The return of Jewish property in Europe seized by the Nazis made progress on two fronts this week, in Poland and in the Czech Republic.
In the Czech Republic, a bill to return Jewish property and art confiscated during the Nazi occupation awaits the signature of the president after being approved by the Senate last week.
Under the measure, land holdings and buildings seized between Sept. 29, 1938 and May 8, 1945 now owned by the state would be returned to Jews or their heirs.
Ironically, the development comes as some fervently Orthodox Jews are accusing the Czech government and a national insurance company of violating an agreement with the Jewish community to fully protect a recently uncovered medieval Jewish cemetery in downtown Prague.
Thousands of non-Czech protesters in chasidic garb demonstrated last week in Prague, New York, London and Brussels. Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon this week blasted the protesters as “not decent people” who are making life difficult for the country’s tiny Jewish community.
Meanwhile, the proposed property restitution bill would also give to the Jewish Museum in Prague possession of 63 paintings now in the National Gallery, including works by Auguste Renoir and Emil Filla. Another 2,500 art objects would be returned to citizens of Jewish origin or to their descendants.
Czech officials have estimated that about 200 state-owned buildings could be returned. Claims by original Jewish owners or their descendants can be filed until the end of 2002.
Until now, only property taken under the Communist regime after 1948 has been returned.
“The Jewish community is quite happy with this law,” said Tomas Jelnik, an officer of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic and aide to Czech President Vaclav Havel.
There were 120,000 Jews living in the nation before World War II; now there are about 3,000.
In Poland, after months of infighting, the local Jewish community has reached a compromise agreement with the World Jewish Restitution Organization that will allow the return of perhaps billions of dollars of communal property to Jewish hands for the first time in more than 60 years.
The communal property includes synagogues, cemeteries, schools and community centers that once served a thriving Jewish population of 3.5 million. There now are an estimated 10,000 Jews living in Poland.
The agreement does not include the issue of private property, which the Polish government is still trying to resolve.
Facing a 2002 Polish deadline for filing communal claims, the deal calls for the creation of a joint foundation between the WJRO and the Union of the Jewish Communities of Poland and spells out who controls which properties.
About 30 percent of the properties will be controlled directly by a coalition of 19 viable Polish Jewish communities. The new joint Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage will control the rest.
The World Jewish Congress estimated the value of the properties at $1.5 billion to $2 billion, but an American government expert disputed those figures.
The properties were confiscated by the Nazis after they invaded Poland in 1939, and nationalized by the communists after WWII.
The foundation will have the daunting task of researching and reclaiming the properties. Some officials worry the Jewish groups wasted too much time arguing to be able to file all the claims before the deadline. The Jewish groups also face opposition from local Poles who feel the sites are theirs after all these years.
“It’s not a question of scoring points against the Poles,” said Rabbi Michael Shudrich, the new rabbi of Warsaw. “The goal is to insure the greatest number of Jews left and forgotten in Poland to be given the chance to reconnect, and preserve the places of greatest Jewish historical importance.”
Some properties will eventually be sold to pay for future maintenance of more than 1,000 deteriorating Jewish cemeteries.