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Jewish Leader Says Slovakia Leads In Returning Seized Property

Prague, Feb. 1 (RFE/RL) - The executive director of the New-York based World Jewish Congress (WJC), Elan Steinberg, says Slovakia leads in the complicated and emotional task of returning Jewish property seized by the Nazis in Eastern and Central Europe during World War II, but the Czech Republic may be "dead last." He says Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Baltics and Poland lie somewhere in between.

Since the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe, the World Jewish Congress has been lobbying to recover private property and communal buildings plundered by the Nazis and their allies, and later taken over by Communist regimes.

The WJC comprises four national Jewish organizations and represents some 3 million Jews in 68 countries. It has single-handedly seen that more than 14,000 properties, worth billions of dollars, have been placed on a computer list in Jerusalem. They range from country cottages to vacant lots seized in order to build what became one of the most visible symbols of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall.

The congress, working in concert with Israel and the United States, is also trying to secure the return of priceless works of art stolen from Jews by the Germans as well as billions of dollars placed in Swiss bank accounts by Jews later killed in the Holocaust.

Steinberg told RFE/RL that his organization's first priority is the return of Jewish communal property, which could be sold, if needed, to ensure that Jewish communities and the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors live out the balance of their lives in dignity and grace.

The WJC's status report takes on added significance in light of a recent European Parliament resolution calling on Central and Eastern European countries to act quickly on the restitution issue. The resolution suggests that countries failing to do so may not be accepted into the European Union. In the words of one resolution supporter, "You cannot enter the West with unclean hands."

The resolution and subsequent pressure by the WJC may also affect those governments which fear restitution will set a legal precedent for other minority groups. As Steinberg put it, "For them it opens a Pandora's box.... It's a question not only of Jews, but of Ukrainians and Lithuanians, Romanians and Sudetan Germans."

Balancing all those claims is a Herculean task for any post-Communist government. But Steinberg says some are well ahead of the others. He said the Slovak government has adopted legislation providing for, what he called, "an equitable return process." He declined to give specifics, but described the return of property to Slovak Jews as "smooth" and "credible." Fewer than 3,000 Jews remain in Slovakia from a prewar population of 120,000.

Steinberg says Slovakia's progress is a far cry from that of the Czech Republic, which he labeled as "dead last" and "disastrous." Steinberg says that local authorities in the Czech Republic have displayed a tendency to return neglected burial grounds and synagogues, which require a significant investment, but not lucrative, income-producing properties, such as buildings in the center of Prague. Furthermore, Steinberg says the Czech government has not reported back any legislation requiring municipalities to return property.

But Prague-based Rabbi Jiri Daniek, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, disputes the claim. He told RFE/RL that restitution is an "ongoing" process and that in his estimation, "We are halfway there." A U.S. embassy representative in Prague, Mary Thompson Jones, was recently quoted as saying the embassy has been monitoring the restitution process and has found that a proper system is in place.

Although the situation varies from country to country, Steinberg says a "disturbing" trend has emerged with regard to the issue of legislation. He says some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have done nothing. But others, he says, have enacted legislation that "essentially wipes out in a single stroke any potential claim."

Moreover, Steinberg says foreign citizens living outside their country of claim would, in some cases, be ineligible to retrieve property. He says that in other instances, governments have provided for the restitution of communal religious property, but only to communities and churches which have enjoyed an uninterrupted existence since the war.

Steinberg says the restitution issue has been of considerable interest in Poland, on account of the size of the pre-war Jewish community there - more than 3 million- and the magnitude of its holdings. He said Warsaw has already enacted legislation providing for the restitution of property to the dominant Roman Catholic church and other smaller Christian churches. But he says the government has failed to act accordingly in the case of the Jewish community. Unlike the Czech Republic, however, Steinberg says Warsaw has committed itself to the premise of restitution.

Steinberg says Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary round out the middle of the WJC's status report. He said "thorough" restitution legislation has been enacted in Sofia and that Jewish organizations there have been successful in efforts to retrieve communal property. Steinberg said "lesser" legislative efforts, but efforts nonetheless, are also underway in Hungary and Romania.

As for the three Baltic states, Steinberg said Latvia and Estonia take the lead. He said the governments of those countries have pledged to convey properties to Jewish communities. But Steinberg told RFE/RL that in Lithuania the authorities have opposed the restitution of Jewish holdings, even while restoring assets to Christian churches.

Steinberg says the situation in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova is more complicated because, he says, decisions have been left largely to the whim of local officials. He said even in instances when properties were placed at the disposal of Jewish communities, the titles themselves were rarely transferred.

Despite the "patchwork" of progress, Steinberg says the struggle must continue. In his words: "The final chapter of the Holocaust must be honorably closed... not only for the sake of the Jewish community and the legacy that history took away from them, but for the sake of emerging democracies."