Family wants US to pay for Zagreb home

Descendants of Holocaust survivor want State Dept. to refund WWII losses.

arnstein house 298 88 (photo credit: courtesy of Arnstein family)
arnstein house 298 88
(photo credit: courtesy of Arnstein family)
In many ways, Agatha Arnstein's story is sadly familiar: A Holocaust survivor loses family and property during World War II, settles in Israel and at the end of her life tries to get compensation for what she left behind only to die before her efforts bear fruit. But in one way, at least, Arnstein's story is unusual: Her property ended up in the hands of the American government. Now her heirs are appealing to the US, as well as the Croatian authorities who originally took her building, to recover some of the money to which they claim they are entitled. So far, they have only met dead ends. The property in question is a five-story apartment building in the heart of old Zagreb, today the Croatian capital. It had been owned by Arnstein's aunt before the war, and she left it to her two surviving nieces upon her death. After the Holocaust, Arnstein decided to move to Israel. The government at that time - communist Yugoslavia - told her she could get the documents necessary to leave the country only if she gave up her right to the property. In 1951, the Yugoslavian government decided to give the building to the US for use as its consulate. (It gave Arnstein's sister, who had stayed in Croatia, other property in exchange for her half of the building.) According to the gift contract between the Croatians and Americans, the "United States of America accepts the properties given as a gift" and "the United States of America becomes the owner of this given property, from the date of signing this contract." And the US State Department's Web site on Croatia notes that "in 1951, the government of Yugoslavia donated a building now known as Hebrangova 2 to the US government and two years later, the consulate moved into the building. It remained there for half a century." As best as Arnstein's only child, Marina Umschweif, and her lawyer, Avraham Doron, can make out, the US government never paid any money to obtain the building, nor any rent to occupy it. But America did seem to make a bundle on the sale of the property a couple of years ago to the French, who now have their embassy there. According to Croatian news reports at the time, France paid some €2.5 million for the historic building. Doron claimed that at least some of that money belongs to his client. "The Americans got a present that was actually taken illegally from Jewish refugees. They got it for free and they made a profit on it," he said. Doron contacted the US Embassy here, which indicated the case would be referred to the State Department. He said he was still waiting for a reply from Washington. In the meantime, he sent letters to the 11 Jewish US senators. Of them, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) was the only one to reply. She wrote Doron that she had contacted the State Department on the family's behalf and got the following response: "We share your concern regarding resolution of longstanding property disputes in Eastern Europe. We have strongly encouraged the newly emerging democracies in that region to enact property restitution laws that give compensation to those whose property was expropriated by communist-era governments. Croatia enacted such a law in 1996." The communique concluded: "While we sympathize with he facts described in Ms. Arenstein's [sic] letter, the United States cannot be of assistance in this matter." Instead, Arnstein was directed to contact the Israeli and Croatian authorities. State Department spokesman Terry Davidson used similar language when contacted by The Jerusalem Post. "We sympathize with the facts of the case," he said, but directed the family to turn to Israel and Croatia for help. "We really can't be of assistance with this matter at this time." Doron indicated that if the American government won't be moved the "moral" power of his case, he would pursue a lawsuit. "The State Department is very nice," Doron said. "But they tell you - in nice words - go to hell." Doron said the Croatian government had also been unmoved by the family's efforts. A lawyer in Croatia spent several months on the case but came to the conclusion that Arnstein wouldn't be able to recover any money because the property had been under American control for so long. An official at the Croatian Embassy said she was unfamiliar with the specifics of Arnstein's case but noted that she had heard several similar stories of Jews who had been forced to relinquish their Croatian citizenship and private property before being allowed to come to Israel. She referred the Post to the Croatian Ministry of Justice. The spokesman there did not respond to an email query. The French Embassy in Croatia also did not return phone calls. Doron said the response from Jewish organizations hadn't been much better. Though he contacted several, he said the World Jewish Congress was the only one to reply promptly and take action on the matter. Bobby Brown, the WJC's director for international affairs, said his organization hoped to help not only Arnstein's daughter and grandchildren, but all Croatian Jews in similar circumstances. The WJC has been in touch with Croatia about forming a joint task force to expedite restitution. Altogether, roughly 30,000 Jews - or about 80 percent of the pre-war Jewish population - were murdered in Croatia during the Holocaust, according to the WJC. Now close to 2,000 remain in Zagreb. "The numbers were small, but the symbolic importance is great," Brown said. "This is the last chance to do justice." For Arnstein, though, that last chance has already expired. She died in October at 88 without having seen a penny from the property. "It's a shame that my mother didn't get any compensation from this," Umschweif said, noting that Arnstein had spent her last years in a wheelchair and would have used the money to build an elevator to help get into her apartment "to live a little more comfortably." "It hurts us, but maybe at least her grandchildren will get something," continued Umschweif, who was herself born in the Zagreb building before her mother brought her to Israel at the age of two. Umschweif said she held the US accountable for giving her family its due. While the Croatian government had given the property away in the first place, she stressed that it was the Americans who had received millions of euros for it. And the US must have been aware of the building's history, she charged. "It's impossible that they didn't know that it had been a [private] property," she declared. "It was written exactly to whom it belonged." Croatian government records register both the US possession of the property and its past registration in her greataunt's and mother's name, as well as its subsequent nationalization. Of the US, Umschweif said, "It's a democratic country, a symbol of democracy, and we expect that at least they will do something."