By Curtis Wong
Upcoming Holocaust conference overlooks individual claims, observers say
Jiřína Nováková has been fighting to reclaim her grandfather's Koh-i-noor factory in Prague 10 that was seized by the Nazis in 1939.
When Sigmund Waldes co-founded the Koh-i-noor factory in 1902 along with his brother Jindřich, he couldn't have envisioned that his enterprise - which produces buttons, zippers, cufflinks and other functional clothing accessories, with branches in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona and New York among other cities - would keep his family in legal turmoil for three subsequent generations.
In 1939, as part of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Koh-i-noor factory was seized by the Nazis, shortly before Sigmund fled the country for New York. Jindřich and his family later perished in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
After the country's liberation in 1945, the factory was turned over to the state, despite the fact that Sigmund's daughter, Věra, who had relocated to France, was the rightful heir to her father's property.
Despite a series of high-profile court battles over ownership, the 17,000-square-meter Koh-i-noor factory, which occupies nearly three full city blocks in Prague 10, has fallen into disrepair after years of continued neglect. It remains solely in the hands of the state, though Sigmund's granddaughter, Jiřina Nováková, continues the fight.
Her latest appeal was launched in 1994, and, though local courts have acknowledged her claim to 50 percent of the land on which the property stands, she says the case continues to face legal uncertainty, though there are indications the case could be finalized by the end of June.
"Many members of my generation weren't aware that we were entitled to receive any of our property back," Nováková said. "In some ways, I am prepared to live without it but it's not fair that my grandfather's factory remains in the hands of a former communist management. One of the principles of a democracy is the ability to own private property that can't be touched by the state, and we should maintain that."
When Nováková learned about the Czech Republic's upcoming international conference in Terezín, to be held June 26 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, she immediately wished to be involved. She submitted a letter of intent along with an application, but says the conference's organizers claim never to have received any of the documentation.
Nováková is not the only member of Prague's Jewish community who feels their property dispute has not been given appropriate attention, despite a series of government initiatives to return confiscated property to remaining Czech Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Michal Klepatář, great nephew to Richard Popper, a Brno-born Jew who was murdered by the Nazis in Poland's Łódź ghetto, learned that several pieces of his great uncle's Old Masters art collection, which includes pieces by Dutch, French and German painters, are in the hands of the National Gallery.
Klepatář says the gallery has repeatedly refused to provide Klepatář with any specific details of his maternal uncle's collection because, according to the Holocaust Act of 2000, he is not considered a legitimate heir, though Popper's only daughter and direct descendant also perished in the Holocaust. This legislation conflicts directly with standard Czech inheritance laws, which allow nephews and nieces to claim property.
"The fact remains that I don't even know many details of what I'm claiming," said Klepatář, who has been waging a battle for his family's property since 1992. His case has been rejected by local courts because the claim wasn't specific enough, he says.
After unsuccessful e-mail communication with former Czech Ambassador to Israel Miloš Pojar, the conference's chairman, Klepatář says he was not considered a viable candidate for participation in the conference. "Most of what I have are merely lists of paintings with one-line descriptions. ? The fact remains that no direct descendants exist, and, at present, my uncle's paintings are thought to be heirless property. This case has cost me a lot of time and money without any result."
Authorities shrugged off concerns over the ongoing disputes, stressing the conference strives mainly to acknowledge the Holocaust's historical and personal relevance, as well as its importance from a research perspective.
"The success of the conference is just that it's convening. Hopefully it will establish some kind of trend," said Tomáš Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, which is one of the conference's co-organizers.
Though the conference's program and media coordinator, Jiří Schneider, said he was not familiar with Nováková's case, he noted that the high number of participant applications had made it impossible to admit everyone.
"The registration process was complicated. ... There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on the waiting list who will be admitted if capacity allows. Hopefully, [the conference] will increase the chances of these cases being solved, but that can't be guaranteed."
When pressed about specific cases, Kraus went on to call Klepatář "a friend," before noting he can "understand why [Klepatář is] upset. I would be as well. But you can't judge from isolated cases, though each is important, whether or not the conference will be successful overall."
According to Tomáš Jelínek, vice chairman of the Czech Committee for Nazi Victims, both cases are indicative of what he feels is a key problem with ongoing Jewish property restitution cases: the government's emphasis on property owned by organizations instead of individuals.
"They are continuing to diminish the importance of individual claims, which I consider a politically motivated decision," Jelínek said.
Claims for looted artwork, similar to Klepatář's, have traditionally been less successful, he noted. "The way the laws are written are very narrow. The people who would be critical of the community's actions have not been invited to attend the conference."
Though maintaining her optimism, Nováková said she feels increasingly isolated in her ongoing dispute.
"I've never had the support of a single organization," she said. "In the city's Jewish community, of which I'm a member, no one has ever asked me anything about the status of my trial. It's sad."
Curtis Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org