FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK, July 15 . "The plunder of Jewish property in Central and Eastern Europe is the last of the great, unresolved injustices of World War II. The property was first confiscated by the Nazis, then nationalized by the communist regimes. The collapse of communism, and the subsequent reprivatization programs in Eastern Europe, have offered an unexpected opportunity to press for the restitution of Jewish property."
But what are the realistic prospects for the return of Jewish property? How, if at all, can survivors and heirs, as well as the governments involved, deal with the often staggering impediments to restitution, including a multitude of political, diplomatic, and financial problems? And where did the occupied and neutral nations fall on the spectrum of compromise, collusion, complicity and collaboration in terms of retaining Jewish property after the war?
These and other compelling questions are dealt with extensively in a just-released American Jewish Committee report "The Restitution of Jewish Property in Central and Eastern Europe." The comprehensive 54-page analysis was written for AJC by Marilyn Henry, staff correspondent in New York for the Jerusalem Post and author of an earlier AJC report, "Switzerland, Swiss Banks, and the Second World War: The Story Behind the Story."
In the latest report, Ms. Henry notes that although no one knows for certain how much property was stolen, spoiled, destroyed and lost during the Holocaust more than fifty years ago, property losses were estimated at $8 billion, based on exchange rates prior to the outbreak of the war.
The end of the cold war, and more importantly the recent controversy surrounding Swiss banks and looted Nazi gold, have propelled the movement toward Jewish property restitution throughout Europe.
But the issues surrounding property restitution "defy a single 'grand' solution," Ms. Henry states, and despite the fact that it has worked, though not flawlessly, in Germany, "the notion of any 'model' to serve across Europe seems unduly optimistic."
Among the numerous "threats" to Jewish property recovery are competing interests and political agendas - "the varying degrees of sympathy and sensitivity, or hesitation and hostility; different conceptions of justice and truth; and outright greed."
In addition, there have been disputes over who should take the lead in pursuing restitution - international Jewish organizations or the local European Jewish communities; and ongoing battles over who is the legitimate heir of the communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust, who should negotiate with the governments, what negotiating tactics should be employed, how much property should be pursued, which property should be pursued, and how should the proceeds, if any, be used.
The AJC publication cites other substantial considerations, including the fact that "the Central and Eastern European nations, emerging from communist rule, are raw democracies struggling to reform their societies and economies. Although they tend to profess sympathy for Jewish property claims, their priorities lie elsewhere.
"In practical terms, property restitution is a cumbersome process of identifying, documenting, and recovering plundered Jewish property. The process is made especially difficult by the passage of more than fifty years, inadequate records, and the likelihood of multiple property transfers, with competing and overlapping claims of ownership. The result," Ms. Henry states, "is that identifying property can be tricky. Documenting ownership can be difficult. Recovering property can be impossible."
The AJC report goes on to further describe the three basic categories of Jewish property: public or communal (such as cemeteries, synagogues, and schools); private property with recognized heirs; and heirless or abandoned private properties. Communal property, says Ms. Henry, has been the easiest to recover. Claims for private property would have to overcome the hurdles of proving ownership and the right to inherit, citizenship requirements, liability for debts and liens on the property, and prohibitive financial obligations to compensate current occupants. Claims for abandoned or "heirless" properties present other, often insurmountable, difficulties.
In addition, "Jewish property restitution is unpopular in societies with a tradition of anti-Semitism, and governments fear restitution measures would resurrect these sentiments. Restitution is also a delicate issue when large segments of the population have been transferred or have experienced great losses resulting from the war and Nazi occupation. Emerging European democracies fear that these populations, bearing the scars and memories of trauma, would resent being asked to make good on Jewish property claims when they have not been compensated for their own losses .Millions of people were displaced during the war, and it could be argued that everyone has someone else's property, land, or territory. Governments also fear that restituting Jewish property will open a Pandora's box by establishing a precedent or otherwise lead to calls for 'universal' restitution."
The report continues that as European states try to advance their current economic, political and cultural interests, restitution is unlikely to become a part of their equation. "It costs dearly, creates social tensions, and often puts the central governments at odds with their cities. It is a political problem whose resolution confers no apparent benefit on the state.
"Yet Jews are unwilling to accept the status quo on property. That would make Jewish property losses permanent, penalizing the Nazi victims while favoring the Aryanizers and their successors, and would leave local Jewish communities struggling for resources. For the Jews, all Jews, the issue is how to agree on an approach to restitution in an unstable political climate in which Jewish organizations have limited, if any, real leverage, and where appeals to justice may fall on indifferent or powerless ears - and all this while Europe is poised to leap into the next century, while Jewish groups appeal for redress of the injustices of the last."
In summarizing what she sees as the real meaning and importance of this issue, Ms. Henry asserts: "Unfortunately, the language of restitution fails to reflect the vast material, spiritual, and psychological devastation of the Jewish communities of Europe. The object is not to recover property. A school is not a building; it is the next generation of teachers, scholars, and rabbis. A synagogue is the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. All of these are sorely needed in Central and Eastern Europe. Property restitution, then, is a quest for justice and a mission to rescue Jewish heritage and to preserve Judaism in Europe."
Reflecting on the significance of report, Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director
of European Affairs, commented: "For five years now there have been
organized, international Jewish efforts to press Central and Eastern European
governments to restitute Jewish property. But, until the publication of
this report, there has been no objective, critical analysis of the success
or failure of these efforts and the impact they have had on the reviving
local Jewish communities and their relations with their governments and
with world Jewry."
For a review copy of "The Restitution of Jewish Property in
Central and Eastern Europe," write to Dan Larson, American
Jewish Committee, 165 East 56th Street, New York, NY 10022, fax
your request to (212) 319-0975, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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