For years, the Claims Conference has been a constituent member of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which is charged with the recovery of confiscated property from countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Together with local Jewish communities, the WJRO and the Claims Conference continue to press governments to provide for the restitution of, or fair compensation for, property looted by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust and later nationalized by Communist regimes.
The Claims Conference and WJRO were major participants in the Conference on Holocaust Era Assets held in Prague in June 2009, which was attended by 46 nations. A primary focus of the conference was the restitution of property seized during the Holocaust and establishing the European Shoah Legacy Institute, a follow-up mechanism to the conference with which the Claims Conference and WJRO continue their involvement.
In 2010, 43 of the nations that had participated in the Prague Conference reconvened in Prague and signed Guidelines and Best Practices for the Restitution and Compensation of Immovable (Real) Property Confiscated or Otherwise Wrongfully Seized by the Nazis, Fascists and Their Collaborators during the Holocaust (Shoah) Era. This document provides specific, detailed guidelines on procedures for processing and adjudicating claims for communal, private, and heirless property seized during World War II. The Guidelines call on participating nations to do the following: recognize the legitimate Jewish owners of property seized by the Nazis and their collaborators; establish transparent and accessible claims processes; allow claimants free access to archives; award full title or fair compensation to successful claimants; and consider allocating the proceeds from unclaimed and heirless property to benefit Holocaust survivors in need.
The Claims Conference and WJRO have worked closely with the U.S. Congress to help draft and publicize congressional resolutions that address property restitution problems in Central and East European nations. In addition, in May 2010, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) consisting of members from the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce working with the Claims Conference, held a hearing on the status of property that had been confiscated during the Holocaust, entitled Holocaust Era Assets After the Prague Conference.
The efforts to enact effective property restitution laws are laden with difficulties, as thecircumstances in each country concerning communal and private property vary considerably.Further, the pace of resolving claims in countries that do have a communal claims process isoften quite slow, with some countries permitting claims for properties, whether communal orprivate, only taken after 1945. Other countries discriminate against former owners that arecurrently foreign nationals, either precluding non-citizens from claiming their former property orfrom receiving their property back in kind. Others still drastically limit the amount ofcompensation awarded. In addition, many claims processes impose difficult evidentiary andother procedural burdens upon claimants.
A number of local Jewish communities have been able to recover, or achieve a financial settlement for, their communal property including synagogues, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cemeteries stolen during the Holocaust. In addition, several countries have established processes that enable individual owners to recover or receive compensation for their former private property. Yet other countries have prepared or are developing relevant draft legislation.
In June 2011, nine years of intensive efforts to obtain restitution of communal property in Lithuania resulted in that country’s first legislation on community property acknowledging what was lost 70 years ago. The Lithuanian Parliament passed a law providing for limited compensation for communal and religious property owned by the Jewish community of Lithuania before the Holocaust.
The legislation is laden with symbolism but falls far short of the compensation that should be awarded. However, with some funding also being provided to assist needy, elderly Lithuanian survivors with medical and welfare needs, it is an important first step.
In June 2002, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, of which the Claims Conference is a charter member, sent its first delegation to Vilnius which, working with the local Jewish community, began negotiations with the Lithuanian government toward the goal of enacting a law for the return of Jewish communal and religious property that was seized by the Nazis and later nationalized by the Soviet regime. With Lithuania’s rich Jewish history, it was inconceivable that the government should be allowed to continue ignoring its moral and historic obligation to acknowledge all that was lost.
Poland remains the only major country in the former Soviet bloc that, in the two decades since the fall of Communism, has no law providing for the restitution of or compensation for private property stolen during the Holocaust. The current proposed legislation does not provide for the return of any actual property, excludes all of the very valuable property located in Warsaw, offers limited (and unspecified) compensation, and sets forth a burdensome, complex, and costly claims process for claimants. In 2011, the Polish prime minister indicated that the country’s difficult economic circumstances meant that the bill, even with the minimal compensation it provides, will not, for the time being, receive government support.
The WJRO also helped establish the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, consisting of Jewish representatives from the local community and abroad. The foundation has filed more than 3,500 claims for communal property (including cemeteries) located in areas in Poland without a Jewish presence. The recovery process for communal property, however, continues to move exceedingly slowly.
The new government of Hungary, elected in the summer of 2011, established a new committee, which includes representatives from the Claims Conference and WJRO, as well as local Jewish representatives, to address remaining restitution issues. Parallel to, but separate from, the work of this committee, the Hungarian government has transferred $12.6 million to the Jewish Heritage of Public Endowment (a foundation also known as MAZSOK), which distributed part of the fund for the benefit of Holocaust survivors residing in Hungary, while the remainder of the fund is being distributed by the Claims Conference for the benefit of Holocaust survivors of Hungarian origin living outside of Hungary. The government is committed to transferring another $8.4 million, over the next two years, to be used for the benefit of Hungarian survivors worldwide.
The Caritatea Foundation, responsible for managing any recovered confiscated communal property and related compensation, was jointly established by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and the WJRO. While the Foundation prepared and submitted approximately 2,000 claims for the restitution of communal property by the 2005 deadline, few of these communal property claims have been resolved.
In addition, Romania passed legislation over a decade ago that established a restitution process for confiscated private property, but that process has proven complex and, ultimately, ineffective. Even with the various modifications made to address the inadequacies of the restitution law, the process continues to move extremely slowly. The Property Fund, established to compensate former property owners when the actual property that was seized cannot be returned, has taken much longer than expected to become operational and has raised substantial concerns. Thus, in spite of legislation that appears beneficial, implementation of restitution in Romania has been seriously flawed.
In October 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based on a number of submitted cases, held that the process of restitution in Romania raised significant concerns and directed Romania to undertake all necessary measures to deal with the protracted delays in returning seized property and to provide relief in a timely fashion. The WJRO has proposed recommendations to the government committee established in response to the ECHR criticisms.
In Latvia, the local Jewish community is working with the WJRO to prepare a draft bill that provides for the restitution of property previously communally owned or used for communal purposes. The bill will call for the return of the seized property in kind or substitute property and, if the actual or similar substitute property is not available, provide for reasonable compensation.
Legislation and claims processes in other countries are also being monitored, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Serbia has enacted a communal property restitution law and has draft legislation, still being modified, regarding private property restitution. WJRO negotiations with the Slovenian government are scheduled to begin in earnest in the summer of 2011, during which the two reports on confiscated property covering communal, private and heirless property prepared by the WJRO and the government, will be compared and serve as the basis of restitution negotiations. In addition, in Croatia, the government has drafted an amendment to its current restitution law which, for the first time, will permit foreign citizens to recover their confiscated property in the country. Where appropriate, the Claims Conference/WJRO also works with the European Union (EU) to try to make the enactment of effective property restitution or compensation legislation a condition for entry into the EU.