(photo credit: AP)
Czech parliament voted Wednesday to cancel a deadline for legislation that enables the return of artworks confiscated from Jews during the Nazi occupation to their original owners.
Under the law, claims by original owners or their descendants could be filed only until the end of 2002. An amendment approved by parliament in March 2002 postponed the deadline until the end of 2006.
Lawmakers on Wednesday cancelled the deadline altogether, with 165 of the 174 lower-house members present voting in favor of the measure. Nine lawmakers abstained, and no one opposed, legislative spokesman Roman Zamboch said.
The measure still needs approval by parliament's upper chamber, the Senate, and requires presidential ratification. The chamber's speaker Miloslav Vlcek, who proposed the cancellation, said he expected smooth approval.
The head of Prague's Jewish community called the vote's outcome "excellent news."
"It means that all the efforts to trace the artworks in museums and galleries won't be wasted," Frantisek Banyai said.
Until now, some 20,000 paintings and other works of art that originally belonged to Czech Jews were found in various galleries and castles, said Tomas Kraus, secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. Of the number, some 13,000 have been discovered since 2002, Kraus said.
"Only about 500 pieces have been returned to their original owners so far," he said.
Kraus said that the country's Jewish community planned to step up efforts to inform those living abroad about their right to claim property taken during the Nazi era.
"We don't know if all who are eligible to claim the artworks are aware at all of the possibility to do so," Kraus said.
In 1998, the Czech government established a commission to organize a search for lost works of art and to prepare legislation allowing property confiscated to be given back to the original owners.
The law drafted by the commission was approved by parliament in 2000. It allowed Jews to receive state-owned property confiscated from them between Sept. 29, 1938, and May 8, 1945.
Previously, Czech law only allowed for the restitution of property lost after the Feb. 25, 1948, communist takeover.
The artworks are displayed online at www.restitution-art.cz.
Nearly 120,000 Jews lived on Czech territory before World War II; 80,000 died during the Holocaust.
Today, the Czech Republic has only a tiny Jewish community of several thousand people.