The Return of Synagogues

Restitution in the CIS: The International Aspect

Restitution in the CIS proceeded parallelly with global efforts of international Jewish organizations to coordinate their activity in regard to the restitution of East European and Central European property (that was confiscated by Nazi and Communist governments) to Jewish communities, organizations, and individuals. To improve this coordination the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) was established on July 29, 1992. It includes representatives of the World Jewish Congress, the JDC, the Jewish Agency, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, B’nai Brith International, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, and the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. The Agudath Israel and the EJC (European Jewish Congress) / ECJC (European Council of Jewish Communities) Joint European Delegation joined WJRO later on. In February 1993, in the name of WJRO and the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman signed an agreement with the government of Israel about cooperation in dealing with matters of restitution. The heads of WJRO encouraged leaders of East European countries to adopt more or less comprehensive laws on restitution of Jewish property. This international activity succeeded in influencing the policy of CIS states even though the laws adopted did not affect private property.

Not all claimants to the synagogues agreed that they be returned only to Jews remaining in the CIS. This position reflected two major considerations - that a large proportion of the descendants of those who built the synagogues now live in the United States, Israel, and other countries, and that even more of them perished in the Holocaust. The question that was being raised was whether only those small, newly organized communities in the CIS should be considered heirs to the synagogues.

On the basis of this perspective, the WJRO decided to compile a list of all confiscated Jewish community property and, after presenting it to the CIS governments, to request both the return of existing property and compensation for what no longer exists. In 1996 the member organizations of WJRO agreed that any compensation received would be divided between Jews in the CIS and international Jewish organizations.

Some Jewish leaders in the CIS (for example, the heads of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine) supported the WJRO on the assumption that they would be the recipients of the CIS share and, thus, increase their influence over local communities in their country. In Kiev the Institute of Jewish Material Culture and Architecture, which collected information about both surviving and lost Jewish communal property, started operating with funds from the WJRO. (The Institute also attempted to create a registry of Jewish cemeteries.) Eventually, the Institute provided the WJRO with a list of 2,000 sites, including ca. 300 synagogues and other religious institutions with their precise present addresses.

The author is not aware of any comparable list for the Russian Federation. In Belarus, the Jewish Religious Association of the Republic is collecting information about synagogues that have not been returned. However, it is doing so not for the WJRO but with the aim of obtaining these buildings for itself. Meanwhile, negotiations between the WJRO and the Ukrainian and other CIS governments in regard to compensation have not yet led to any significant results.



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19 Jul 2007 / 4 Av 5767 0