It was shortly before Passover that the Nazis forced the Jews of Senta, Serbia, from their homes and transported them to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Non-Jews later moved into their homes, telling those who asked after the war that the government had resettled them there.
Truth be told, few of the country’s Jews who survived the Holocaust — some 16,000 people were murdered, 90 percent of the Serbian Jewish community — wanted to return home. One who did — a sister of Ida L. of Brooklyn — found another family inhabiting the spacious, three-bedroom home. It had been her grandfather’s until he died a few years before the Nazi invasion. She, her parents and six siblings moved in after his death.
Ida, who declined to give her last name, is now 85 and said she never had any interest in returning to Serbia. But she said she welcomes the Feb. 12 decision of the Serbian National Assembly to pay restitution for heirless and unclaimed Jewish property stolen by the Nazis.
“That was a huge breakthrough,” said Gideon Taylor. “This is a step towards justice and the recognition of history.”
Taylor, chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which played a major role in convincing Serbian lawmakers to adopt the legislation, pointed out that Serbia is the first of 47 countries to address the issue of heirless property since they all endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009. The declaration dealt with the restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis.
Taylor noted that all other countries except Poland have had private property restitution laws.
Although exact numbers are not known and the new heirless property law is not expected to impact a “huge number of people,” Taylor said Serbia’s action “is a big restitution story because hopefully it will help us move forward with other countries. And it has the potential to help the Jewish community in Serbia survive and prosper — to create and preserve a dynamic Jewish life in Serbia.”
Under the terms of the new law, Serbia is to pay $1 million each year for 25 years for the social welfare of Jews living in Serbia and to support the revitalization of their community. For the first 10 years, at least 20 percent of the money — $2 million — will be directed to assist Serbian Holocaust survivors living in Serbia and abroad.
In a 2011 census in Serbia, 787 people identified themselves as Jewish. Taylor said he did not know how many of them — if any — were Holocaust survivors. And he said he did not know how many Serbian survivors live elsewhere around the world. The amount of money each Serbian survivor will receive during the next 10 years depends upon the number of survivors.
The new law provides that Serbia return to the Serbian Jewish community all heirless and unclaimed movable and immovable private property. But, unlike in 2011, when Serbia passed a law that allowed individuals to file claims until 2014 for the restitution of their family’s private property, the new law permits only the Serbian Jewish community to file claims for heirless and unclaimed private Jewish property.
The WJRO had worked to let survivors and their families know about the 2011 law and Taylor said it now plans to work with the Serbian Jewish community to research property records in an effort to locate heirless Jewish property.
The new legislation could, in some instances, provide survivors and their families who missed the 2014 claims deadline another opportunity to seek restitution of their property. Details have yet to be worked out, but the legislation calls for the local Serbian Jewish community to file such claims. There is a three-year deadline. If a local Jewish community receives restitution for an unclaimed property and the rightful owner later comes forward, the legislation requires that it be transferred to the rightful owner or that compensation be paid.
The annual $1 million payments are also to be used for Holocaust research, commemoration and education, as well as for sustaining Jewish communities and religious and cultural activities. The law also establishes a supervisory board comprised of the WJRO, the Serbian Jewish community and the Serbian government to supervise and monitor the management of the payments.
Meanwhile, in her Brooklyn home, Ida said she had no idea how much compensation she might receive for her family’s former home in Serbia. But one of her nine children, Clara, said her mother, a widow who lives alone in a private house, could certainly use the money, especially for medical expenses.
“She can’t hear well and needs a cane and a walker,” she said.
With financial assistance from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and Austria, Clara said she has been able to hire an aide to be with her mother for a few hours each week. She said she and her siblings take turns staying with her the rest of the day and night.
“If we had the money, I could hire help to be with my mother 24 hours a day,” Clara said. “And we could afford to get her a hearing aid.”
Details of the claims process will be posted on the WJRO website, wjro.org.il, as soon as it is finalized.