In one of his first speeches as President – on New Year 1990 – Vaclav Havel addressed among other issues two topics which were of utmost concern to the Czech Jewish community – re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel (broken in 1967 after Six-Days-War) and restitution of property, including the Jewish one. Mr. President became afterwards one of the most active advocates of this process, though not always his moral appeal was heard. However, the problem of Jewish restitution was in this way brought to public and gained an enormous sympathy and support from the wide Czech public. This was caused by many reasons, mostly by the fact that some of Jewish personalities helped – as opponents of the regime – to overthrow Communism and thanks the image of Jews as victims of the Holocaust which for twenty years could not have been mentioned.
1992 – The beginning of the Process of Restitution
The process of restitution of Jewish property began in 1992 before the split of Czechoslovakia. The Federation of Jewish Communities assembled at that time around 1.000 records of communal Jewish property, i.e. property of former Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia (153 Congregations by 1938) and of other Jewish institutions and organizations (foundations, unions, clubs etc.). Final list included only 202 items as most of the buildings. Lots of them could not have been claimed (e.g. many synagogues given over since 1945 to various Christian – mostly Protestant – churches with the consent of Jewish Community which preferred to keep religious services in the buildings instead of convert them into warehouses etc.). The list was incorporated into a bill submitted – due to the split of Czechoslovakia – only in late 1993 to the Czech Parliament. The bill included also another two issues: the return of the State Jewish Museum and the possibility to claim individual Jewish property by claimants who were not able or successful in that process after the war. The Parliament rejected the bill as a whole in February 1994 with reference to a law passed in 1992, which transferred some of the state property to town municipalities. The argument for the rejection was that if the proposed list would had entered into power as a law it would have meant an expropriation of the municipalities similar to Communist practices. The Federation of Jewish Communities strongly opposed this view in public. Shortly after the rejection of the bill the representatives of the Federation met the Prime-Minister Václav Klaus who suggested finding other ways to solve this problem. He released an appeal to respective municipalities to return Jewish property without a law – similar appeal was signed by all three leaders of the ruling coalition parties – and at the same time he assured the Federation that everything owned currently by the state would be returned.
In June 1994 a law was adopted by the Czech Parliament extending the existing individual restitution legislation for claimants who lost their properties between 1938 and 1945 and were not able or successful to regain them by 1948. The law set a limited term for the claims, which was, however, prolonged for several times. The last amendment was possible thanks to the verdict of the Constitutional Court, which abolished the condition of permanent residence in the Czech Republic for the claimant and set a new term until September 1996. Though many individuals were successful in regaining the properties there were still many cases, which had not been concluded – mostly where the court proceedings were necessary – and many which were not successful due to formal failures. There were also claims of individuals who did not fulfill the second condition for a claimant, i.e. the citizenship of the Czech Republic. Besides, another vast circle of individual properties was never even discussed. In general, however, it can be said that the first part of the bill drafted by the Czech Jewish Federation was fulfilled.
Establishing of the Jewish Museum in Prague
The second part was completely successful when in October 1994 the State Jewish Museum ceased to exist and instead a new institution, the Jewish Museum in Prague, was established. The founders of this new body were the Federation of Jewish Communities. The Federation regained the ownership of the vast majority of Judaic collections from the Museum. The Prague Jewish Community as the old-new owner regained the ownership of the buildings, mostly synagogues housing the expositions, and the Czech Ministry of Culture, that kept the possession of a marginal part of the Judaic collection assembled since 1950, when the Museum was nationalized. Together, these three organizations have launched an institution, which was able in very limited time frame to change the entire image and work of the Jewish Museum making it one of the most important and successful operations in the country.
The development of the third part of the original bill was less satisfactory. In March and May 1994 the Czech Government under Prime-Minister Klaus decided to return all properties owned by March 1994 by the state. This – with several exceptions – indeed happened. The problem was that the state-owned properties formed only about one quarter of the original 202 items on the list. The rest was owned by town municipalities and – thanks to privatization – private companies. The non-existence of a law exposed the Federation and the individual Jewish Communities to long and complicated negotiations with new owners, which were not always successful. Therefore only about a third of items from the original list was returned
The situation of the restitution of Jewish communal property reminded of a Talmudic image of half filled cup – the optimists would say it was half full, the pessimists would say it was half-empty. The true is that thanks to the limited return of property some of Czech Jewish Communities were able to build a base for their future development, especially the Jewish Community of Prague who serves the territory of almost half of Bohemia. Unfortunately with the buildings the Communities inherited also the debts as during 50-and-more years nobody invested into those properties and in many cases they were literally fallen apart. This created a need for completing the process of either returning the actual real estates or compensations for those, which could not be returned. This was seen as a way to enable the Jewish Communities to invest into their properties and to continue in their efforts to restore and revive Jewish life in the country.
Besides the issue of Jewish properties the fate of other Jewish assets confiscated during the World War II was never studied. Also, the fate of Roma population during the time of the so-called Protectorate has not been satisfactory researched. That was why in 1997 under the auspices of President Havel a forum for exchanging information was formed, called “The Holocaust Phenomenon”. It consisted of leading scholars, historians and archivists and its role was to fill in some of the empty spaces in modern history. It started a co-operation with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, with the State Museum in Auschwitz, Poland as well as with some other institutions in the world.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in the effort to lift up the “Holocaust Phenomenon” status approached the Czech Government asking to grant the forum a position of Governmental Commission which would uncover some of the historical issues the same way as it was done in Norway, Portugal, Switzerland etc. In early 1998 the Federation initiated a new negotiation with the cabinet of Prime-Minister Tošovský who’s government was, however, not able to deal with this issue due to a short mandate in the interim before pre-election. The Social Democratic Party went into the election campaign with the restitution of Jewish properties as one of its program goals. After successfully winning the election this theme was included into the Social-Democratic-Government program. This activity coincided with the global effort to recover Holocaust Era assets all around the world, which culminated in Washington, at the Conference held in early December 1998.
1999 – Establishing of the Governmental Commission
In January 1999 the Government established the Joint Commission to deal with all issues concerning Jewish properties and assets. Headed by Vice-Prime-Minister Pavel Rychetský it consisted of representatives of the Czech state and the Federation of Jewish Communities, which invited foreign participants, as the American Jewish Committee and the WJRO. The Commission formed three working sub-committees, first to deal with legislation and unsolved individual restitution, second focusing on Jewish communal properties and third searching the archives to find out the fates of looted art, bank-accounts, insurance and other valuables. The Commission proposed to the Czech Government steps – legislation, governmental acts, ruling etc. – which would lead to rectifying the injustice caused to Czech Jewish population during the Second World War and deepened in the decades of Communism which followed. Concrete results were brought to life – a report on Nazi looted Jewish gold and jewelry was published discovering that part of the Red Army war-loot is still in Moscow.
In cases of individual restitution the Commission has stated that the legislation which was valid until August 1996 enabled a number of claimants the return of their or theirs family possession. The Commission is fully aware of the fact that the approach of various courts was not always favorable and in many cases very formalistic. However, the Commission can not interfere into independent justice and into the verdicts of individual courts. The only solution is to continue the suite to the highest juridical authorities. The Constitutional court has issued already several verdicts, which were meeting general justice.
Though the Commission found the restitution legislation appropriate, it focused on two groups of claimants whose claims could not be at all raised – the former owners of agriculture land and the claimants without the Czech citizenship. The Commission has submitted a draft of a law to the Government, which would enable the first group to raise respective claims. This law has been approved by the Czech Parliament in June 2000 and published in the Collection of Laws under the No. 212/2000. Claimants who have Czech citizenship can approach the respective current owner. If the owner is not ready to return the property the court has to be approached. The law also enables the return of artworks in the ownership of state institutions as galleries and museums. This can happen even without the condition of Czech citizenship of the claimant. Czech government was the very first among European nations to issue this king of legislation.
For the second group of claimants, those without Czech citizenship, the Commission has prepared an extra legislative solution. Namely, the Government transferred certain sum of money into a Foundation established by the Jewish Federation with the participation of the Government. This Foundation then will assemble all claims which would have met the conditions required by the expired legislation and were not compensated before (e.g. based on bilateral agreements concluded by Czechoslovakia and other countries as compensation for property nationalization). The condition of Czech citizenship will not be required by the Foundation’s regulations either. After evaluating the quantity and quality of claims the Foundation will grant every claimant a financial sum, however not as compensation but rather as a symbolic gesture. The procedure is in the process and the first payments can be expected in the first half of 2001.
Art objects looted during the Holocaust at the territory of Bohemia and Moravia.Hereby we would like to draw your attention to a web-side which has been launched at the end of last year (Millenium). At www.restitution-art.cz you will find a database of art objects looted during the Holocaust at the territory of Bohemia and Moravia. These objects are currently in the ownership of state controlled Czech institutions (Museums and Galleries) which are obliged – according to a law which has been passed thanks to our initiative – to original owners or their heirs. The side was created by the Czech Ministry of Culture as a direct output of the Joint Working Commission headed by Vice-Prime-Minister Pavel Rychetský which is consisting of representatives of the Czech Government and our Federation. More information on the above address.
Compensation for Czech Holocaust Survivors
Another major chapter that had to be addressed by the Federation since early 90ies was the compensation of Czech Holocaust survivors. From approx. 120.000 Jews residing in the territory of Bohemia and Moravia – today the Czech Republic – before the 2nd World War, only about 10 % survived. In 1945, they were joined by Jews, originally from Slovakia and the Subcarpathian Ukraine, a region which was part of Czechoslovakia and fell under the Soviet Union after the War. The post-War Czech Jewish community had around 30.000 people but many decided to resettle in Israel or other countries of the West, especially after the Communists took power in 1948.
Unlike western democracies the issue of the so-called ”Wiedergutmachung”, was never addressed in Czechoslovakia. Even in the fifties when Federal Republic of Germany adopted respective compensation legislation, Jewish citizens of Czechoslovakia were not affected. Claims for individual compensation could have been submitted to German authorities until 1969 and then the Claims Conference was able to provide some financial assistance to those who were living in the West. However, at that time still the so called ”Hallstein Doctrine” was valid (named after its author, a German minister), placing the responsibility for compensating the Holocaust survivors living in the West to German Federal Republic and those living in the ”Socialist Block” for the German Democratic Republic. This was unfortunately only a theory, the Holocaust survivors living behind the Iron Curtain never received anything, nor was this possibility even discussed as the GDR proclaimed itself as the successor of ”anti-Fascist” Germany.
Surprisingly enough this situation continued in early 90ies even after the unification of Germany. For Czech Jews it was even more complicated by the issue of Sudeten-Germans, those Germans who were in 1945 – 1946 according to Allied decisions, transferred from Czechoslovakia. The Federation pointed out for several times that these two issues, though related historically – cannot be handled jointly. With the help of its partners, especially the American Jewish Committee, the Federation launched a campaign focusing on German pensions which were in Eastern Europe received by former SS and Wehrmacht members and not by Holocaust survivors. After the split of Czechoslovakia, the issue of Czech-German relations was regulated by adopting a common political Declaration. This document established – among other issues – also the Czech-German Future Fund, a foundation that should have dealt with projects addressing some of the bilateral issues. The Federation, together with the Freedom Fighters Union prepared a project that should have compensated all Nazi victims still living in the country. The Funds Board approved it as a first and most important project in 1998 and for next 10 years the Czech Holocaust survivors are getting financial assistance from these means. As the world efforts to rectify injustice caused by the Holocaust progressed, the Czech Holocaust survivors were also entitled the grants from the Swiss Fund administrated by the WJRO and the humanitarian help from the Fund for Central and Eastern Europe created by the Claims Conference. Since summer 2001 they can also get respective aid from the German Fund ”Remembrance, Responsibility, Future” which is compensating slave and forced labor.
In general we can say that also the Federation of Jewish Communities successfully resolved the issue of Holocaust survivors compensation. However thanks to its very complicated character it took an enormous effort and a terribly long time. Therefore many survivors did not live that long to benefit from these projects.