Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Israel Singer
Co-Chairman - World Jewish Restitution Organization

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Thank you very much for the invitation to testify before this Commission on this important issue. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, of which I currently serve as President, has been negotiating with Germany and Austria on behalf of the Jewish world for compensation and restitution for Holocaust survivors since its establishment in 1951. During that time, and as a result of its efforts, over DM 100 Billion has been distributed to Holocaust survivors pursuant to agreements and legislation of the German Government. (1) The World Jewish Restitution Organization was established in 1992 to seek compensation and restitution from countries other than Germany and Austria. It has played a central role in securing Holocaust restitution and compensation from numerous countries in Europe and in particular was pivotal to the agreement with Swiss Banks in 1998. Nevertheless, although much has been achieved in recent years, there is much yet to be done.

We are standing at a critical stage in history. A new Europe is being formed. The post war division of Europe into two groups formally disintegrated over 10 years ago but the building of a united Europe is, only now, finally taking shape. Three countries from the former Eastern Bloc have already entered NATO, nine countries would like to be invited to enter NATO in November of this year and ten countries from Eastern Europe would like to join the European Union – and I am certain that in the future many more countries will undoubtedly also apply to join to this economic partnership.

Yet integration into the united Europe is, and must be, more than fulfilling certain economic agreements and military pacts. A country must take its place in sharing and implementing certain basic values concerning human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In fact one of the considerations of the US Government is to establish not only the military and financial/economic requirements of potential NATO members but also to deal with and evaluate the accomplishment of social, democratic and societal milestones of NATO aspirant countries.

Clearly all countries that seek to participate in the “new world order” are obligated to pursue a course of action that will result in a measure of justice for the victims of persecution by the Nazi regime and its allies. However that cannot be sufficient – each country must also commit it itself to take action to ensure that the anti-Semitism of 60 years ago is never allowed to take hold again.

It has been recognized that the method in which a country establishes and implements a law or mechanism for the restitution of private and communal Jewish property seized by the Nazi regime (or its allies) is indicative of that country’s commitment to securing for itself a place in Western world.

Deputy Secretary Eizenstat stated before the Helsinki Commission in 1999:

“the basic principle that wrongly expropriated property should be restituted (or compensation paid) applies to them all [countries in central and eastern Europe] and their implementation of this principle is a measure of the extent to which they have successfully adopted democratic institutions, the rule of law with respect to property rights and market economy practices. As these governments seek to join western economic and political organizations and to integrate their economies more closely with ours, we do expect them to adopt the highest international standards in their treatment of property…” (2)

Moreover, Holocaust restitution and compensation has not been achieved without a historical context. It is dependent upon countries opening archives and investigating the realities of the expropriation of the property of millions of Jews. The many commissions that have been established throughout Europe that have examined the loss of Jewish property during the Nazi regime became integral elements in the way in which countries dealt with Holocaust memory. As former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright stated during the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets:

“our imperative must be openness. Because the sands of time have obscured so much, we must dig to find the truth. This means that researchers must have access to old archives and by that, I don’t mean partial, sporadic or eventual access – I mean access in full, everywhere…….. the obligation to seek truth and act on it is not the burden of some but of all, it is universal, ….. every nation, every business, every organization ……. is obliged to do so. In this arena, none or us are spectators, none are neutral; for better or worse, we are all actors on history’s stage.” (3)

Most recently Deputy Secretary Armitage has declared that “following the fall of the Berlin Wall, possibilities opened for the US Government and others to resume work on securing justice for Holocaust victims….we are convinced that the greatest effort we can make is to try to make a measure of justice to the survivors of the Holocaust. The United States Government remains committed to work for the human dignity that is the hallmark of our country.” (4)


1. International Standards

The adoption of international standards for the restitution and compensation of private, communal and heirless Jewish property need not be established anew. A precedent, that was developed over the course of 50 years, already exists.

The principle of the restitution of Jewish property taken during the Nazi regime was recognized in the immediate war period by the US Military Government in Germany that enacted Military Law No 59 The Return of Identifiable Property in the US Military Zone of Germany. This law established the legal basis for the return of Jewish property and was followed by legislation in the French and British zones of Germany. The allied legislation on the restitution of property was only the first stage in German compensation and restitution measures. In accordance with Protocol 1 of the Agreement between the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany in 1952, the newly created German Government implemented comprehensive legislation in the period between 1953 – 1965.

The restitution of property of Jews and Jewish communities of the former East Germany only commenced after the fall of Communism. Prior to that date, restitution was not possible as the communist Government did not recognize the concept of private property, nor did it permit religious communities to freely function nor return communal property to them. The first major legislation in East Germany and in fact in any former communist country was enacted in 1990. The Vermögensgesetz 1990 covered the return of property that was taken or lost or forcibly sold under the Nazi regime. This legislation covers three aspects of restitution, namely,

(a) restitution and compensation of private property;
(b) restitution and compensation of communal property;
(c) designation of a successor organization for heirless property.

Although the situation in Germany is morally different to that in other countries, since Germany was the perpetrator of the Holocaust, the greatest crime known to humanity, the comprehensiveness of the legislative program can be used as a model for property restitution.

2. International Standards specifically relating to Eastern Europe.

The problems relating to Eastern Europe are in many ways unique. Firstly, the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe suffered under both the Nazi regime and the Communist regime. Consequently, no private property restitution occurred for over 50 years. In many countries the current Jewish communities are small in number (as a result of decimation of Eastern European Jewry during the Holocaust) and yet the needs for communal institutions for the existing communities – in particular for the young and the aged are substantial. In addition, many holocaust survivors and their heirs currently live abroad, primarily in Israel and the United States.


Although, arguably the former Communist countries have fewer financial resources to undertake a program of property restitution, the limited attempts made to enact property restitution are often more indicative of a lack of political will than economic constraints.
Importantly, “while [property restitution] may be initially expensive and politically sensitive, sound property restitution systems are clearly in the interest of all the Central and Eastern European countries”. (5)

In contrast, the US Government, both through the US administration and the US Congress, has consistently set the benchmark for restitution in Central and Eastern European countries. For example, in April 19, 1995 a letter signed by Newt Gingrich (Speaker of the House), Richard Gephardt (House Minority Leader), Benjamin Gilman (Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Relations), Lee Hamilton (Ranking Member, House Committee on Foreign Relations), Robert Dole (Senate Majority Leader), Thomas Daschle (Senate Minority Leader), Jesse Helms (Chairman Senate Committee on Foreign Relations), and Claiborne Pell (Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) stated:

“ It is the clear policy of the United States that each [Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and the Ukraine] should expeditiously enact appropriate legislation providing for the prompt restitution and/or compensation for property assets seized by the former Nazi and/or Communist regimes. We believe it is a matter of both law and justice..”

In 1998 Congress resolved that “countries in transition in Central and Eastern Europe should remove certain citizenship or residency requirements for individual survivors of the Holocaust seeking restitution of confiscated property and noted that former Communist countries which seek to become members of the North Atlantic Alliance and other international organizations must recognize that a part of the process of international integration involves the enactment of laws which safeguard and protect property rights that are similar to those in democratic countries…”. (6)

Importantly, the US Government established a set of principles for the restitution of private and communal property that were promulgated by Deputy Secretary Stuart Eizenstat in 1999. These principles are as follows:

· We encourage governments to establish equitable, transparent and non-discriminatory procedures to evaluate specific claims. In most countries this requires national legislation;

· Access to archival records needed for the process should be facilitated by the government whenever necessary. Where archives have been destroyed, reasonable alternative forms of evidence should be permitted;

· National governments should take the necessary steps to ensure that their restitution polices are implemented at regional and municipal levels of government, which often control the bulk of the property.

· Owners or their heirs should be eligible to claim personal property on a non-discriminatory basis, without citizenship or residence requirements;

· Legal procedures should be clear and simple;

· Governments at all levels should respect and implement the decisions of the courts when these are final. (In some countries, government agencies continue to occupy properties for years after they have been awarded to the original owner, without making any plans to move.)

· Restitution claims should be honored before privatization takes place. Governments should be very cautious about privatizing property, confiscated by the Nazis or Communists, whose ownership is in dispute. If this is not done, original owners should have a right to fair compensation.

· Governments should make provisions for the present occupants of restituted property. In most cases, those using the property now had no hand in the expropriation. If no compensation or alternative accommodations are found for the occupants, the restitution tends to be delayed, sometimes indefinitely.

· Restitution of the property should result in a clear title to the property, generally including the right to resale, not simply the right to use property, which could be revoked at a later time.

· Generally, communal property should be eligible for restitution or compensation without regard to whether it had a religious or secular use. Too many countries restrict restitution to only narrowly defined religious properties, excluding the return of parochial schools, community centers, and other communally owned facilities.

· Where local religious communities are very small, as is often the case with Jewish communities, we encourage the establishment of foundations, managed jointly by local Jewish communities and international Jewish groups, to aid in the preparation of claims and to administer restituted property. Such foundations enable international groups to share the burdens, and potentially some of the benefits of the restituted property.

These principles should set the framework for the future property restitution.

However, the issues of artwork and cultural property also require a comprehensive restitution process. In particular, countries must implement the principles contained in the declaration of the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets which stated, inter alia, that “all governments should undertake all reasonable efforts to achieve the restitution of cultural assets looted during the Holocaust era to the original owners or their heirs.” (7)

It is also important that when dealing with Holocaust restitution countries make provision for heirless Jewish property.

Finally, agreements should be concluded with local municipalities whereby such municipalities assume responsibilities for the maintenance of cemeteries.

3. Current Status in Eastern Europe

The question to be addressed is the extent to which countries in Central and Eastern Europe have met their obligations. The status of property restitution in Central and Eastern Europe is far from consistent. The situation in each country therefore must be outlined separately:

(a) Poland

Private Property

In March 2001, the Polish parliament approved a law for the restitution of private property. However, the right to file a claim was limited to those persons who had Polish citizenship as of 31 December 1999. The law was subsequently vetoed by the President of Poland.

The current government has indicated that it intends to propose a new law establishing a mechanism for private property restitution. On behalf of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, I recently sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Poland urging him to engage in serious discussions concerning the legislation for the return of private property with the relevant parties without delay. A copy of my letter is attached to this statement.

Communal Property

In February 1997, the Polish Parliament enacted a law to deal with the restitution of communal property. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland was formed as a partnership between WJRO and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland (JRCP). The Foundation is researching, preparing and filing claims to the Polish government for the restitution of Jewish communal property. The Foundation will also own and manage properties that are returned in 27 of the 49 Polish districts. Income from such properties will be used to support Jewish projects inside and outside of Poland. Properties in the other 22 districts are being reclaimed and owned by JRCP or the eight individuals Jewish communities in Poland (Gminas).

Under the 1997 law the filing deadline for communal property was May 11, 2002. A total of 5,200 claims (inlcuding about 1,000 cemeteries) were filed – 3,500 in the Foundation areas and 1,700 in the JRCP areas. Claims are submitted to a Regulatory Commission consisting of three government appointees and three JRCP representatives. Claims are either resolved as a result of negotiations between the local Jewish communities and the Polish government and municipalities or through a Commission tribunal. As of April 2002 about 200 claims have been resolved, with most being either returned to Jewish ownership or resulting in Jewish communities receiving compensation or alternate properties.

In order to expedite the process, the Foundation and JRCP are seeking creation of a second Commission to review Jewish claims. The Polish government is proposing legislation to give all religious communities an additional two years to file claims. The Foundation and JRCP estimate they could file hundreds more claims in such time.

(b) Romania

Private Property

A law on the restitution of private property was passed in 2001 . The deadline for the filing of claims expired on February 2002. This law is extremely complex and contained burdensome procedural provisions that may have resulted in applicants facing difficulties in filing claims. Moreover, it is vital that there is access to archival records in order that claimants can substantiate their claims. In addition, the standards of proof that are used in the adjudication of claims must take into consideration the fact that over 60 years have elapsed since the loss of the property. It is, at present unclear as to whether the implementation of the legislation will lead to a just and equitable process.

Communal Property

Unfortunately, there is no law on communal property restitution. A Foundation has been established (the Caritatea (Charity) Foundation) which is researching and submitting claims to the Romanian government. The Caritatae Foundation has information on 850 properties and has submitted 180 claims. The national government has approved 42 properties for restitution (to the Caritatea Foundation) via administrative and extraordinary procedures, but only 18 have actually been transferred to date. The Foundation now owns 35 properties, with 17 others having been reclaimed through direct negotiations with local governments.

A February 2000 law bans the return of any property, private or community, to any individual or religion, if that property is now being used as a "public institution." Theoretically, compensation can be paid in such cases, but no mechanism to do so has been established.

Czech Republic

Private Property

A law was adopted in June, 1994 that allowed for the return of some, but not all, real estate lost by individuals from 1938 to 1945. This law was deficient in numerous areas. In particular, non-Czech citizens and former owners of agricultural property did not benefit from this legislation. In addition, the measure did not, provide for restitution of property that had already been privatized or passed on to municipalities. The law also required evidence that claimants had attempted to reclaim property in the postwar, pre-Communist period of 1945 – 1948 which could not be done by many Jewish refugees who were trying to rebuild shattered lives outside of Europe.

In January 1999 the Czech government decided to establish a joint commission to deal with all property claims. Headed by Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky, it consisted of Czech officials and Jewish community representatives; the Federation invited the international Jewish organizations to participate. The commission proposed to the Czech government several steps—legislation, government actions and decrees, etc.—leading to redress of the injustice caused to the Czech Jewish population during the Second World War and the communist period. A law was subsequently passed that allowed individual claims for agricultural property and removed the Czech citizenship requirement for claimants of looted art being held by state institutions.

The equivalent of $7.5 million in U.S. currency was transferred to a Holocaust victims’ fund that would, in part, compensate non-citizens, heirs, and others who for various reasons had been unable to regain real estate lost during the World War II era. The Foundation conducted a “claims process” in order to be able to make symbolic payments to property claimants who are Holocaust victims or their heirs and approximately 1250 “claims” were submitted.

Communal Property

While there is no general communal property restitution law in the Czech Republic, dozens of properties have been returned to Jewish communities through administrative and legal proceedings. There was legislation enacted 2001 that permits the government in the future to return property by further special decree. Though there may be over 800 communal properties, an initial 1994 list of 202 properties was the basis of negotiations for several years. This target list is continually expanding and contracting as properties are reclaimed and others are identified.

(c) Hungary

Private Property

A law on the restitution of private property was enacted during the early 1990s but the compensation received by the owners was minimal (only 5 – 10% of its market value). In addition, the legislation was not comprehensive – it did not provide for compensation for assets such as securities, insurance policies, bank accounts or looted artwork. Archives must be opened in order that claimants are able to pursue their claims for restitution.

Communal Property

A 1991 law on restitution of church property allows only for use of property for current needs and does not permit sale or rental of property to provide the community with income. A 1997 law created the Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment and granted it 4 billion Forint bond ($15 million) as well as seven properties and some art works. The Endowment uses the sum to pay monthly pensions to 18,000 Holocaust survivors and the income from property to fund projects in Hungary. A 1998 law was enacted which gave the Hungarian Jewish Community a 13.511 billion Forint bond annuity ($52 million) in lieu of claims to 152 properties. This annuity provides the community with about 700 million Forints annually ($2.7 million) to meet community needs. According to the WJRO database there are 3,000 communal properties in Hungary, including over 400 cemeteries. It is importtant that further communal properties be restituted.

During my most recent visit to Hungary, I discuss the fact that there are open restitution issues with both the Prime Minister and the President and found a willingness in the Government to deal with some of the open issues. I will report to this Commission the results of my future discussions.

(d) Slovakia

Private Property

Recently the Slovak government has established a property commission, which consists of both government officials and Jewish representatives. The goal of the commission is to identify the unrestituted properties of former Slovak Jews and to find a solution to the problem of ownership.

The commission first convened on December 4, 2001 and subsequently hired a panel of independent experts and historians from the Slovak Academy of Sciences to prepare a report on property issues arising out of the World War II era; their findings will form the basis for a proposal to the government. The commission recently issued a report that estimates the value of looted Holocaust era assets – primarily movable assets, excluding real estate – at $200 million (about 8.5 Billion Slovak crowns).

Ten Jewish representatives sit on the commission, seven of them from the Slovak community; the other three represent four different international Jewish organizations.

It is hoped that in the near future there will be an agreement between the representatives of the Slovak Community/International Jewish Organizations and the Slovak Government on this issue.

Communal Property

A 1993 law on return of property to all religions was enacted. The Jewish community and other faiths had one year (1994) in which to file all claims. Each of the existing 10 Slovak Jewish communities filed the claims in their city and area. UZZNO (Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities) is the heir and claimant only for property in areas with no living community and for no longer existing organizations. According to UZZNO they and the communities filed several hundred claims.

Each claim was submitted to the current user and if the property was not returned then the Jewish community or UZZNO could go to court to seek restitution. UZZNO has reclaimed about 35 properties with much left to be done.

(e) Bulgaria

Private Property

In 1993 the Government of Bulgaria passed a private property restitution law and the progress on the implementation of this legislation has been encouraging.

Communal Property

The Jewish community has received back about 100 properties throughout Bulgaria, which covers almost all their claims. However, two notable buildings in the center of Sofia remain in government hands, despite repeated court rulings that they should be returned to the Jewish community. The properties, a building at 9 Suborna Street and a 49% share of the Rila Hotel, would provide enough income to make the Jewish community self-sufficient. Repeated commitments by high government officials to return these two properties have gone unfulfilled for several years.

(f) Lithuania

Private Property

Legislation was enacted by the parliament for restitution or compensation of private property but it contained citizenship and residency requirements that excluded all persons residing outside of Lithuania. In addition, due to financial difficulties the government had not been in a position to make compensatory payments to those persons that reside in Lithuania and are entitled to make a claim under the legislation.

Communal Property

A March 1995 law provided for a one-year period to file claims for restitution of “religious” property to “religious communities.” This narrow definition did not permit the return of all communal property and did not permit the return of any property to the main Jewish Community of Lithuania (JCL), which is seen under law as a “secular” organization. The Jewish religious community supposedly filed 250 claims but the whereabouts of the list are still unclear. A total of 28 buildings, mostly synagogues, have been returned prior to and under the 1995 law – 3 in Vilnius, 5 in Kaunas and the rest in small towns (and in poor condition). The WJRO lists over 1,100 communal properties.

As of the end of 2001 there is combined leadership of the religious and secular (JCL) communities. In the Spring of 2002 the International Committee to Represent Jewish Property Claims in Lithuania was formed. At the request of the Prime Minister, on June 17 the Cabinet of Ministers formed a governmental commission on restitution of Jewish communal property, chaired by the Minister of Justice, that will review all aspects this issue and possibly propose new legislation and processes. The International Committee is working with this commission to create a list of properties, react to government proposals and to create a foundation between JCL and WJRO.

(g) Latvia

Private Property

The issue of private property restitution is progressing in Latvia in a steady manner.

Communal Property

An April 1992 Law on Return of Property to Religious Organizations, applies to all faiths and provides for return of "religious" property to "religious" organizations. The small religious community (now 136 members) applied for 24 properties and has received 16 and compensation for two others. Under the 1992 law there was an administrative claims procedure ending 1995 and now any religious community must go to court to file claims.

There is now new leadership in the religious community and a much closer relationship with the much larger “secular” community, the Jewish Community of Latvia (with 4000 members). The united community is now interested in pursuing remaining claims for all communal properties, which may total 200-300. However, many of these properties are in small towns and in poor condition. Some legislative changes may be needed in order to cover all communal property and to allow restitution to the JCL.

(h) Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova

Little has been achieved concerning the restitution of private and communal property in those countries.

Conclusion

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has consistently advocated for all member states to deal with this issue in a comprehensive and non-discriminatory way. In fact in July 2001 at the Paris Meeting of the OCSE, it urged:

“The OSCE participating States to ensure that they have implemented appropriate legislation to secure the restitution and/or compensation for property loss by victims of Nazi persecution and property loss by communal organizations and institutions during the National Socialist era to Nazi victims or their heirs(s), irrespective of the current citizenship or place or residence of victims or their heir(s) or the relevant successor of communal property.”

This Commission, formed to monitor and encourage compliance of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent documents, has consistently addressed the issue of property restitution - holding hearings and sponsoring the resolution by the House of Representatives that called on formerly totalitarian countries to return property to rightful owners or if that is impossible to pay prompt, just and effective compensation. This Commission should be congratulated for its work.

However, as you are aware our struggle is far from over and we call upon this Commission to remind both those OSCE participant countries that are not fulfilling their obligations as to the necessity for comprehensive private and communal property restitution and in addition, to contact NATO aspirant countries to outline the centrality of this issue.

Importantly, we all recognize that Holocaust restitution is not about money – it is about truth, a measure of justice, and above all about, as Elie Wiesel states, “it is about conscience, morality and memory.” It is about achieving a measure of justice in the lifetime of survivors and heirs. (8)

Moreover we must fight anti-Semitism in all forms, wherever it appears, and in all countries. We cannot and must not let the search for truth and justice for Holocaust survivors be used as an excuse for anti-Semitism. We will have lost everything if we permit others to use our struggle as an excuse for bigotry and hatred.

1Speech of Deputy Secretary Armitage to the Board Meeting of the Claims Conference in July 2001 at www.claimscon.org.

2Written Testimony of Under Secretary of State, Stuart Eizenstat at the Helsinki Commission on 25 March 1999.

3Proceedings of the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets November 30 to December 3, 1998.
4Speech of Deputy Secretary Armitage at the Board Meeting of the Claims Conference on July 2001.

5Testimony of Deputy Secretary Stuart Eizenstat to Senate Foreign Relations Committee 20 April 2000.

6House Resolution 557 Expressing support for US Government efforts to identify holocaust era assets, urging the restitution of individual and communal property (House of Representatives October 8, 1998).

7Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets Paragraph 1 at www.vilniusforum.lt

8Opening Ceremony Remarks of the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. November 30 – December 3, 1998