Law to Advance Restitution Claims Passes in Romania

NEW YORK -
President of the Romanian Jewish Communities Federation (FCER) Aurel Weiner (L) carries a sefer Torah with other community members at the inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Bucharest. (DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Romanian Jewish Communities Federation (FCER) Aurel Weiner (L) carries a sefer Torah with other community members at the inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Bucharest. (DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)

A law designed to expedite Holocaust-era restitution claims in Romania passed that country’s parliament on Tuesday. It raised hopes that thousands of stalled cases could be resolved in the near future, and in the lifetimes of some survivors.

Following the fall of Communist rule in the 1990s, Romania followed the lead of many other European countries in enacting laws that allowed for property that was forcibly seized to be returned to its original owners. However, bureaucratic holdups have hindered the vast majority of claims, leaving 40,000 cases unsettled.

Abraham Biderman, who serves as co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), was among the team of international players involved in moving the legislation forward.

“Nothing has happened for 10 years; it’s ridiculous,” he told Hamodia. “There are tens of thousands of Romanian survivors who are still alive, but most of them only have a limited number of years left. We cannot compensate them for the murder and suffering that went on, but this is our last opportunity to give them some sense of justice.”

Mr. Biderman said lack of international attention had allowed Romania to circumvent its pledges of restitution, but that the present legislation came about largely through efforts from WJRO, the U.S. State Department, various actors from the British and E.U. parliaments, as well as by representatives of Romania’s Federation of Jewish Communities.

Marco Katz, director of The Center for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism in Romania, told Hamodia that the blame for inaction with reparation claims lies with the country’s justice system.

“The courts have many problems with restitution in general, not only when it comes to Jewish issues. There is an atmosphere of moving very slowly with these cases and they often go on for years,” he said, referring to litigation over communist-era seizures.

Mr. Katz said that, while a significant number of claims by the local community have been settled through political channels, those from abroad remain mostly stalled within the justice system. He added that in addition to national pressure, Romania’s present position as chair of the International Alliance for Holocaust Remembrance had pushed the bill into reality.

“It [the new law] is a good start, and will hopefully end 25 years of confusion over what the law requires courts to do to help former owners, especially if they no longer live in Romania. But, the real value will only be if it is actually implemented by judges,” he said.

The new law requires courts to give priority to both Holocaust and Communist-era restitution claims. Romania, as most European countries besides Germany, does not distribute funds directly to survivors, but facilities the return of physical property. This covers both individual claims such as those on private residences or business holdings, as well as communal property such as shuls, yeshivos and the like.

“Many of them are still quite valuable,” said Mr. Biderman. Communal property is sometimes distributed to the heirs of those communities in the event that such entities exist. In most cases it is given to various organizations in Eretz Yisrael, the United States, or to the local Jewish community in Romania itself.

Romania was allied with Nazi Germany for most of the Second World War, but switched sides in August 1944. On the eve of the war, it claimed a Jewish population of 760,000. Between 280,000 and 380,000 were murdered during the Holocaust. Less than 5,000 Jews remain today.