Gideon Taylor of the World Jewish Restitution Organization writes this piece on the successful efforts of Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to get restorative legislation passed. Now, Taylor wants to see it pass the House of Representatives.
Seventy-three years ago, Howard Melton was liberated from a death march from the Dachau concentration camp. Howard, who was born in Kovno, Lithuania, miraculously survived the Kovno Ghetto, a labor camp in Riga, the Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps and the forced death march. At 14-years-old, he weighed only 40 pounds.
Four years after Howard was liberated by American soldiers, Howard came to the United States and settled in Milwaukee to be near his friend. He fought for his new country in the U.S. Air Force, and then owned and operated an auto-salvage and auto-repair business for 30 years.
Howard’s family in Europe was not well-off, but one of his great-aunts owned property in Kovno, as well as in Kalatowa, a popular resort town nearby. His family spent summers there, working at the resort property and in a store the great-aunt owned there as well. In the over 70 years since his great-aunt’s property was taken away from her, Howard’s family has never received restitution or compensation for her property.
Led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), together with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a unanimous U.S. Senate recently passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act. The JUST Act would require the State Department to report on the progress of countries in helping people identify and reclaim properties wrongfully seized during World War II and its aftermath.
The unanimous Senate made a profound statement about the importance to the United States of countries addressing the history of the systematic looting of Jewish assets during the Holocaust.
As Baldwin said, “These individuals have waited far too long to recover, or receive compensation for, what is rightfully theirs, and by highlighting this issue as an American foreign policy priority, we will spur action in countries that are falling short of their obligations.”
Today, as fewer and fewer survivors remain with us, the world has precious little time left to ensure a small measure of justice for survivors; much work lies ahead.
In 2009, 47 countries endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues pledging to provide restitution. The declaration set out standards for the return of, or compensation for, Jewish private, communal and heirless property taken during the war.
The countries recognized that restitution of Jewish private property could help survivors meet their physical and emotional needs as they age. Moreover, the return of communal properties helps the remaining Jewish communities in Europe sustain and revitalize themselves after the devastation of both the Holocaust and the subsequent communist era.
Yet the Holocaust (Shoah) Immovable Property Restitution Study, commissioned by the European Shoah Legacy Institute and issued in 2017, concluded that “over 70 years after the Holocaust, a substantial amount of immovable property confiscated from European Jews remains ‘unrestituted.’ While there have been significant steps forward in a number of endorsing countries, in the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe there remains much to do regarding return of private and communal property.”
Former Jewish communal and private property often sits in the hands of governments and, even at this late date, nations that endorsed the Terezin Declaration have not fully addressed the issue.
For instance, Jewish communal properties across Latvia are still owned by the government and municipalities.
Poland, home to over 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, has not passed national legislation to allow property owners – including survivors and their families – to file claims. Legislation recently proposed by Poland would exclude the vast majority of survivors and their families.
In other countries, obstacles prevent the return of property to the owners and their heirs.
Other world leaders, in addition to American officials, care about this issue. Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said recently, “Restitution, together with remembrance and reconciliation, is a fundamental element to restore justice after the Holocaust.”
The United States has long taken a leadership role in pursuing justice for survivors. Passage of the JUST Act in the House of Representatives will be a powerful message of the United States’ enduring commitment to survivors and their families.
For Howard Melton and many survivors and their families in Wisconsin and throughout the world, this issue is not just about money. It is about the justice and the right to receive back what was wrongfully taken from their families.
Gideon Taylor is the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.