March 3, 2009

Property Reclamation: How JDC is Guiding European Jewish Communities through the Restitution Process

Four years ago, Serbia, like most countries in the former Yugoslavian states, had no law governing the restitution of Jewish communal property—former synagogues, schools, community buildings—confiscated by the Nazis and later nationalized under Communist governments. Today, with JDC assistance, the first such property has been returned to the Serbian Jewish community and is on its way to providing income to help sustain local Jewish life.

One of the cornerstones of JDC’s mission has long been to develop communities that are self-sustaining. The return and successful management of Jewish communal property in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe is an important component of JDC’s strategy. Since the mid-1990s, JDC has been involved in this process, on its own and also via the World Jewish Restitution Organization, in order to both achieve a small measure of justice and to enable communities to have the resources they need to flourish.

In February of 2005, JDC held a property reclamation seminar in Belgrade, Serbia—the first of its kind for countries of the former Yugoslavia, which, due to the Balkan wars a few years earlier, were lagging behind other formerly Communist countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania in the return of nationalized property. Though no laws existed in this arena, with an eye on the eventuality of a restitution law being established, JDC provided Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia with grants, loans, and the expertise to begin researching and making an inventory of properties that belonged to the Jewish community before World War II.

“The process we encouraged in Serbia is a model for how JDC helps communities along the continuum of property reclamation, from the pre-law stage until well after a property is returned,” explained Herbert Block, JDC Assistant Executive Vice President for Property Reclamation. “We provide not only funding but also the professional guidance to empower these communities on a road to self-sustainability,” he added.

When JDC held a follow-up seminar in June of 2006, the Serbian government had just, a few weeks earlier, enacted a new law regarding the restitution of church and religious property. And so the work began, with JDC funding and technical assistance from a property management coordinator, to translate all of the research that had been conducted into filing legal claims in accordance with the government’s deadline. By September 2008, the Jewish community of Serbia had filed 513 claims to former synagogues, schools, and community institutions. Two months later, in November 2008, the Jewish community got back its first property.

Built in 1928, the pre-war headquarters of the Sephardic community in Belgrade had been nationalized, though even during the nearly five decades of Communism the community was allowed to maintain its offices there. While only parts of the building have been returned to date—including a hall on the first floor and a floor of offices recently vacated by the local volunteer fire brigade—the process is already underway to turn these properties into profitable assets.

JDC’s help does not end when the government returns a property; the organization then offers the community assistance with real estate management so that a vacant old site can become an asset rather than a liability.

Today this community is applying to borrow money from the JDC-sponsored Strategic European Loan Fund (SELF), which provides interest-free loans that enable Jewish communities to develop or renovate properties that can yield income for the community. The proceeds generated from this and other real estate will be used to defend and process the community’s other property restitution claims, to improve or renovate future returned properties, and to fund Jewish programs that engage members of the country’s 10 Jewish communities.

“Serbia’s Jewish community has not had its own resources,” says Robert Djerassi, JDC Program Director for the former Yugoslavia. “Through the reclamation process, we will now begin to have the means to support viable Jewish life for the country’s 3,200 Jews today and in the future.”

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