By Sidney Zabludoff
Immediately after occupying Germany, the Allies moved to safeguard stolen property. The U.S. government instructed its occupation forces to impound “property which has been subject of transfer under duress or wrongful acts of confiscation, disposition or spoliation” and to “institute measures for prompt restitution.” It was not until 1947-1950, however, that the United States, United Kingdom, and France introduced restitution laws in their zones of West Germany and Berlin. The delay mainly reflected two years of failed discussions between the four occupying powers to enact a single restitution law for all of Germany. In Soviet-occupied eastern Germany, the laws on returning property were very limited, applying only to so-called “democratic organizations.” This excluded any private claimants.
In the discussions leading to the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1952, the Western allies insisted that the new government continue efforts to restore property to Jews and other victims of Nazi oppression. At the same time, negotiations mainly involving West Germany, Israel, and several international Jewish organizations led to the establishment of a new structure, referred to as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. Within that context, Bonn enacted the BRÜG law in July 1957 to provide compensation for movable property stolen by the Nazis, which the claimant could identify but could no longer locate. This mainly involved household goods, bank accounts, jewelry, and securities. The BRÜG was steadily expanded with the latest change in December 1994 to include property stolen in the former communist-controlled East Germany.
A structure was also established to handle the vexing problem of returning the vast amount of Jewish property where the heirs could not be located. In each western zone, a group, referred to as a successor organization, was created to press the heirless claims for the Jewish people as a whole. It consisted of major Jewish associations. In the U.S. zone, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization began operating in 1948. Much of the money received from heirless or unclaimed property in the Allied zones-200 million DM-was used for refugee relief, resettlement, and rebuilding Jewish communities ($50 million in late-1930s prices or $715 million in 2005 prices).
In November 1992, the World Jewish Restitution Organization was formed to handle the return of Jewish property in postcommunist Eastern Europe. It grew out of an alliance between major Jewish international bodies (representing the Diaspora) and the state of Israel, and was aimed at recovering communal property and private assets.
Postwar restitution progress was painstakingly slow and lasted until the early 1970s. During this twenty-five-year period the emphasis shifted from returning property in occupied countries to pressuring a more economically sound Germany to pay more for the looting by the Nazis. Bonn did respond, though slowly, as it gradually made it easier for claimants to obtain compensation for looted property. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, interest in the subject remained dormant though the problems persisted. With efforts to remedy the situation receiving limited public support, claimants’ inclination to pursue their cases waned. Many survivors just wanted to get on with their lives.
Restitution faced many complications because assets were hard to find and difficult to value while confiscation had taken many paths. A major problem was that most property owners had died in the Holocaust along with their close heirs. Many of the remaining heirs lacked knowledge of the assets or possessed none of the paperwork needed to prove ownership.
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