Restitution of Stolen Jewish Property in Latvia to Victims and Rightful Heirs




O P I N I O N

by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud)

On November 17, 2013 I was invited and participated as a guest speaker at the Yizkor memorial event organized by the “Jewish Survivors of Latvia, Inc.” (New York). The event was held at the Park East Synagogue at 163 East 67th Street in Manhattan.

The really important speech, though, was given by Douglas Davidson, the US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. He dealt with the results of his numerous visits to Latvia pertaining to that specific issue: due restitution to the Jewish victims or their heirs. Their properties were stolen or requisitioned during the war and the massacres.

 

Mr. Davidson’s speech was interesting and gave the hundred or so listeners gathered in that beautiful synagogue a rather gloomy view of the chances that Jewish survivors, or entitled members of their families, would ever get back their stolen communal properties, or receive fair compensation.

These are a few excerpts from Mr. Davidson’s speech[1]:

“My first-ever visit to Riga was in January of 2011. (…) As I walked shivering slightly, through the exhibit and through the snow with the rabbi who was my guide [he was visiting the open-air Ghetto Museum in Riga], I was trailed by cameras. When they had a chance, the reporters there confronted me with the question: ‘Why have you come to demand that the government pay 30 million Lats to the Jewish community for lost property?’”

Mr. Davidson went on, later in his talk, to say:

“Between my first and second visits – in January 2011 and July 2013 – much changed and much didn’t. Governments fell, new parliaments were elected, and Justice Ministers resigned over the very issue of the restitution of Jewish communal property. (…) On the other hand, no law governing the return of Jewish communal property was drafted, much less enacted.”

Before concluding his speech, the Special US Envoy for Holocaust Issues gave the example of a Latvian Jew who had been deprived of his property, who went to court in Latvia for the restitution of that property and how his case ended:

“He described to me his grandfather, Mozus Berkovich, and his twenty-year long campaign to gain recognition of his ownership of a house in the village of Akniste. (…) When Latvia enacted its private property restitution laws in the early nineties, he began to seek the house back. He was already living in the United States. (…) Mozus and Eugene’s [grandchild of the prewar owner of the property] case went from the municipal courts to and through ever-higher courts of appeal. They lost at every turn. Finally, they turned to the European Court of Human Rights – which ruled that he should return to Latvia and seek compensation in place of restitution. As all this happened, their attorney in Riga was disbarred for corruption. Mozus’s best friend, who was representing him there, passed away not long after my first visit. (…) Once again they turned to the European Court of Human Rights.

“Mozus passed away before the court announced its refusal to look at his case a second time. Perhaps it was for the best. How much more should any Holocaust survivor who simply seeks to get back what was taken from him have to endure?”

 

And finally, Mr. Davidson reassured the survivors and their families and friends:

“(…) I can also only assure you that the United States continues to pursue what we admit is imperfect justice for you and for your children and grandchildren. All too often this pursuit ends in failure, as it has done for Mozus. But this does not mean that we will not continue to try.”

And, please note that when reporters call out to Mr. Davidson – on the holy ground of the Ghetto Museum – they speak of “lost” properties, not of stolen or robbed properties, stolen and robbed by citizens of Latvia. As if, in fact, no one had been responsible for these lost properties…

In my own speech, after Mr. Davidson’s, I told the audience that I was quite skeptical about the restitution issue. On the one hand you had members of the government and the president participating in ceremonies in honor of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Latvia. And, on the other hand, you had the president of Latvia who, in 2012, gave an interview and stated that the Latvian volunteers and recruited members of the two SS divisions were “heroes.”

In December 2013, the “Jewish Survivors of Latvia, Inc. of New York” sent a letter to the then President of Latvia, Mr. Andris Bērziņš, referring to Latvia’s agreement to the Terezin Declaration (Latvia joined that declaration on Holocaust-era assets in 2012), in order to “urge the Latvian government and parliament to promptly return to the Jewish community in Latvia what rightfully belongs to that community.”

Now, more than fifteen months later, we might assume that the issue of financial compensation or plain restitution of properties by Latvia to the Jewish victims or eligible parties for stolen or requisitioned properties during the war had been successfully carried out.

And, what do I read in the latest issue of the Latvian Jewish Courier?[2]

“The Jewish Community Council requested the return of 270 real estate holdings. A document listing these was submitted to the Saeima in 2006.” And “A little bit about the properties. At this point, the document created by the MFA [Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs] contains only five (!) objects (…) and five laws, one for each property, have been proposed. So, right now, instead of dealing with one proposed solution, Latvian politicians will have to deal with five. Plus, the MFA hasn’t consulted Jewish organizations; there is no defined procedure for ensuring proper return of each property.”

The article concludes:

“No doubt a major reason for all delays and foot-dragging is a simple fear of voters’ reaction. No surprise here because only 40 % of active inhabitants support the idea of restitution. (…) All of this is a simple result of the political elite doing nothing and not trying to explain calmly and reasonably to the Latvian people why it is so important and necessary to return Jewish property and what effect this will have on Latvia’s contemporary history and international prestige in general.”[3]

There was again a march on March 16, 2015, in Riga, celebrating the glorious and heroic deeds of the conscripted and volunteers within the Latvian SS divisions (from 1943), some of its members having first (1941-1942) distinguished themselves in eradicating the Jews from the Latvian landscape, some of them having perhaps stolen Jewish properties. But all of them having been part of a criminal organization as decreed and tried by the Nuremberg Court (1945-1946) and, by their fierce combat on the Eastern front (these units received the highest number of decorations of all SS unit!), they in fact participated in unnecessarily prolonging the war with the result that in Western Europe hundreds of thousands of Jews were captured and sent to death camps in 1943, 1944 and 1945 (including of course all the Jews of Hungary).

What the State of Latvia does now cannot be viewed as procrastination any more.

This is utter contempt for the Jewish victims of a Holocaust by a state that is part of the European Union, an EU member state that tolerates pro-Nazi marches, an EU Member State that has wiped its slate clean, forgetting the level of implication of some of its own citizens in the murder and destruction of the Jews of Latvia. An EU State that negates the rights of some of its former citizens who were killed by German and Latvian army or police units only because of their ethnicity and creed.

This is unacceptable and calls out for polite but robust protest from the international community.

 


 

[1] All excerpts taken from the complete text of Mr. Davidson’s speech as printed on pages 4-6 of the Latvian Jewish Courier, volume 28, No. 1 of March/April 2014 (Adar II/Nissan 5774).

[2] March/April 2015 (Adar/Nissan 5775).

[3] Excerpts from an article in the March/April issue, entitled “Once Again About Restitution” written by Yefim Shteynfeld, pages 1-3.

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