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April 10, 2012 5:26 pm

Working to Restore Property Rights in Eastern Europe for Holocaust Survivors

avatar by Maxine Dovere /

David Peleg, director general of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, in New York City. Photo: Maxine Dovere

While he witnesses a growing Jewish cultural revival in Poland, Ambassador David Peleg does not necessarily see parallel progress for the Holocaust survivors whose property claims are in his hands.

During an interview in New York with JointMedia News Service, Israel’s former ambassador to Poland and current director general of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) said he is “very much disappointed” by slow movement in the restitution of Eastern European Jewish property lost during the Holocaust. Establishing legal claims to that property—both communal and personal—and securing its return is the mission of the organization Peleg heads.

“We will have to see how things will continue—survivors don’t get younger,” Peleg says.

Much of WJRO’s work focuses on retrieving the property of “heirless” Jews. The organization’s establishment in 1993 followed the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

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Peleg notes than an heir can approach a court, and if the usual demand for documentation can be met, property ownership can be established. Even though a legislative framework to pursue property claims has been established in several countries, the fact that so many archives were destroyed during the Holocaust means providing the necessary documentation can prove a daunting or impossible task, Peleg cautions.

WJRO started its work in Poland and continues to seek property restitution in Hungary, Rumania and Lithuania. In Lithuania, WJRO helped launch theFoundation for Jewish Heritage, which will administer a new compensation fund of more than $50 million established April 4 for Jews who had their property confiscated. There is still no movement on Jewish claims in Belarus, Russia, the Ukraine or Moldavia, says Peleg.

“Despite the lack of actual progress,” he says, “there is hope.”

Where no Jewish community remains, decisions concerning distribution of property or compensation must be made—and that is where WJRO comes into play. WJRO’s mission is to make equitable decisions regarding distribution of such recovered property either to living survivors or their descendants, or to foundations established by the government.

Peleg, who served as Israeli Ambassador to Poland for five years, describes “plenty of promises by successive Polish Prime Ministers” on Jewish property claims, but “little progress.”  He says that even where there are bilateral relations between Israel and an Eastern European country, issues of past property ownership of property are “treated in a different way…much more progress is needed.”

Peleg acknowledges how “much has been done” to revive Jewish culture in Poland, but called the return of property “a separate issue—not only a financial issue, but an issue of justice, of human rights.” He describes the growing interest in Poland among Israelis of “the third generation,” who are seeking to learn more about their roots.

“While many survivors did not want to visit Poland, many in the second and third generation do want to visit—about 30,000 go every year—to rediscover,” Peleg says. For this generation, he says it is “not the issue of the money; it is an issue of the roots.”

“Many young Israelis are seeking their heritage,” Peleg says.

In recent decades, Poland has been promoting its Jewish connections. About 20,000 Poles are registered as having some Jewish background, and Peleg says, “There could be many more.” Many Jewish children hidden with Christian families or in Christian facilities during the Holocaust have only recently discovered their roots.

Several museums are being developed—one at the site of the Schindler factory, another in the City of Krakow. Peleg also notes efforts to renovate the synagogue in Zamosc—a Sephardic Jewish community once noted as a “Western-style academic and economic center” (Yivo Institute). It was the only city in Poland to have an active Sephardic community during the 20th century.

“It is important to know more and more about the historic roots and visit,” Peleg says. “So much of our history comes from Poland.”

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