The work of WJRO
The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) was established in Jerusalem in 1993, as a nonprofit for the purpose of pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It is active in 12 countries, including Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Baltics. When it is not possible to return the assets to the rightful owners, or their heirs, the organization seeks full compensation.
Dublin-born Gideon Taylor serves as chair of operations from the WJRO offices in New York, and is palpably aware of the minefields the organization has to constantly negotiate. “It is not easy,” he admits. “It is a struggle, but it is one that needs to be fought.” There has been some encouragement along the way.
“We have succeeded in a lot of countries in Eastern Europe,” Taylor notes. “We think, ultimately, we will succeed because it [the Holocaust and related claims] is part of the history.”
Taylor is upbeat about the chances of achieving restitution or, at least, compensation for Holocaust survivor claimants, and their descendants, even in Poland, which has proven to be the most obdurate of sparring partners.
“I think, at the end of the day, Poland will have to address it. They will defer and defer but, at the end of the day, it will have to address it.”
Taylor points to progress made over the years.
“In Romania, for example, there is a system of return of private property, and also of communal property in place. It’s not perfect, but we have definitely made significant progress. We’ve helped individuals recover property, and we have recovered communal property, which has been distributed through a foundation to help the Romanian Jewish community and Romanian Jews in Israel.”
Relevant legislation has also been introduced in Bulgaria, and even in Hungary there is a “symbolic program for individuals, and returns of communal property,” Taylor notes. “In the Baltics, there were returns of communal property, and in Latvia there was compensation paid for private property. In most countries in Eastern Europe, there has been some kind of a program that has not been perfect, but that has been symbolic recognition.” The latter is an important issue for the WJRO.
“For us, this issue in, some ways, is about the money, but it’s also about recognition, acknowledgment and history,” Taylor adds. “That’s why we think it’s important to pursue the issue – not just for the financial impact it can have on Holocaust survivors or their families, but also as a matter of principle.”
Poland is a particularly tough nut to crack.
“It has been disappointing to hear statements that have come from officials, that somehow that people [claimants] can go to court,” says Taylor. That, he believes, is a smokescreen. “The only way you can succeed in court in Poland, with a restitution claim, is if you can prove that the way the confiscation was made was technically incorrect. Even then it is very difficult. It has been a cruel journey for many survivors.”
There is a wider issue here, too, with a strong educational aspect.
“I think this issue is also important for the younger generation of Jews and Israelis,” Taylor states. “I think it is a sign of our awareness of what happened, and it is a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors. I think it is also a way to educate about the past and to learn for the future.”