Latvia passes law for restitution of Jewish property taken in Holocaust

The worth of stolen Jewish real estate during the Holocaust was calculated to be in excess of €47 million.

National flag flutters over Latvian central bank headquarters in Riga, Latvia April 9, 2019. (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
National flag flutters over Latvian central bank headquarters in Riga, Latvia April 9, 2019.
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)

Latvia's parliament passed a law on Thursday regarding Holocaust restitution to the country's Jewish community.

Prior to the onset of World War II and the Holocaust, Jews in the Baltic nation owned schools, orphanages, cultural institutions, hospitals and other properties. However, during the Nazi occupation, approximately 75,000 Jews in Latvia were murdered.

"This was the most serious crime against humanity ever committed on Latvian territory," the Latvian parliament said in a statement.

Something that is complicating the issue is the fact that many of the institutions that owned property no longer exist and that no heirs can be found. Additionally, the exact amount of private property lost has been hard to determine. However, the government managed to calculate the worth of stolen Jewish real estate to be in excess of €47 million, based on property belonging to Jews in 1940 and based on real estate value at the end of 2018.

Another issue is the matter of nationalization.

The Beit Israel Synagogue in Jurmala opened with fanfare in a beachfront building whose architecture echoes Latvia’s iconic lost wooden synagogues. (credit: JTA/CNAAN LIPHSHIZ)The Beit Israel Synagogue in Jurmala opened with fanfare in a beachfront building whose architecture echoes Latvia’s iconic lost wooden synagogues. (credit: JTA/CNAAN LIPHSHIZ)

Jews were denied property during the Holocaust, which was seized by the Nazis. However, in Latvia, as with most countries in Eastern Europe, that property was subsequently nationalized after the war ended when the area was under Communist rule.

When Latvia achieved independence in 1991, the property then became the property of the new country.

The law stresses that Latvia is not to blame for the loss of Jewish property, but "it would be ethical and fair if the state would, in good faith, reimburse the Latvian Jewish community," the parliament said.

“It was a moral obligation,” said Martiņs Bondars, the chairman of the Latvian parliament’s budget committee, who presented the law before the government body, according to The New York Times. “Only a country that is able to deal with its past has a future.”

It should be noted that Latvia has already returned most private properties that were claimed by owners or heirs, and in 2016 returned two synagogues, two schools and a hospital to the Jewish community, but communal buildings are another story, as noted by The New York Times.

The restitution itself is set to begin in 2023 and finish by the end of 2032, and it will be included in the annual state budget. However, it will not go directly to individuals, but instead for assistance to Holocaust survivors outside Latvia and for events in Latvia related to religion, culture, science, history, charity, education, sports and restoring and preserving the cultural and historical heritage of Latvian Jewry, as well as supporting Latvian Jewish organizations.

Further, it will result in the termination of all property claims by the Latvian Jewish community.

But many are still lauding it as a positive move.

“This law cannot bring back a destroyed community or a destroyed synagogue,” said Gideon Taylor, a chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, one of the main promoters of the bill, according to The New York Times. “But what it can do is recognize what happened, and this is why it is important.”

Property restitution remains a hot-button issue in countries in Europe, most notably in Poland, where it has remained a sore subject in relations with Israel and is a prominent talking point in domestic politics.