New York, Feb. 12 – The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) welcomed today’s passage of Serbian legislation that will address heirless and unclaimed Jewish property expropriated during the Holocaust. WJRO played a key role in securing the adoption of the law.
Serbia now becomes one of the first countries in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union to pass a law specifically restituting heirless Jewish Holocaust-era property.
This is the first legislation on heirless property passed since Serbia and 46 other countries endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which called for the restitution of heirless Jewish property.
The legislation passed with support across the political spectrum in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia.
“This is a step toward justice and the recognition of history,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations. “Today, Serbia remembers those who perished in the Holocaust. We look to other countries to follow Serbia’s lead and return heirless Jewish property so that it can help Holocaust survivors in need, commemorate those who died and strengthen Jewish life in these communities where so much was destroyed.”
The new law will provide urgently needed funds and property to sustain and revitalize Jewish life in Serbia, as well as support Serbian Holocaust survivors living in Serbia and abroad. Passage of the legislation also recognizes the devastation of the Serbian Jewish communities and the wartime murder of tens of thousands of Serbian Jews.
This law culminates a two-year campaign by WJRO, in partnership with the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia (SAVEZ). WJRO delegations met in February 2014 and May 2015 with high-level government officials in Belgrade, leading to the formation of a government working group to draft the legislation. WJRO and SAVEZ participated in the working group to ensure that the legislation addressed the most critical needs for Serbian Holocaust survivors and the Serbian Jewish community. WJRO also built broad international support for the legislation, and co-sponsored restitution conferences convened by the New Balkans Institute of Belgrade University.
A WJRO delegation was in Belgrade this week to urge passage of the legislation. The delegation met with the First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Veroljub Arsić, other Serbian government officials, and senior diplomats from around the world.
“Today, more than 70 years after the Nazis declared Serbia ‘free of Jews,’ an independent and democratic Serbia has passed legislation to support survivors and ensure the continued revival of this centuries-old Jewish community,” said Judge Ellen Heller, who has led WJRO’s delegations to Belgrade.
WJRO deeply appreciates the broad international support for this legislation. A bipartisan letter from the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić detailed how the measure’s passage “would express Serbia’s commitment to justice and the rule of law, and establish Serbia as a model for other countries in Europe who have not yet provided restitution for heirless property.”
Additionally, a letter to Prime Minister Vučić from European Parliament Members Gunnar Hökmark (EPP-Sweden), Monika Flašíková Beňová (S&D-Slovakia) and Charles Goerens (ALDE-Luxembourg) noted that passage of the law “would affirm Serbia’s continued commitment to the principles of the Terezin Declaration, and to property rights and the rule of law.” The MEPs are co-chairs of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors, a coalition of representing six political parties and 18 member-states in the European Parliament.
The European Shoah Legacy Institute also wrote to Prime Minister Vučić in support of the legislation.
Some specific elements of the new law include €950,000 per year for 25 years in compensation to SAVEZ to support the revitalization of the Serbian Jewish communities, and in rem restitution (return of a property) to the Serbian Jewish communities of heirless and unclaimed movable and immovable property. Holocaust survivors and their heirs will have the opportunity to obtain any of their property that will be returned to the Serbian Jewish communities.
In addition, distribution of revenues from compensation and restitution will support Holocaust survivors; social welfare of Jews living in Serbia; Holocaust research, commemoration and education; and sustaining Jewish communities and religious and cultural activities. At least 20 percent of those revenues in the first decade will be directed to assist Serbian Holocaust survivors now living in Serbia or abroad.
The law also establishes a Supervisory Board, with representation from WJRO, SAVEZ and the Serbian government, to supervise and monitor the management of funds.
WJRO will continue to work with the Serbian government on remaining issues.
WJRO expresses its appreciation to Prime Minister Vučić and his government, including the Agency for Restitution, Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Finance. WJRO is also grateful for the strong support for this legislation from the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as from the governments of Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, and the United Kingdom.
The Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues was approved by 47 countries, including the Republic of Serbia, at the conclusion of the 2009 Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference. The Declaration supports the use of heirless property to provide for the social welfare of Holocaust victims, as well as to revitalize and strengthen Jewish communities. This was reaffirmed in the Guidelines and Best Practices for the Restitution and Compensation of Immovable (Real) Property document endorsed by 43 countries in 2010. As recently as May 2015, 39 countries again expressed their support for restitution of heirless property. The statement issued at the conclusion of the International Conference on Welfare for Holocaust Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution in Prague, convened by the European Shoah Legacy Institute, encouraged “the use of proceeds from Jewish Holocaust-era heirless property in order to provide for the medical and social needs of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors, irrespective of their country of residence.”
For more information about the international consensus, please click here.
In the first 13 months of the Nazi occupation of Serbia and Banat, approximately 16,000 Jews were killed, representing nearly 90 percent of Serbia’s prewar Jewish population. The destruction of Serbian Jewry had two distinct phases: Jewish men were either sent to concentration camps in Belgrade and Šabac, or shot as part of the retaliatory executions (Geiselmordpolitik); women and children were incarcerated and then gassed.
For more information about the Holocaust in Serbia and the impact on Serbian Jewry, click here.