Eitan to revive Holocaust restitution efforts

Possible breakthrough may see new funds and renewed vigor in campaign to retrieve stolen and nationalized Jewish property.

eitan 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
eitan 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A possible breakthrough may see new funds and renewed vigor in the essentially stalled campaign to retrieve stolen and nationalized Jewish property in Eastern Europe. According to sources, the development will come in the form of an agreement between Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan and the desperately underfunded World Jewish Restitution Organization. The WJRO is a Jerusalem-based group that unites 10 major Jewish organizations in seeking the restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property that was nationalized or unclaimed in the wake of the annihilation of Europe's Jewish communities. This week, the various parties involved agreed to a meeting in Jerusalem of a coordinating committee that will determine the involvement of Eitan's ministry in WJRO activities, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Once the mechanics of the relationship are established, the government can begin injecting much-needed funding to the group. The meeting is expected to take place in the next couple of weeks, and - participants hope - will lead to a final deal that will give the nearly defunct WJRO a rebirth of sorts. According to both organization and government officials, there are vast numbers of lost properties in Eastern Europe still unexamined. But the restitution efforts are complex. It is considered well-nigh impossible to make 60-year-old property claims in a court of law, particularly considering the intervening decades of communist nationalization policies. This means restitution work must be advanced in the realm of public policy, dealing with local politicians to create mechanisms for restoration of property or compensation. However, since many Eastern European states see themselves as victims of the same communist authorities that nationalized much Jewish property, the Jewish demands for restitution often encounter anger rather than empathy. The WJRO, established in 1992, is formally responsible for Jewish restitution negotiations with states other than Germany and Austria, which were historically under the purview of the New York-based Claims Conference. Yet over the past decade, the Claims Conference has taken on many of the negotiations and regions dealt with by the WJRO because it was better equipped in staff and funds. The WJRO's annual budget of some $650,000 means it is woefully short of the funds needed to carry out its mission. The current budget "is not enough to do what needs now to be done, to intensify archival research, to hire many more legal specialists in order to help to draw up the case, to provide for public relations in order to make a public case," explains World Jewish Congress Secretary-General Michael Schneider. The funds from lost Jewish property are needed for two main goals, according to officials: aiding the tiny but growing Jewish presence in Eastern European states and helping to fund institutions around the world that care for Holocaust survivors who have lived longer than any reparations agreement predicted and have incurred higher medical expenses than previous generations could foresee. The WJRO "simply doesn't have the funds," says Schneider, "but Rafi Eitan does." Eitan has control over some NIS 6.5 million in government funding for the pursuit of restitution claims, funds given to his ministry in the framework of the government's agreement with Holocaust survivor groups last year. Rather than establish an entirely new mechanism, Eitan wants to inject the funds into the WJRO, which is already familiar to European states and overcomes some old concerns of veteran Israeli diplomats that often "uncomfortable" restitution negotiations are harmful to relations with Eastern European countries. "Instead of doing something new, I'm bringing life to these groups," Eitan told the Post.