Righting a Holocaust-era wrong in Serbia

A model for restitution and the rule of law in post-Communist Europe

SERBIA’S PRESIDENT Tomislav Nikolic looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
SERBIA’S PRESIDENT Tomislav Nikolic looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After the killing of Naboth and the seizure of his vineyard, Elijah thundered at Ahab, “Hast thou murdered and also inherited?”
That Bible story found chilling modern-day expression in the dispossession of Jewish property that was part and parcel of the annihilation of European Jewry in the Holocaust. The lure of plundering Jewish assets was often a catalyst for the involvement of local citizens and collaborationist authorities in killing their Jewish neighbors or subjects, and the Holocaust became the greatest act of larceny in modern history.
Seventy-five years after the war ended, the fast-dwindling number of survivors and heirs are still seeking recognition and restitution for their material losses – often to no avail. Certainly, one of the best models in modern Europe for equitable legislation to contend with these claims can be found in an unlikely place: Serbia.
In the spring of 1941, Germany quickly and ruthlessly subjugated Yugoslavia. The multi-ethnic kingdom of the South Slavs was carved into several territorial units, parts of which were occupied by Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Croatia was granted independence and spun off as a German satellite.
Serbia fell under direct German control, and its Jews were immediately subjected to the full force of the Nazis’ murderous anti-Jewish policies. In May 1942, after presiding over the slaughter of the Jews held in the Sajmište camp, SS-Standartenführer Emanuel Schäefer hastened to cable Berlin that Belgrade was the only European capital that was now Judenrein, “cleansed of Jews.” The destruction of the Jews of Serbia, including in a gas vans specially imported for this purpose, was accompanied by the wholesale plunder of Jewish assets, both private and communal, movable and immovable.
After the liberation, Yugoslavia was reconstituted as a socialist state under Marshal Josip Broz Tito. In most instances, surviving Jews or the heirs of Jews who had been killed were unable to recover their assets. Most of it devolved into the hands of the state or was left with the people or entities who had seized those properties, and possession was often well more than 9/10ths of the law. Many survivors left for Israel. Those who remained, though stripped of their property, were determined to do their part to rebuild the war-torn country.
Of course, a similar situation prevailed across the length and breadth of East Central Europe, once the heartland of European Jewry, where little or no effort was made to restore the property of Jews and Jewish communities. The Communist governments that emerged at the end of the war had a vested interest in preserving the status quo, and in any event, were bent on instituting an aggressive program of nationalization. Jewish apartments, houses, shops, factories and objets d’art were seen as “heirless,” and legislation was enacted codifying this situation.
IT WAS only after the collapse of Communism and the emergence of democracy that there could be any thought of property restitution. However, in many countries, post-Communist governments sought to return property seized by their Communist predecessors, but not by the Nazi or collaborationist authorities. This policy clearly discriminated against the Jews whose assets had been stolen before the imposition of Communism. In essence, Jews had been double victims: both of Nazis and of Communists.
Of course, some countries did enact legislation to deal with this situation. Among the best is that of North Macedonia, one of the Yugoslav successor states, and the one that proportionally suffered the highest losses of any Jewish population in Europe. As a result, the tiny Jewish community in Skopje that reemerged has a new lease on life, and a splendid new museum in which the Macedonian Jewish heritage is preserved for future generations. However, in most countries, the lion’s share of the property deemed heirless wound up in the hands of the state or local authorities.
In 2016, after negotiations with the Jewish community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Serbia enacted a law which is widely seen as a template. It is in keeping with the Terezín Declaration to which representatives of no fewer than 46 countries affixed their signatures, and which established the moral basis for the restitution of Holocaust-era property.
Serbia’s legislation law provides for the payment of an annual subsidy to the Jewish community of €950,000 for 25 years to help ensure the financial well-being of Serbian Jewry. It also provides for the transfer to the Jewish community of all the heirless and unclaimed movable and immovable property of the Serbian Jewish community. However, Holocaust survivors and their heirs, and heirs of those who did not survive, have the opportunity to reclaim their property from the community. The rest of the money is to be used for Holocaust research and education and for social welfare work to help sustain Jews and Jewish life – and to preserve Jewish heritage.
The authors of this legislation, and Serbian society as a whole, have earned kudos in Washington, Brussels, Jerusalem and beyond for these efforts. Serbia’s pioneering legislation can and should serve as a model for other countries, especially serial prevaricators, which have yet to come to grips with the idea that restitution is not merely a matter of righting a wrong, but also the rule of law and closure.
The writer is the director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, and chief editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.