Bittersweet Victories for Jews As Property Is Returned
Western and Eastern Europe face up to their wartime past
VIENNA — For Israel Singer, it was hardly an event to celebrate.
The chief of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) had prodded Austria for 12 years to return artwork swiped by Nazis from Jews. This week some 8,000 unclaimed, "heirless" works of art belonging to Holocaust victims fetched nearly $14 million in a two-day auction to raise money for survivors.
"I don't say thank you because you don't thank someone when they return something that belongs to you," says Mr. Singer, whose family fled Vienna during the war. "We just acknowledge that something decent was done today."
Half a century has passed since World War II, yet only a fraction of the property stolen from European Jews has been recovered.
Today, however, Jewish organizations worldwide - backed by the United States and Israeli governments - have seized a rare window of opportunity. Sparked by the fall of communism, and fueled by the dwindling but vocal ranks of Holocaust witnesses, countries across Europe are being forced to confront their past.
Accusations have been flying of late: The Swiss hoarded Jewish assets. The Portuguese laundered cash from Jewish gold. The French retained ownership of Jewish apartments. Meanwhile, Norway is on the verge of providing $80 million in restitution for homes and businesses confiscated from its minuscule Jewish community.
While many were shocked by the swiftness of the Soviet bloc implosion, less surprising were the dirty little secrets unearthed. The Communists of Eastern Europe forced mass repression of memories of wartime injustices. Everyone lost during the late 1940s with the nationalization of all property, but Jews suffered a double whammy since their communities had been pillaged during the war as well. It was taboo, however, to discuss the sufferings of one group over another.
Now each of these countries, in efforts to cozy up to the West as a "good neighbor," is examining its past for the first time.
In Hungary, where three-quarters of its 800,000 Jews were killed, the government has agreed to pay out nearly $30 million in annuities to the 10,000 to 15,000 Holocaust survivors. But compensation for communal and individual property may run into the billions. The true value of the losses is inestimable; in fact, Jewish leaders in Budapest fear inciting anti-Semitism if they ask for what may be considered too much by the general populace.
The pressure on countries like Hungary, Poland, and Romania seemingly triggered a domino effect in Western European countries, where communism cannot be used as an excuse for not returning Jewish property and honestly examining complicity with the Nazis.
But combating the Soviet Empire provided a convenient distraction for the Westerners who hadn't owned up to their role in World War II. "Historical reckoning was not a priority," says Ned Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle in London. "We had this monolithic enemy so our priorities lay elsewhere."
The case of Switzerland is perhaps the most compelling. It ostensibly maintained a neutral stance during the war, but some now accuse the small nation of conspiring against Jews as well. Jews stashed hundreds of millions in assets there during the war, and Nazis may have used Swiss banks as a haven for their loot.
Now records reveal that the Swiss may have used the unclaimed Jewish assets - which the Swiss seemingly made little effort to return - to secretly to compensate Swiss citizens in Poland and Hungary who'd had property nationalized in 1948.
The Swiss government denies many of the allegations, although the Swiss Banking Association recently joined forces with the WJC to investigate.
Other countries refuse to accept blame as well.
A regional court in Trieste, Italy, last week rejected claims from 30 Italian Jews for a $390 per month pension, stating that they had not suffered enough during the war to qualify. While the Fascists' notorious race laws prompted the expulsion of Jews from schools and jobs and restricted property and marriage rights, the claimants had not been persecuted for being actively anti-Fascist, the court said.
Outrage among Europe's aging Jewish communities is growing, galvanized by supporters in the US Congress.
Leading the charge is New York's Alfonse D'Amato (R), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith (R).
"Everybody feels time's running out for the people who saw the Holocaust," says Robert Liska, deputy president of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities. "This is their last chance to speak and our last chance to hear them."
American Jews are also finding their voices.
Gabor Kalman, a Hungarian-born filmmaker in Los Angeles is planning a trio of short films focusing on the Hungarian Holocaust. Until now, he had avoided all work related to his experience as a 10-year-old Holocaust survivor. "Fifty years is 50 years, and we're becoming archives," Mr. Kalman says. "I feel I have to do this."
On the other hand, there is a sobering realization that for most of the Holocaust's victims, compensation like that provided by the Vienna auction is coming too late.
"I can only think ... how a lot of people might have been helped earlier who are no longer with us," says Israel Miller, president of the New York-based Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria.
Jewish groups expect the Swiss scandal and the Austrian art cache to be the tip of the iceberg and vow that they will continue to probe. WJC Chairman Edgar Bronfman has said the organization intends to go after France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium next.
"This is not just about money," Mr. Bronfman recently told American Jewish leaders. "This is about Jewish dignity, Jewish rights, Jewish feelings, and about the fact that we are not going to be pushed around any more."