the past 18 months and that she had contacted claimants to inform them that the institute could not handle their cases.

Last updated: 1:19pm, June 23 2011