Presentation of the official delegation of Estonia at the Vilnius Forum
Karin Saks, Minister of Ethnic Affairs
3-5 October 2000
Estonia sent an official delegation led by Karin Saks to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
First I must say I'm a little embarrassed to start talking of the Holocaust and get to its cultural assets as the first thing. When we think of the Holocaust in the first place we think of the people who lost their lives and only then of the other aspects, including the lost property. However, things form a part of our lives, they contribute to our feeling of security that many of us lost owing to the Holocaust. I mean this sense of security that Stefan Zweig has characterised as the "world of yesterday" in his book of the same title. The sense of security that is created by the things that have a longer lifetime compared with us, the living beings. By inheriting the things from our ancestors we also inherit the security they convey.
Estonia proclaimed independence on February 1918. All persons living on the Estonian territory became the citizens of the Republic of Estonia independent of their nationality. According to the census of 1934, there were 4434 Jews in Estonia, less than 0.5 % of the total population.
In 1939 a pact was signed between Hitler and Stalin with secret appendixes leaving Estonia in the so-called sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. As a result of the Pact Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union on June, 1940. In June 1941, immediately before the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Soviets deported to Siberia approximately 10,000 persons including women and children. This number included a disproportionate amount of Estonian Jews. More than 400 were arrested and deported. This was about 10% of the Estonian Jewish Community.
In summer 1941 (July-August) when Germany occupied the territory of Estonia, approximately 3000 Estonian Jews managed to escape to Russia. Only 1/3 of them came back after the war. About one thousand (approx. 25% of the pre-war Estonian Jewish Community) remained in Estonia and almost all of them were killed during the German occupation in Estonia and near Pskov, Russia.
Immediately after the start of the first Soviet Occupation most of the private property was nationalized. This was called the process of liquidation of private ownership. All cultural and non-profit organizations and societies, including numerous Jewish cultural, social and student organizations were closed and their property redistributed.
In the time of the German occupation the right to the private property was restored, but the property, nationalized in the first Soviet year, was not given back.
The Jewish Community in Estonia was small and relatively poor. Today the new skyskrapers of Tallinn are erected just in this region where many Jews were living once, though they were not the landowners. Most of the Jews lived in rented flats. Nothing is known of the nationalisation of valuable works of art belonging to the Jews in 1940-1941, or expropriation of such property in 1941 after the German occupation had begun.
After the restoration of independence in Estonia in 1991, the illegally alienated property has been restored to legal ownership or compensated to the legal owners. The only condition for the restoration or compensation was that the applicant had to prove that he or she had been a citizen of the Republic of Estonia on June 16, 1940 or the parents or grandparents had been the citizens. To the Jews their property has been returned on equal basis with other citizens of the Republic of Estonia. No separate lists of nations have been compiled.
So far there have been no cases in Estonian courts concerning the restoration of valuable pieces of art to the Jewish owners. According to the information provided by the Estonian Art Museum there are no works of art in their collections that could have belonged to the members of the Jewish Community and there have been no claims to return any objects.
There have naturally been cases concerning the restoration of real estate. This is a situation were Estonia is trying to settle the consequences of 50-year-old injustice. As all Estonian citizens have equal rights, there are no separate lists for Jews. Mostly the process of regaining the property is finished; some proceedings are going on at the moment at several Estonian courts as it is quite normal with old property problems.
The Estonian Jewish Community was one of the first communities of national minorities re-established in Estonia and starting its activities already in 1989. The Jewish community has regained the property lost in 1940 or the compensation for it at the beginning of nineties. The community has received the house of the community where the Jewish school, the synagogue and the cultural society are based today.
Estonian archives contain ample material about the property in Estonia as the archives were not destroyed in the Second World War. All the Estonian archives are fully open for the researchers. According to the law on archives historical materials in archives are not returned to the previous owners but are open to them for research etc. In the State and Historical archives there are also documents of the Jewish organisations.
A word about historical commission.
The Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of the Crimes Against Humanity has been formed and working. The comission was established on the initiative of Mr Lennart Meri, President of Estonia, and consists of internationally renowned historians and statesmen and representatives of the Jewish organizations. No Estonians are included as members of the Commission. The commission is chaired by Mr. Max Jacobson, an internationally well-known Finnish historian, statesman and diplomat. The commission will publish its report on the Nazi Occupation 1941-1944 in January next year.
To conclude with, I'd like to stress that regardless of the work the historians or experts do, regardless of the facts they disclose - our main task, as well as the task of this forum, is to preserve the memory, to keep it alive. If we forget we will also be the accomplices as the Jewish writer Isaac Singer has put it in his novel " The slave". We do not want to be co-defendants, thus we must do everything to remember.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).