Holocaust restitution a tough sell in eastern Europe
In 1988, Yehuda Evron received a memorable letter from Lech Walesa, the first post-Communist president of Poland, on the eve of the country’s transition to democracy.
“He wrote that within a few months we would get my wife’s property back,” recalled Evron, now 80. His wife was the only Holocaust survivor of a family that owned a residential building and factory in Zwienec that had been confiscated by the Nazis and then seized by Poland’s Communist government.
Evron, a Romanian emigre and leader of the New York-based Holocaust Restitution Committee, which represents claims of thousands of survivors from Poland, chortled bitterly earlier this month when recalling his initial optimism after corresponding with Walesa. Nearly 25 years have passed, and many more survivors have died as Polish leaders have repeatedly reneged on promises to enact a restitution law to compensate for billions of dollars in property stolen from Jews and non-Jews during and after the Holocaust.
Home to more Jews than any other country before World War II, Poland is now the only European country that endured Nazi occupation that has not enacted a law to ensure some kind of private property compensation or restitution to Holocaust survivors or their heirs.
Evron was at this month’s Prague meeting on Holocaust restitution, called the Immovable Property Review Conference, a follow-up to a 2009 conference in the city that produced a historic resolution on Holocaust assets. The resolution, called the 2009 Terezin Declaration, was signed by 46 countries that committed to speeding up the restitution of private and communal property to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
This year’s conference and the 2009 one were organized and supported by the Czech Foreign Ministry, U.S.-based Jewish groups and the U.S. State Department, with participation of countries throughout Europe.
At this month’s gathering, many references to 2009 were in the form of laments that so little had been accomplished in three years.
“In sum, restitution of property confiscated during the Holocaust proceeds exceedingly slowly, if at all,” said a report prepared for the conference by the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella group.
The focus remains on central and eastern Europe, where compensation for communal and private property seizures began in the 1990s and mostly continues at a glacial pace.
In Croatia, for example, the main progress since 2009 has been the proposal of an amendment eliminating a citizenship requirement imposed by Croatia’s restitution law, but the amendment hasn’t been submitted to lawmakers yet.
In Romania, all compensation to private property claimants has been suspended. Critics blame a corrupt and bankrupt compensation fund.
In Latvia, where 300 Jewish communal properties were never returned, a bill offering some compensation has been stalled for six years.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has withheld the final two years of a government compensation program to aid Hungarian survivors who live outside the country.
There have been a few bright spots.
In 2011, Lithuania authorized payment of some $50 million over 10 years to the Jewish community for communal property seized by the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes. Serbia passed a restitution bill affecting Jews and non-Jews that the Jewish community expects will eventually address Holocaust claims specifically.
Last month, the Czech Republic’s lower house of Parliament approved a plan to return billions of dollars of communal property confiscated from Jews and Christians by the Communist regime. If the bill passes, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities would receive $500,000 a year over 30 years.
The worst restitution record, conference goers said, belongs to Poland.
In 2010, Terezin Declaration signatories approved non-binding best practices such as suggesting solutions to the problem of heirless property and making the claims process more transparent and affordable. But after agreeing to the document, Poland made an abrupt about-face and withdrew its support, and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski went on Polish radio in 2011 to complain of U.S. pressure on restitution issues.
Poland was the only signatory to the 2009 Terezin Declaration that didn’t send a delegate to this month’s conference.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy treasury secretary who served as special representative of the U.S. president for Holocaust issues during the Clinton administration, said he’s disappointed in Poland, but insisted it’s not a lost cause.
“When I began going hat in hand to these eastern European governments in the 1990s, no one would have ever imagined we could have gotten all the agreements that are in place for the return of property,” Eizenstat said. “In Poland, you have a process for the return of religious communal property, and that’s thanks to the pressure of conferences like these.”
A counsellor at the Polish Embassy in Prague, Isabella Wollejko-Chwastowicz, told JTA that a compensation law was “so complicated” that it was just taking a long time for the government to review. The explanation contradicts the latest public Polish government position that Jewish groups are demanding too much.
Baroness Ruth Deech, a property expert and member of Britain’s House of Lords, said Poland’s position is infuriating.
Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, countered that Poles’ aversion to restitution is economic, not antisemitic.
But failing to come to agreement on a restitution bill could be more costly for Poland, restitution advocates note. Jews could press private property claims in court, and the lack of clarity on land ownership in Poland hinders economic development. In Warsaw, for example, one-third of the city’s real estate was in Jewish hands before World War II, according to Eizenstat, who is still involved in restitution talks and works as a pro bono consultant to the Claims Conference.
Eizenstat said he hopes economic arguments will convince Polish officials to move ahead with restitution. Such pocketbook appeals are significant, since the West can no longer hold out admission to the European Union or NATO as an incentive, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a longtime restitution negotiator. Eastern European countries have already won admittance to these bodies.
If you can’t prove economic self-interest, you need to convince governments to provide restitution by appealing to leaders’ moral consciences, he said.
For his part, Evron continues to press his wife’s case with Poland. But he doesn’t have high hopes.
He bemoaned Poland’s tactic of forcing claimants to spend years and thousands of dollars on court cases, where they’re often asked to produce evidence destroyed during World War II. But even when they win, as in his wife’s residential building claim, cases are referred to the Finance Ministry for review, Evron said.