WJRO Serbia Operations
Statement of the Special Envoys for Holocaust Issues and Anti-Semitism on Holocaust Restitution in the Republic of Serbia / WJRO Position Paper on Restitution in Serbia / Restitution of Art, Judaica, and Other Cultural Property Plundered in Serbia During World War II / Conference Book for 2014 “Nationalization, Confiscation, Restitution” Conference Organized by the New Balkans Institute / LIMES PLUS Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities Journal: Holocaust and Restitution / Letter from Co-Chairs of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors (EAHS) to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić / Letter from 25 Members of the United States Congress to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić
In October 2011, Serbia enacted The Law on Restitution of Property and Compensation to address private property restitution. Article 5 of the law expressly provides that Serbia will pass a special law to address heirless Jewish property. Serbian government officials restated at the November 2012 Immovable Property Review Conference Serbia’s commitment to pass such a special law in accordance with the Terezin Declaration and the Guidelines and Best Practices. Following a WJRO delegation to Belgrade in May 2015, the government established a working group — with representation from WJRO and the Serbian Jewish community (SAVEZ) — to draft legislation for the restitution of heirless Jewish property.
The Law on the Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities, enacted in 2006, regulates the return of confiscated communal property for churches and religious communities, including the Jewish communities. Substitute property or compensation is to be provided when in rem restitution is not possible.
Only a limited number of properties have been returned to the Jewish communities. The Jewish communities in Serbia identified 609 pre-war properties as having belonged to Jewish communities in the country, including synagogues, schools, mikvehs, orphanages, old age homes and 120 cemeteries. The Jewish communities submitted 520 communal property claims by the expiration of the claims filing deadline in 2008. Unfortunately, as of May 2015, only 19 properties have been returned.
More than 70 of the claims submitted by the Jewish communities have been rejected because they were owned by Jewish institutions, foundations, and philanthropic legacies before the Holocaust – even when the founding documents provided that the Jewish communities would inherit the property if the organizations ceased to exist.
Additionally, the 2006 law only includes property confiscated beginning March 1945 – in effect, excluding communal property seized during the Holocaust. This provision caught the attention of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which expressed its concern, stating that it “recommends that the Serbian authorities amend the Law on the Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities to ensure that property before 1945 is restituted.”
While Serbia did not have a private property restitution law until 2011, certain former property owners from what was the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia were able to obtain some compensation under two settlement agreements involving the United States. Yugoslavia paid a total of $20.5 million to a number of persons who were United States citizens at the time their property in Serbia was taken; a 1948 agreement covered property seized 1939-1948, while a 1965 agreement covered property nationalized 1948-1964.
In October 2011, Serbia enacted The Law on Restitution of Property and Compensation
(“Restitution and Compensation Law”) to address private property restitution. The 2011 law established a two-year deadline for filing private property claims that ended at the beginning of March 2014.
The two-year period to file claims did not sufficiently take into account the difficulties for elderly Holocaust victims or their descendants, both in Serbia and throughout the world, to become aware of the claims deadline, obtain all required documents, and secure needed assistance for submitting claims.
The law should also be amended to expand restitution in kind and to provide prompt and genuinely fair and adequate compensation. The Restitution and Compensation Law has an extensive list of exceptions to the property that can be returned in kind. Among property exempted from in rem restitution are the following: property used by every level of government or by foreign government officials; property used for health care, educational, cultural or scientific purposes; property already sold in the privatization process or held by state-owned enterprises; and (in an unclear catch-all provision) property “[i]n other cases determined by the Law.” (Article 18)