Metro Views: Restitution denied

A survivor fights the Czech Jewish community to recover his childhood house.

marilyn henry 88 (photo credit: )
marilyn henry 88
(photo credit: )
Julius Kolliner was born in Teplice, Czechoslovakia, the only child of Herman and Lily Kolliner. He was 11 in 1938 when the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia. That was the day Julius and his parents fled from their home at 15 Lipova Street and began a two-year journey to Palestine. In Palestine, Kolliner was known as Yehuda, but remained a devoted Czech. "In 1945, when he was 18, my father approached the Czechoslovakia consul in Jerusalem and volunteered for Czechoslovakia's military service," said his son Doron. Last month, Kolliner left his home in Kfar Sirkin with his wife and three children to visit the home he was forced to flee in Teplice. The trip was joyous, bittersweet - and absurd. Kolliner, a grandfather of 10, was welcomed by the mayor of Teplice, but avoided by the Jewish leadership. The contretemps concerned Kolliner's house. It had passed through many hands in the 70 years since the German invasion. The building on Lipova Street had been aryanized by the Nazis, confiscated as German property by the postwar communist regime, turned over to Czech regional authorities after the collapse of communism and then restituted - but not to Kolliner. Instead, in 2005 the regional government gave the once-elegant building to the Jewish community of Teplice. 'YEHUDA KOLLINER has been trying to recover his family property since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, but he was not able to comply with a condition of the restitution law, to prove that he or his parents asked for restitution after 1946," said Tomas Jelinek, vice president of Czech Committee for Nazi Victims, who has assisted Kolliner with his claim. "There are, unfortunately, hundreds of cases like this, where the victims have a moral right, but the legal system did not allow for recovering their aryanized property," Jelinek said. Many Nazi victims, including Kolliner, received a humanitarian payment in the past decade from the Czech government's Foundation for Holocaust Victims. According to Oldrˇich Látal, chairman of the Teplice community, this satisfies the claim for the house. Not so, say two Czech diplomats who have been actively involved in restitution. That payment does not bar victims from recovering their property. RESTITUTION IS always a tricky endeavor. European Jewish communities expect to recover prewar communal property. There is no consensus aas to who should inherit heirless Jewish property. But that is not at issue in Teplice; Yehuda Kolliner is still alive. It seems clear that the regional Czech government did not want to "profit" from private prewar Jewish property. It gave the building to the Jewish community as redress for past injustices. The effect, however, is that the government expects to remedy an earlier injustice against the community at the expense of Yehuda Kolliner. And the community perpetuates the injustice against the Kolliner family. The Czech Federation of Jewish Communities said it recommended that the Teplice community transfer the building's ownership to the Kolliner family. "The fact that the original owner was not able to regain ownership according to valid legislation cannot be in this case an obstacle," the federation said in a statement. "In a situation when the current owner is a Jewish institution, this should be even more appropriate." In the meantime, the Teplice community has an agreement to sell the building, which is now dilapidated, to a buyer it will not name for an amount it declines to specify. DURING THE recent visit to the Czech Republic, Kolliner got a gesture from the community. "They started to describe their efforts to turn this property into a profitable one and how much time and money they spent. And they came with an offer to pay my father $10,000 as compensation," said Doron Kolliner, who retired after 25 years in the air force. "I told them that I did not come for a property meeting. I came to get my father's home back, and I have no intention of considering their offer." This is all rather messy for the Czechs, who are the hosts of an international diplomatic forum in Prague in June to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. At the 1998 conference, 44 nations discussed the recovery of Nazi-era looted art and the restitution of other Jewish properties. The Prague conference is intended to measure these nations' restitution progress in the last decade. Later this month, the Teplice Jewish community is due to hold a plenary meeting. Doron Kolliner would remind the community of his appeal last month. "I am here to speak to you for my father, and I am asking you to behave according to Jewish values, according to din Torah, according to the values of justice," he said. "I call on you to behave like Jewish leaders and to give my father back his home, his childhood, his memories."