WJRO Hungary Operations
The communal property restitution process in Hungary, with respect to the Jewish community, appears to be complete, while the private property claims process which still continues to pay eligible claims suffered from numerous problems. Approximately 800,000 Jews lived in Hungary before the Holocaust, while about 100,000 currently reside there.
Originally, Act XXXII on Settlement of Ownership of Former Real Properties of the Churches (1991) provided that religious organizations could claim and use (but not own) religious properties which had been taken after January 1946 that were necessary to meet religious needs. A 1997 amendment gave religious groups the option to apply for government-funded annuities, purportedly representing the monetary value of their unrestituted communal property. In addition to obtaining the use of a number of buildings pursuant to the 1991 Act, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), the umbrella agency of Jewish organizations and communities in Hungary, concluded an agreement with the Hungarian government pursuant to the 1997 amendment, waiving its right to any remaining, formerly Jewish-owned communal properties in exchange for a government bond annuity. There are additional, formerly Jewish owned properties which might be claimed, but MAZSIHISZ has indicated that, from its perspective, the communal property restitution process is complete.
Several laws deal with the restitution of private property confiscated during WWII and/or subsequently nationalized by the Communist regime. The claims process for confiscated private property, which operated in the 1990s, made it difficult for many potential claimants due to the following, among other, issues:
- No in rem restitution;
- Only Hungarian citizens at the time of the enactment of the relevant law or when the property was confiscated or non-citizens with a primary residence in Hungary in December 1990 were eligible for compensation;
- Severely limited compensation reflecting a small percentage of the property s market value, as well as a modest payment ceiling;
- Narrow definition of an heir;
- Data privacy laws and limited archival access made property ownership documents difficult to obtain;
- Limited worldwide notification; and
- Claims have been processed slowly with long delays in payment of compensation.
In 1993, the Constitutional Court of Hungary directed the Hungarian government to implement the Paris Treaty of 1947, which required Jewish heirless (and otherwise unclaimed) property to be returned to the Jewish community for the relief and rehabilitation of Holocaust survivors and the community. Subsequent negotiations involving MAZSIHISZ, the WJRO and the Hungarian government led to the establishment of a foundation, the Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment (MAZSOK). The government transferred the following initial assets to MAZSOK: (i) a HUF 4 billion ($15-20 million) bond used for modest monthly pension supplements to Holocaust survivors (currently numbering about 6,700 people); and (ii) several properties and paintings used to generate income for the use of local Jewish institutions.
In addition, in November 2007, the government approved of the establishment of a special joint committee consisting of government officials, as well as local and international Jewish representatives to address remaining property restitution issues, including heirless Jewish property, looted art, insurance, bank accounts and other business interests. As a result of negotiations with WJRO, the government in light of the advanced age and urgent needs of Hungarian Holocaust survivors agreed to the WJRO request of a $21 million down payment (over a five-year period) for heirless property, which is yet to be fully inventoried and evaluated. The Hungarian government completed transfer of the funds in 2013. Pursuant to an agreement between MAZSOK and the Claims Conference, one-third of the funds were distributed to survivors living in Hungary, while two-thirds were distributed by the Claims Conference for the benefit of survivors of Hungarian descent living outside of Hungary. The government has been funding research into heirless property.