Serbia to offer restitution to Holocaust survivors abroad

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Two months after landmark legislation offering restitution to Holocaust survivors was passed in Serbia, the Balkan country launched a program extending compensation also to former Serbian survivors living abroad.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization, or WJRO, announced the launch of the program on Tuesday, adding that the estimated 1,000 Holocaust survivors from Serbia living abroad have until July 31 to apply for the payments.

The recipients will receive payments from a fund that constitutes compensation for properties that were owned by the Jewish community before the Holocaust and were nationalized following the near annihilation of Serbian Jewry.

Gideon Taylor, WJRO’s chair of operations, told JTA that the decision to extend payments to recipients living outside Serbia was not unique among European countries, “but not all European countries offer it, either.”

The Serbian law is the first to address heirless property since 47 countries approved the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which called for the restitution of Jewish property, including heirless property.

Many European countries offer restitution for property that belonged to individual people. Ongoing negotiations over the restitution of communal property, whose worth is estimated in the billions in Poland alone, has hit major hurdles in that country, as well as in Romania, Croatia and beyond.

Today, Serbia has approximately 1,200 Jews, with few Holocaust survivors. This makes the Serbian program offering restitution for Holocaust survivors from what is today Serbia but now live elsewhere “especially significant,” Taylor said.

He also said that the Serbian move “will hopefully trigger action on the part of other Balkan countries” and from the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. Gestures of international significance by one nation from the former Yugoslavia are often followed by another.

“This is a historic step to provide compassion and a measure of justice to Serbian Holocaust survivors more than 70 years after the Nazis declared Serbia free of Jews,” Taylor said of the decision to compensate survivors living outside Serbia. “We urge other countries to follow Serbia’s lead and return heirless Jewish property so that Holocaust survivors in need may benefit during their lifetimes.”

In what Holocaust restitution advocates consider model legislation, the Serbian government pledges to provide about $1 million a year for 25 years to SAVEZ, the federation of Serbian Jews. For the coming decade, a fifth of those funds will be set aside for direct payments to Holocaust survivors. Funding for the program will also come from restitution to the Serbian Jewish communities of heirless and unclaimed Jewish properties unjustly seized during the Holocaust.