- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

JERUSALEM — Jewish communal properties confiscated by the Nazis during World War II and nationalized after the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe are slowly being returned to the rightful owners, though with bureaucratic foot-dragging, according to organizations tasked with handling the property disputes.

The market value of the synagogues, hospitals, orphanages and cemeteries runs to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO).

The property is located in Poland, home of the largest prewar Jewish population, as well as in other former European satellites of the Soviet Union.

“The Eastern European officials keep pleading poverty and tell me they cannot finance [returning the properties],” said Naftali Lavie, WJRO’s deputy chairman.

Many of the properties in question are being held by former Communist Party functionaries “who refuse to let it go,” Mr. Lavie said in an interview.

WJRO specialists estimate the value of the private property left by the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims to be in the billions of dollars, but the organization’s current focus is on the communal assets.

Poland has been responding to the WJRO’s entreaties, but the restitution process has been very slow. It took seven years to retrieve the Yeshiva of Lublin, one of the world’s most prestigious Talmudic schools.

The Jewish population of Poland has dropped from more than 3 million in World War II to less than 12,000 today.

Poland’s official policy is that the money granted as financial compensation for the communal property must be spent on Polish soil and cannot be converted into foreign currencies for allocation abroad.

“The property should go to the former owners or their successors [in Poland],” said the Polish ambassador to Israel, Jan Wojciech Piekarski, a 40-year veteran of his country’s diplomatic service. “We should not be expected to finance Jewish activities abroad.”

He said that the Foundation for the Protection of Jewish Property in Poland, a body established jointly three years ago by the WJRO and the Union of Jewish Religious communities in Poland, was the legal heir.

Mr. Piekarski said 5,544 claims were submitted to the regulatory commission set up by the Polish government to deal with the Jewish assets, of which 5,346 were deemed “valid.” As of this month, of the claims that have been settled, 285 were assigned to the local Jewish communities (“equivalent replacements” were found for 64 percent of them); 253 claims were settled “by mutual agreement”; 145 properties were handed over intact to the Jewish communities; and 177 were “terminated.” In addition, there was no decision with regard to 10 and six others were “suspended.”

At that rate, it would take at least 60 years for the Jewish communal claims to be settled.

So far, compensation totaling 6.2 million Polish zlotys, or about $2 million, has been paid. And there were 14 other decisions that generated just over $1 million.

WJRO’s Mr. Lavie, a Holocaust survivor who is also president of the 60,000-strong Organization of Polish Jews in Israel, said the response of the other former Soviet satellites also has been bureaucratic and legalistic.

They, like Poland, are “stalling,” he said.

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