Fighting for Crumbs: Financial Restitution in Eastern Europe

, February 23, 2009

 

After the fall of communism in 1989, the issue of Jewish property restitution in Eastern Europe gradually reemerged. Its main proponents were Polish and Czech Jews, but the subject was raised in Jewish organizations as well. As a result, in 1992, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) was established by the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress. The latter’s Secretary General, Israel Singer, was the driving force behind its creation.

Naphtali Lavie, WJRO Executive Vice-Chairman, discussed how the Israeli government was consulted about this issue but showed little interest, since it wished to avoid bilateral conflicts with countries newly-liberated from communist rule. “Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, agreed to have Israeli diplomats accompany us in meetings with foreign governments. He had, however, to give in to opposition from the Foreign Office, which was not even willing to set up meetings for us, something which we ultimately had to do ourselves.”

Relations with Local Communities

“Before the WJRO began approaching Eastern European governments, internal discussions took place on how to relate to the local Jewish communities in these countries. I opposed those who suggested we try to circumvent them, which would be especially wrong in Hungary, with its sizable local Jewish community.

“In Poland we asked the Jewish community and four other Jewish organizations to accompany us to a meeting with the Polish government. They fell silent, until one leader – Wildstein – said something like: ‘You will go home, but we have to stay and live with the government, our neighbors and the local environment. For us it is not easy to create a conflict and thereafter live with the consequences.’ The Union of Jewish Communities and Organizations in Poland then signed an agreement permitting us to speak on their behalf.

“We met them on Friday. The following Monday we met the Prime Minister, Mrs. Hanna Suchocka. Her cabinet head, Jan Maria Rokita, said the Polish Jewish community should represent the Jews. We presented our power of attorney from the local organizations, which greatly surprised him. It turned out that the government had discussed with them the need to exclude world Jewry from negotiations. This pattern recurred, in various versions, in most countries concerned.

“Rokita said, ‘We Poles have not murdered the Jews,’ to which I responded: ‘But much Jewish property was stolen by Poles. Large segments of the civil population participated in the looting.’ I then related my own experience: I was in a work camp near a town with 30,000 Jews living in its ghetto. They were deported over a period of a few days, to Treblinka, to be murdered in October 1942. We were brought from outside the town to empty the houses the Germans wanted to use. Toward the end of the deportations, the ghetto walls were already broken. Hundreds of Poles from the neighborhood stood outside, each with a horse-and-carriage waiting for the remaining Germans to leave. Then they stole whatever they could and later settled in the Jewish homes.

“Following initial contacts, the WJRO began collecting relevant material and documentation on Jewish communal and private heirless property. Without any cooperation from local and central authorities in Poland, the WJRO managed to locate many thousands of relevant documents, which they verified and compiled into a detailed list of about 6,000 communal properties.”

Enrichment at Somebody Else’s Expense

“Our reasoning concerning material restitution has both moral and legal foundations. Decades ago the Polish government signed several human rights treaties including the Helsinki and Paris conventions. These explicitly stated that people have rights to their property. International law forbids one to enjoy enrichment at the expense of someone else. The Polish government still benefits from much stolen Jewish property.

“In 1946 the communist government issued a decree transferring all ‘post-German’ property to the government. The property the Germans left in Poland after their defeat was all expropriated from Jews. Today it remains in the hands of the Polish treasury.

“I went to the land registry in my birthplace, Cracow, and looked up the transfers concerning a specific building acquired in 1906 by a Jewish family. At the beginning of 1940, there is a stroke in the registry indicating that the property had been transferred to the General Government, which meant that the German occupying authority – having stolen it from the Jews – registered it in the name of their authority.

“In 1946 a new stroke appears in the registry, indicating that the property had been transferred to the Polish treasury. Further transfers occurred when the municipality became the owner, and when the municipality donated or sold it to an external organization. This case is typical of ‘enrichment at somebody’s else’s expense’, which, as I pointed out, is a highly immoral process. None of the Polish government authorities I talked to had any response.”

Poland: The Properties of 1,500 Communities

“The WJRO’s first official contacts in Poland took place in May 1993. We met with the Prime Minister, cabinet members, parliamentarians and journalists. It took us considerable time to arrange these meetings. In the negotiations, the government’s senior representatives told us that, in the near future, a re-privatization law would be enacted, which could solve the claims concerning Jewish private heirless property. As for our claims for the restitution of communal property, we were told to follow the precedent established with regard to the claims of the Catholic Church, whose property was returned.

“We had decided to focus on Poland because before the war, there were about 1,500 organized Jewish communities in many hundreds of villages and other localities. Each one maintained a synagogue, a ritual bath, a school, and a cemetery.

“Over time we came up against a brick wall, since our Polish counterparts neither said yes nor no. Poland is still dragging out this process and demonstrates a very negative attitude toward restitution. In private conversations, our counterparts explained that, if they accepted the Jewish demands, an endless claims process would ensue. They would have to return land to the Germans they annexed for instance, in Silesia. Others would come with various additional requests, which the country would be unable to refuse. This was however, a subterfuge, because there are no other potential major claimants.

“Their second subterfuge was that we were claiming 30% or even 40% of all Polish real estate. There is proof that in big cities, such as Warsaw and Lodz, much real estate was Jewish-owned; but that was not the case in most other places. They added: ‘We are a poor country just beginning to get organized and cannot carry such a heavy financial burden.’

“We told them, in turn, that we wanted justice. The properties that had belonged to Jewish individuals or communities would have to be returned. We made it clear, however, that we did not want to oblige them to return these properties outright. Rather, wherever the tenants of formerly Jewish-owned apartment buildings in Poland pay rent to a Polish government agency, we claimed that – since this property rightfully belongs to the original legal owner – the former owner or his heirs should receive the rent and take responsibility for the property’s maintenance.

“I have also conducted many private conversations with Polish media representatives on the moral aspects of restitution. They usually react like Rokita, claiming it was not the Poles who killed the Jews. I always answer that this was not our claim, although it has since been proven that some mass murders were initiated and implemented by Poles without German orders, most notably at Jedwabne. My main argument was always that Poland inherited what the murderers of the Jews took from them, which is immoral. This argument found its way back to articles in serious papers such as Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczpospolita, Polityka and others. Today it has sunk into the consciousness of the politicians, even if they do not like to admit it.”

During the War: Making Plans for Confiscation of Property

Even during the war, some Nazi opponents made it clear they expected the Polish post-war government to confiscate Jewish property. A leading clandestine publication of the Christian Democrats, Narod, dated January 20, 1942, reported:

“The Jews, both morally and economically, were always a burden on the life of our nation…The events of the last two and a half years have created a situation that has made it impossible to agree to restore the Jews to their privileged position, without exposing our country to upheavals that would undermine the well-being of our new statehood. We have to state it openly. Not only do we refuse to restore to the Jews their political and property rights [lost during the war]; but we want them to leave our country altogether.

“[The] Jewish problem must be resolved through the gradual emigration of those Jews who, after the German extermination policy, remained alive, using the resources supplied by world Jewry for this purpose. The starting point [for the Polonization of our economy] will be the state seizure of heirless Jewish property, confiscated German property and proceeds from war indemnification.”

International Support

In view of its negative experiences, the WJRO and other Jewish organizations tried to mobilize international opinion. On February 7, 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher pledged United States support for restitution claims. In a letter dated April 10, 1995, congressional leaders from both parties urged Christopher to take action in this matter. Among its leading signatories were Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle and House Minority Leader Robert A. Gephardt. They wrote:

“It should be made clear to the countries involved…that their response on this matter will be seen as a test of their respect for basic human rights and the rule of law, and could have practical consequences for their relations with our country. It is the clear policy of the United States that each should expeditiously enact appropriate legislation providing for the prompt restitution and/or compensation for property and assets seized by the former Nazi and/or communist regimes. We believe this to be a matter of both law and justice.

“In December 1995 the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding the return of what was looted from the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. It referred to Article 1 of the first additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights: ‘every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.'”

Local Leaders: Not Representing Polish Jewry

“On my numerous visits to Poland, I found some counterparts agreeing to our position in private conversations, among them Leszek Miller, the present Polish Prime Minister. Finally, under pressure, the authorities gave in somewhat. In 1997 Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz’s government enacted a law stating that the properties of Jews still living in Poland would be returned.

“These are very few indeed. According to some estimates, about 5,000 Jews still live in Poland. The preamble of the 1997 law, published in parliament only counted 1,260 Jews. On all my visits, I have never heard of even one circumcision. There have, however, been many Jewish funerals. Less than 1,000 Jews are formally organized in nine registered Jewish communities. When the American Joint Distribution Committee distributes food for Pesach, a few more Jews surface.

“A few Jewish leaders took communal power years ago, through the communist government’s instructions, rather than elections. During that time I was in contact with a retired senior Polish army officer, who had been made head of the Jewish community by the government. He has since been replaced by another, who is close to the post-communist regime.

“The few remaining Jews are entirely pro-Polish. One declared to a local newspaper on his own initiative, ‘Restitution concerns Polish property, title to which must remain in Poland.’ These people said that they would oppose any transfer of property to Israel, the United States, or any other foreign locale. This small, assimilated local community cannot claim to represent former Polish Jewry in any way; it is rather a hindrance to Jewish interests.

“Furthermore, in a number of cases, local Jewish activists, communal professionals and others, took advantage of the fact that nobody else was present, and sold communal property, such as synagogues, cemeteries and other public buildings, like others did in Slovakia and Lithuania.

“When the Polish government proposed the 1997 law, the local Jewish community told them to give legal status only to it and not the WJRO. I then met Mr. Miller who, in his capacity as Minister of the Interior and Administration, was responsible for the Law of Restitution. I informed him we did not intend to be ‘extras.’ Initially the law called for the local communities to realize their property rights together with the WJRO. At the last moment the government changed one word in Polish, altering the meaning so that the local community could consult us, if they so desired, but did not have to adopt our opinion.”

A Million Polish Jews Abroad

“We are now discussing the establishment of a common fund. Run by both Poland’s Jewish community and the WJRO, this fund would receive the communal property. For four years the local community has sabotaged this process; we can only hope that it will now proceed. Meanwhile, various groups of Polish-born Jews abroad are trying to get organized.

“The tiny local community is the remnant of the 3.35 million Jews who lived in Poland before the Holocaust, representing nearly 10% of the country’s population. After the war, when many of those who had fled to the Soviet Union returned, 240,000 Jews lived in Poland; but subsequent murders by the Poles of many returnees caused massive emigration. By 1968 only approximately 30,000 Jews remained. Due to anti-Semitism and overall conditions in the country, most of them also left.

“According to our estimates, nearly a million Polish Jews and descendants live outside Poland. In Israel alone there are an estimated 400,000 such people. A similar number live in America. They are the main legal and moral claimants for the communal properties of Polish Jewry.”

Words in Exchange for Moral Claims

“As far as private – rather than communal – property is concerned, the Polish government is stalling even more. The previous government proposed a law on this issue to parliament, but it did not even reach the discussion table. The Polish President, who declared that Poland couldn’t meet such a multi-billion dollar financial commitment, vetoed it. Since then the government has started to introduce ‘corrections.’ The latest version says that anyone who can prove his right to a property will only receive 10% compensation. This proposal has not yet reached parliament and it will, of course, not satisfy us.

“Even this law may not be enacted because various parliamentary factions – representing constituencies which will be economically affected – will oppose it. Many major city high-street shops belonged to Jews, and were not purchased by any of the current owners. We continue to stress that we are not seeking cash payment for the outright transfer of ownership, but rather rent, which is usually paid to a governmental or municipal agency.

“Poland has become a prototype of the situation in Eastern Europe. Those in power do not think our claims are unreasonable. They do not give answers; and once they agree on something, they create both bureaucratic and political obstacles.

“The Polish government’s approach indicates that reasonable solutions can only emerge when pressure is exerted. Poland wants to be a member in various Western organizations, such as the European Union, and seeks support from others, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Polish authorities do not expect to be received everywhere with open arms. This may well create opportunities for pressure. In their world, claims of justice and morality alone carry no weight. By now it has become clear that, in exchange for moral claims, the Polish authorities are only willing, at best, to say nice words without any content.

“Many elements of these discussions were reproduced in other countries. We have used the same arguments we employed in Poland in our negotiations in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Hungary and Romania were satellites of the Nazis and not their victims. Their peace treaties with the Allies obligate them to restitute all heirless Jewish properties – communal, private and public – to the Jewish communities and organizations.”

Hungary

“Negotiations with Hungary – home to approximately 80,000 Jews – began in 1993. An estimated 30-40,000 Hungarian-born Jews live abroad. We encountered great difficulties with the local community there too.

“We reached an agreement with (then) Prime Minister Gyula Horn, in which the WJRO would set up a common fund with the Hungarian community. Its chairman would be Ronald Lauder, whose foundation actively supports Jewish schools in Hungary. The fund would receive the communal property, which it would distribute among the local communities. The Hungarian government also promised to return stolen art objects currently in various museums. So far we have received only five, not very valuable, paintings. Of some 3,000 Jewish communal buildings, a mere 18 have been returned.”

The Czech Republic

“We first visited Czechoslovakia in 1993. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus arrogantly refused to discuss property restitution. Mid-conversation he mentioned how much Pilsen needs the big school in its center. When I asserted that it was a former Jewish school, he responded ‘I don’t really know.’ To this I retorted, ‘Then why did you mention that school at all?'”

“‘Let’s assume you’re right,’ he suggested, ‘Pilsen needs that school. Should I tell the municipality to vacate the building?’ I replied: ‘To our great regret there are no Jewish children who can learn there anymore. The Czech authorities did not legally acquire the building, so it is reasonable to expect them to pay rent for it.’ This led to another outburst on his part.

“The Czech community told us they had given the government a list of communal assets they wished returned. The full inventory of Jewish communal assets totaled 1,200 properties, but the Jewish community presented a much smaller list of only 202 assets. They thought that, if their demands were more modest, they would more likely receive at least something.

“Later I met a former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pitthart who told me that he had tried to rush the Jewish community to hand in their requests when he was still in office. They were too late, however, and presented it when Klaus had become prime minister. When I discussed the community’s list with Klaus, he simply said it is being ‘studied.’ Today, almost nine years later, only 42 properties have been returned in this most liberal of Eastern European countries.

“Before the war almost a quarter of a million Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, more than half in Slovakia, today an independent state. Another part of the country’s territory is now Ukrainian. Today up to 3,000 Jews live in the Czech Republic, an estimated 25-30,000 Jews of Czech origin live abroad. The Czechs have used various subterfuges not to return Jewish property. For example, the parliament passed a law that unless one is living in Czechoslovakia, one cannot reclaim stolen  property.

Slovakia

In November 1993, co-Chairman of WJRO, Israel Singer and Lavie, met the then Slovakian Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, and his Deputy and Foreign Minister, Moravcik, in Bratislava. At the lengthy meeting – in which they discussed Jewish property restitution in Slovakia – the Prime Minister promised to amend a law that had been tabled in the Parliament in favor of the WJRO claim.  According to the existing law every building being restituted to a religious community of whatever denomination must be used for the original purpose.

Lavie explained that of the many hundreds of synagogues which are Jewish communal property, only a very small number can be used for the original purpose since most of the Jews from these communities had been extinguished by the Nazis.  The Prime Minister promised to introduce an amendment allowing for the restitution of all communal properties to the Jewish people without the precondition mentioned in the original law.

At the same meeting, WJRO representatives raised the issue of private property in Slovakia, explaining that at least 25,000 Jewish households consisting of apartments, shops and all kinds of businesses had been appropriated during the fascist regime and subsequently by the communist one. The Prime Minister responded to this claim by saying that the government will deal with private property once the communal property issue is settled,

The following day, Prime Minister Meciar called a press conference in the presence of the two WJRO representatives where as promised, he stated his policy about the restitution of Jewish communal property. WJRO submitted a detailed list of communal properties to be claimed to the local Jewish community leaders.  Repeated WJRO requests to the local Jewish community concerning the fate of that list and the response to it by the Slovakian government remain unanswered to this day.”

Says Lavie: “The Government of Slovakia signed an agreement with the local Jewish community to establish a mutual fund of approximately US $19 million on October 9, 2002.  This money will be at the disposal of Slovakian Jews as compensation for their properties that were confiscated.  It is not clear if Slovakian Jews who live outside the boundaries of Slovakia – whose numbers are estimated at nearly 20,000 – will be eligible to receive a portion from this fund, like the 2,000 Jews who live today in Slovakia.”

Romania

“In Romania I went with (then) Chief Rabbi Moshe Rosen in 1994 to meet President Iliescu. Rosen asked me to be the spokesman. In subsequent meetings I went alone. I also met Foreign Minister Theodor Malescanu, who was very pleasant, but would not commit to anything concrete.

“The WJRO members presented themselves as the representatives of Romanian Jews throughout the world, as well as in the country itself. Of the 800,000 Jews living in Romania before the war, 400,000 were murdered, many by the Romanians themselves. The Foreign Minister said that there is an internationally well-known legal rule of bona vacantia, which means ownerless property passes into government hands.

“I said this rule could not be applied to the Jews, who did not leave Romania of their own free will. Those who were murdered could not return. They were not killed because they were criminals, but because they belonged to a certain community and people. If none of their family members survived, their property became unclaimed heirless property. Thus, today, the wider Jewish community is entitled to reclaim it. The moral issue of the suffering caused by the Romanian authorities to the Jews was not even discussed.”

Lithuania: A Fictitious Jewish Community

“The situation in Lithuania is problematic for other reasons. In August 2001 I visited Prime Minister Algridas Brazauskas, a former Lithuanian president. Lithuania had established a law to restore communal property; but it was made conditional upon the property’s return to a religious community.

“One local individual and some acquaintances set up a fictitious Jewish religious community. This individual managed to acquire two or three buildings from the Lithuanian government in the old city of Vilna, which he sold. What happened to the money remains unknown. Most local Jews have assembled in a more general organization, which does not qualify legally as a religious community, and thus could not prevent these transactions.

“Before the war there were 250,000 Lithuanian Jews. Today, only 5,000 remain in the country. Their community must obtain the appropriate status for it to reclaim communal properties. While the Lithuanian authorities amended the law, the Jewish community has yet to reclaim any properties. I also discussed with the country’s president the status of the many Lithuanian Jews living outside the country who owned private property, which they could not reclaim under current Lithuanian law. I told him that in neighboring Latvia those who live abroad can forward such claims.

“There has been no progress since. The Lithuanian government has, however, carried out a successful public relations exercise. It sent the remains of some 300 Torah scrolls to Israel. The Lithuanians had no other use for them and were unable to sell them. Less than 20 scrolls were usable, even if substantial money was allocated to repair them. All the others could have been buried in Vilna, rather than being transferred to Israel for burial, according to Jewish custom.”

Other Countries

The restitution process is equally problematic in other Eastern European countries. Lavie reports: “In some countries we are entirely ignored. I visited the Ukraine to discuss the restitution problem for the first time in 1995, when Leonid Kravchuk was President. I presented our memorandum to the Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Kuras and we have yet to receive a reply. Last year I wrote to the Serbian government, which also didn’t respond. The same happened in Croatia where I conducted negotiations with the Government, in particular with the Minister of Justice.”

Lavie summarizes the situation: “After all those years, we now have a list of 22,000 Jewish communal properties in the former, communist countries of Eastern Europe. We can only conclude that what we are being offered does not even comprise the crumbs of what the Jews possessed before they were persecuted and murdered.

“Unfortunately, some Eastern European governments, which remain reluctant to restore the Jewish properties to their original owners, gained the collaboration of local Jewish community officials who demanded the exclusive right to receive the properties to be claimed.  It was, and still is, more convenient to deal with the local communities who have minimal claims instead of the representatives of world Jewish organizations who have the lists of vast amounts of Jewish communal and private properties still in the possession of those governments.

“In their effort to bypass the legitimate claims of property presented by the WJRO – some Eastern European governments could also enjoy the cooperation of a few Jewish organizations, mainly in the United States, who appeared on the scene in the last few years as claimants of these properties. At least two of these organizations are WJRO founding members.  Nevertheless, together with another Jewish American organization, they knocked on the doors of the governments in some Eastern European countries to discuss restitution, thus undermining the major effort being made by WJRO on behalf of world Jewry.  The divisive approaches made by some Jewish organizations for the same purpose jeopardize the concentrated efforts being made by WJRO over the last 10 years, with partial success in some of those countries.

“Only due to the WJRO’s efforts since 1993, have some governments, such as those of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Lithuania, responded positively to the claims of restituting the communal properties, either by enacting laws through the government and parliamentary system or by issuing government decrees where legislation was not possible.  But thousands of communal properties are still being claimed with no positive results.”

 Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *

Naphtali Lavie was born in Cracow in 1926. He came to Israel in 1945. For 15 years he was a member of the editorial board of the Ha’aretz daily. In 1970 he became the spokesman of the Ministry of Defense and adviser to the late Minister Moshe Dayan. He continued to work with Dayan when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the years 1977-1980, and participated in talks for the peace treaty with Egypt. He was Israeli Consul General in New York with the rank of ambassador. He has held the post of Vice-Chairman of the Executive of the WJRO since 1993.

Naphtali Lavie

Naphtali Lavie was a member of the editorial board of the Ha’aretz daily. In 1970 he became the spokesman of the Ministry of Defense and adviser to the late Minister Moshe Dayan and participated in talks for the peace treaty with Egypt. He was Israeli Consul General in New York with the rank of ambassador. He has held the post of Vice-Chairman of the Executive of the WJRO since 1993