Poland and Ukraine Resist Restitution of Heirless Holocaust Property

Just three weeks before international conference, some European delegates still weighing what to do with property.

Just three weeks before an international conference on Holocaust assets, Jewish and Eastern European delegates are still debating whether countries like Poland and Ukraine should give back heirless property that belonged to murdered Jews.

While those countries have opposed restitution of property whose owners left behind no heirs, Jewish representatives of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference, scheduled to open in Prague on June 26, say such property should go to Jewish organizations in lieu of heirs.

"Until now, certain countries have resisted restitution for lost heirless property, citing laws that state that such property should go to their treasuries," said David Peleg, the newly appointed director of the World Jewish Organization for Property Return. "We don't agree with this assertion."

Peleg estimates the value of heirless Jewish property in Poland alone at billions of dollars.

"The reason there's so much unclaimed property is because the Nazis killed off whole families," he said.

The conference, which will bring together representatives of some 50 countries and 30 non-governmental organizations, is the first wide-scale forum involving assets from several countries to convene in over a decade, since the Washington Conference of 1998. Israeli officials say the conference may be the last opportunity to set principles that could lead to wide-scale compensation for lost Jewish property.

Asked whether he thought the recalcitrant Eastern European countries would eventually come around, Peleg would only say that "this is achievable." He said the U.S. State Department's involvement in the issue "has been very helpful."

Former Mossad official Reuven Merhav, who will head Israel's delegation to Prague, called the negotiations "intensive" and "delicate."