Belgrade, Serbia, May 11 – The World Jewish Restitution Organization applauds a strong statement issued today by a multinational group of high-ranking officials that addresses Holocaust-era affairs and anti-Semitism.
The joint statement – the first of its kind – calls on the Serbian government to address outstanding property restitution issues, working with the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and the Jewish community in Serbia.
The officials, collectively known as the Special Envoys for Holocaust Issues and Anti-Semitism, hail from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Macedonia and the United States. The European Shoah Legacy Institute helped to coordinate the statement.
“[T]he return of confiscated property is essential for the future of the Serbian Jewish community and the ability of Holocaust survivors from Serbia to live their remaining days in dignity,” the Special Envoys stated.
The envoys also called for the Serbian Parliament “to enact a law that would apply to property confiscated, nationalized or otherwise seized during the Holocaust or its aftermath, both individual and collective, located on the territory of the Republic of Serbia.”
A WJRO delegation, led by Judge Ellen M. Heller, met Monday and was set to meet Tuesday in Belgrade with top Serbian officials, including the first deputy prime minister and foreign minister, justice minister, culture minister, senior advisers to the finance minister, leaders of the governing and opposition party in Parliament, and the director of the restitution agency.
WJRO will focus on broadening opportunities for Serbian Holocaust survivors and their families to claim private property, as well as to pass legislation on heirless and unclaimed Jewish private and communal property.
The WJRO delegation will be accompanied by the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, Nicholas Dean; U.S. Amb. Michael Kirby; and president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia, Dr. Ruben Fuks.
“Serbia has made important progress in recent years on restitution, and now is the time to move forward on behalf of survivors, their families, and the Serbian Jewish community,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations. “We commend the Special Envoys for their powerful statement. We appreciate the strong support around the world for restitution in Serbia.”
In their statement, the Special Envoys also “encourage the government to resume discussions with the Jewish community in Serbia and the World Jewish Restitution Organization on the drafting of legislation.”
Before the Holocaust, about 16,000 Jews lived in Serbia within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Nazis and their collaborators killed all but 1,500.
Serbia passed legislation in 2006 to return property to religious communities. While the Serbian Jewish community submitted 520 claims, only 19 have been approved to date. The existing law does not cover properties seized during the Holocaust, or properties belonging to Jewish organizations such as the burial society, welfare society or women’s organizations.
In 2011, Serbia passed legislation for restitution of private property. Yet many private property owners living abroad – including survivors and their families – did not have sufficient time to file claims.
Serbia pledged in the 2011 law to pass a separate law on heirless Jewish property. A working group of the Serbian government and Jewish representatives met briefly last year and was reconstituted before the visit of WJRO’s delegation.
The WJRO delegation and the statement of the Special Envoys coincided with a conference on the Holocaust Restitution sponsored by the New Balkans Institute, Serbian Agency for Restitution, and Serbian Association of Public Prosecutors and Deputy Public Prosecutors. WJRO is a partner in the conference, and Judge Heller and other members of the WJRO delegation will speak at the gathering.