Tiny country’s Jewish community seeks payment, recognition for WWII


LUXEMBOURG — Visitors to Luxembourg’s modern city history museum might be surprised to find Torah scrolls, Havdalah spice boxes, silver Shabbat candles and other Jewish ritual objects.

After all, this wealthy little country in the heart of Europe has only 1,000 Jews — and ever since World War II, when the Nazis nearly decimated its Jewish community, Jews here have kept a low profile.

But lately the community has begun demanding answers — and unspecified compensation — for the heirs of Jews whose assets were seized by the German occupiers and their accomplices.

A recent exhibit at Luxembourg’s Musee d’Histoire, entitled “Le Grand Pillage,” is part of a new awareness in Luxembourg that the country has never really come to terms with its past.

“In 2002, Luxembourg decided to set up a commission to look into the fate of material losses during the war,” said human-rights lawyer Francois Moyse, a prominent member of Luxembourg’s Jewish community.

Moyse told JTA that some 4,000 Jews were living in Luxembourg just before the outbreak of World War II. About half were refugees from neighboring Germany.

In 1940, Nazi troops invaded and ordered Luxembourg’s Jews to leave. All except 700 were able to escape, but those who remained were deported to concentration camps, mainly Theresienstadt. Only a handful of the deportees survived the war.

Moyse said that in 1959, Luxembourg received 18 million Deutschmarks from Germany as compensation for its Jewish citizens.

“For sure, some Jews have never been compensated for their suffering,” said the lawyer, one of four Jews on the 25-member commission. “These were foreign Jews, and only Luxembourg Jews were entitled to compensation by the Luxembourg government. The commission was supposed to make recommendations, but it has been over three years and there hasn’t even been an interim report.”

Luxembourg’s Jewish community was established in the early 1800s. Officially the country has 600 Jews, said Moyse, who believes the real number is nearly twice that much.

About 80 percent of the Jews live in the capital city, also known as Luxembourg, with a much smaller community in the nearby town of Esch-sur-Alzette.

French and German are the predominant languages in this country of 450,000 people spread over 999 mountainous square miles. Luxembourg hosts large numbers of expatriates due to its status as a financial center and home to E.U. institutions such as the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Justice.

Boulangerie Philip is Luxembourg’s only kosher grocery, serving the 30 or so local families who observe kashrut. The supermarket sells matzo-ball soup mix from Israel, Hanukkah candles from Belgium and frozen kosher meat from France.

The grocery is a 15-minute walk from the country’s main synagogue, built in 1953 to replace the previous shul, destroyed by the Nazis. Services follow a modern Orthodox ritual and are conducted in French and Hebrew by Moroccan-born Joseph Sayagh, said to be the first Sephardic rabbi in Luxembourg’s history.

“The Jewish community used to be 100 percent Ashkenazi, with many families of Luxembourg origin or from neighboring regions,” said Moyse, 39. “These people joined the community and after one generation they were considered locals. But now we have a lot of newcomers because the country is attracting new people, mainly from France.”

Some of those newcomers are attracted to Or Chadash, a small Reform congregation established in 1998 by American expatriate Betty Preston.

“I missed my Judaism, and I missed the idea of celebrating and being with other Jews,” said Preston, who has lived in Luxembourg since 1982.

With around 35 adult members and 15 children, Or Chadash holds Shabbat services once a month at the local Baha’i Center, while Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the Hilton. A rabbi comes in from England each year to lead high holiday services.

Or Chadash’s members are all foreign expats working in Luxembourg for several years, and the congregation is a member of the Liberal Judaism Council. In fact, foreigners today constitute 40 percent of Luxembourg’s population.

“There are no locals in our congregation because they’re not interested. We’re liberal, and they’re not,” Preston said. “It’s not that we don’t talk to each other, but we don’t socialize that much. We wrote to the Israeli banks here, telling them about us and hoping to get some new members, but we never got a response. We contacted the E.U. also, but they never responded either.”

Because of its small size, Luxembourg is one of the few countries in Europe without an Israeli embassy. Despite the community’s low profile, some Jews here have achieved prominence. One is Alain Meyer, a former vice president of the community who is now a member of Luxembourg’s Council of State; another is Edmond Israel, former president of the Luxembourg Stock Exchange.

Thanks to its general prosperity, Luxembourg has few problems with immigrants — certainly not to the extent of neighboring France and Belgium, both of which once possessed colonies in Africa.

“There is no violent anti-Semitism in Luxembourg, but like in any country, there is some xenophobia. You might hear somebody saying something, making remarks,” Moyse told JTA. “There’s a kind of myth here that poor Luxembourg was overrun and annexed by the Reich, and that nearly all Luxembourgers resisted the Nazis. But some people profited from the regime. We know, for example, that antiques dealers bought a lot of items that had been owned by Jews, certainly of dubious origin.”

Some of those artifacts were on display at the recent exhibit.

“I’m not saying anybody here helped kill the Jews, but in Luxembourg, only one Jew was hidden. We as the Jewish community are not only interested in payments to heirs, but also in history, because this story has never been written in Luxembourg,” said Moyse, who declined to speculate on the monetary value of losses or who exactly should be held accountable.

“We are not blaming anybody because that’s not what we’re looking for,” he added. “But people had losses and must be compensated.”