Miscarriage of justice

Claims of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe have remained unanswered. Now there are new attempts to recover some of the 100s of billions of dollars in property assets stolen from Jews in WWII.

A man lays daffodils near the Ghetto Heroes monument in Warsaw (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man lays daffodils near the Ghetto Heroes monument in Warsaw
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From September 1939 until April 1945, Michael Urich, from Poland, was transferred into and out of a ghetto, raised briefly by a non-Jewish woman and ultimately tortured in Buchenwald. Urich was the only living survivor of his family.
“You fought every day not to waste away,” Urich, now 83, told The Jerusalem Post. “Then as a young boy, you get out and make it to Israel, but you are all alone and you have to solve your own problems – no one is there to help you.”
Although Urich now has a new family and has built a successful life in the Jewish state, he said the Holocaust still impacts his daily life. Despite support he receives in other areas, when it comes to fighting for justice by obtaining restitution from Poland for the apartment his well-to-do parents owned before they were murdered, once again he feels all alone.
“I started the process to get restitution, but I was forced to stop in my tracks,” said Urich, who was told he would have to produce deeds and other legal paperwork to make a claim in Poland.
Urich did manage to obtain a copy of a 1938 to 1939 Polish phone book in which his parents’ names, address and phone number appeared. Phones were uncommon back then and could only be registered by the owner of the apartment. He submitted this information to the Polish government which told him to hire an expensive lawyer, which he did. Nonetheless, no progress was made.
“This is an apartment, not an apple. The government should just check its records and give it back to the family that lived there. How many people could have possibly lived there then?” Urich asked. “I was just a child, lucky to save myself. How could I have saved this paperwork they ask for?”
Urich’s situation is not much different from that of most Holocaust survivors from cities and towns in Eastern Europe. Unlike claims made for German property, which West Germany attempted to settle immediately after World War II and through the Claims Conference thereafter, there is no formal restitution legislation in place in most eastern European countries.
As such, survivors – even those who made claims immediately after the Holocaust – have had little luck moving their cases forward.
Hopefully the situation will change soon.
On April 26, the European Parliament hosted a conference for top organizations in the field of Holocaust restitution, including a declaration by the parliament about how best to handle the restitution of the remaining billions of dollars of stolen Jewish property in Eastern Europe. In the declaration, the parliament affirms the moral responsibility of European Union member states to advance Holocaust-era property restitution.
The conference was convened under the patronage of the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and was organized by the European Alliance for Holocaust survivors, a coalition of members of the European Parliament committed to issues impacting Holocaust Survivors; the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO); and the European Shoah Legacy Institute – together with the European Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith International. The permanent missions of the State of Israel, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom to the European Union and their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs also took part.
According to Joel Lion, special envoy on issues of Holocaust-era asset restitution and Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran for Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, the conference was meant to call on members of the European Union to reaffirm their commitment to resolve issues of restitution according to the principles of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. The Terezin Declaration, ensuring the assistance, redress and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution, was signed by 47 countries at a conference in Prague in 2009.
“We are almost 75 years after the Holocaust, and we still have these questions in Eastern Europe,” said Lion. “We are not after money, we are after justice.”
Lion said Jewish conference participants have also been calling on the EU to nominate a special envoy on restitution. Currently, there are eight special envoys from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Greece, Macedonia and the Czech Republic.
The conference came on the heels of new US legislation presented in late February by US senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) to improve efforts assisting survivors and the families of victims of the Holocaust who seek restitution. The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act would require the State Department to report on certain European countries’ compliance with the goals of the Terezin Declaration.
“This theft remains a largely unresolved issue and a source of lasting pain for many Holocaust survivors and their heirs,” said Rubio.
“We are taking bipartisan action to ensure justice, which has been put off for too long,” said Baldwin.
Hit and miss
It is not that there have not been efforts, but many of them have been hugely unsuccessful.
The WJRO and Israeli government have been at the forefront of the battle since the early 1990s, just after the fall of Communism in 1989. Efforts picked up steam when the wall came down; a lot of countries started opening up their archives, and the 1993 box office sensation Schindler's List also helped arouse public and political discussion, said WJRO lay chair Gideon Taylor.
During that window, some legislation started to be passed, for example in Bulgaria and Estonia. But then the enthusiasm died down until the late 2000s, when efforts again redoubled.
“There was all of a sudden this sense that the clock was ticking and that we were looking at a world without Holocaust survivors,” said Taylor. “The greatest urgency was to deal with this and make sure people got compensation while the survivors were still alive.”
These efforts are what led to the Terezin Declaration.
In May 2016, following negotiations with WJRO, the Romanian parliament passed legislation that purportedly speeds up the processing of property claims filed by Holocaust victims and the Romanian Jewish community. In 2016, there were 40,000 unprocessed Romanian claims; survivors say not much has changed.
Serbia and Latvia passed similar legislation around the same time.
“There is momentum building as countries recognize the urgency of providing restitution during the lifetime of survivors,” Taylor said in 2016 when the legislation was enacted. “We encourage other countries to act now.”
A few months later, in November 2016, WJRO’s efforts were again bolstered when in separate letters the president of the European Parliament and the government of the United Kingdom both declared their commitment to press for the return of property taken from Jewish communities and individuals during World War II.
“One of our goals has always been to internationalize the issue, so when we go to negotiate with these Eastern European countries, they see a united front – Israel, the United States, the British government, Canada, France and others,” explained Taylor.
About a year-and-a-half ago, WJRO brought together 36 MPs from 17 countries to talk about how they could help advocate for the issue and make clear this is a priority on the European agenda. That meeting is what led to the April conference.
But there have also been many misses.
Back in February 2011, the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel together launched Project HEART, the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, the goal of which was to help survivors and their heirs regain properties seized by the Nazis. However, in 2014, the project was stripped of its funding and swallowed by Israel’s Senior Citizens Ministry.
The program created the firstever database of all missing Jewish property, which it committed to use in a later phase to help negotiate property restitution with European governments. Over the course of Project HEART, more than 200,000 restitution claims were made and archived.
According to Lion, although Project HEART had good intentions, in effect it only asked survivors what property they thought they had during the Holocaust and recorded that information.
“These are not claims with proof, they are more like testimonies,” Lion explained. “While they are good from a historical perspective, knowing that someone lived in an apartment in Warsaw, we don’t know where it was, if the family had paid it off or if there was a mortgage, etc. We cannot do anything practical with this information.”
There was never a consistent, fair and free system based on legislation to enable survivors or their heirs to claim property in Eastern Europe. Poland, for example, which had the largest prewar Jewish community, never enacted state-wide property restitution legislation.
In September 2016, a new law specific to Warsaw took effect giving survivors and their heirs the right to come forward and prove their entitlement to property originally claimed under the Warsaw Decree. The October 1945 Warsaw Decree on ownership of land required pursuit of administrative and judicial proceedings by survivors to reclaim property. These cases were often complicated and lasted many years, and therefore many were not concluded or even reviewed.
About 20 years ago, Poland initiated a law aimed at restitution of Jewish communal assets. Lion said by most estimates, of the more than 5,000 claims made, only about 45% have even been reviewed. He also mentioned that there are some 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, only 400 of which have been returned to the Jewish community.
In general, WJRO reports that between $115 billion and $175b. worth of property has still not been restored. Less than 20% of Jewish assets taken under the Nazi regime have been returned, according to a 2007 article in the Jewish Political Studies Review.
Lion was recently part of a mission to Croatia to discuss restitution. He said he and others in his role have been to the Eastern European country multiple times over the past 20 years.
“I am sitting there with the minister of justice, the deputy minister of justice and no one is making a move,” said Lion. “It is very frustrating, but we are trying.”
Lion said that just like survivors themselves who start the process of receiving restitution but are often met with insurmountable obstacles, the organizations that have been fighting for justice on the survivors’ behalf are met with stiff challenges.
Brian Kramer, a Florida lawyer who focuses his practice on securing payments for Holocaust survivors and their families, has hit similar roadblocks. He said the burden of evidence is on the claimant, and that obtaining documents from prewar Europe can be next to impossible.
“It has been more than 70 years and people just don’t remember,” said Kramer, who is currently working with close to 900 Florida clients.
Five minutes before midnight
Yet the clock keeps ticking.
Avi Zoller has been fighting for more than a decade for compensation for a handful of Romanian properties lost to his family during World War II. Three lawyers later, he still has not received restitution.
Zoller said that for starters, the Romanians barely advertised their willingness to provide restitution through channels survivors and their heirs might see. Those who did want to file a claim were told they needed specific documentation. The paperwork was available through the state archive (the Romanians had kept meticulous documentation of every piece of stolen property), but many families he knows were turned away from the archive.
Zoller managed to jump over the archive hurdle and go to court.
“They kept pushing off the court case,” said Zoller. “Then, after 10 years, they disqualified the case on some kind of technical reasons. No one said the documents are not correct. No one said the property is not ours. Nope – they used some minor technical reasons to get out of most of it. They did everything not to return the property.”
He said his lawyers would arrive for hearings and municipal representatives would not show up, so they would have to cancel the session. After 10 years, the court agreed to provide restitution for one property, a flour mill in some small village. However, the compensation is only for the building, not the land on which it stood (and his family also owned), and it will be paid in worthless state bonds, not in cash.
Moreover, the court would not decide the mill’s worth, but has turned restitution over to a local committee, which has to review 60,000 cases before Zoller’s. He estimates it will be another seven to eight years until there is a final verdict.
“For 50 years they basically did nothing and they [Romanian government] got profits and now this is how they handle it,” said Zoller. “No one wants to admit the truth.”
“We are five minutes before midnight,” Lion concluded.