shall not murder…
"…You shall not covet your neighbor's house;
you shall not covet your neighbor's wife,
nor his male servant, nor his female servant,
nor his ox, nor his donkey,
nor anything that is your neighbor's…"
TO THE QUESTION OF JEWISH PROPERTY IN UKRAINE
(AN ATTEMPT OF PRESENTING THE SUBJECT)
Attitude to property is one of the fundamental criteria of human social
life, along with the attitude to G-d, life and death, and to parents.
Every religion offers a different vision of one of the cornerstones of
the civilization. These visions vary depending on time and space, but
all of them boil down to one simple idea - inviolability of property.
The question of property divided and continues to divide the human race
into different socioeconomic systems. Most of the military conflicts in
the human history broke out because of property; most of crimes are committed
with infringement upon foreign property.
It is difficult to separate material heritage from the spiritual one,
since spiritual culture always finds its form, gets recorded, produced,
stored, and passed on with material carriers. In connection with this
fact, material heritage, just like spiritual heritage, is part and parcel
of a nation's ethnic culture. Without heritage, without memory or history,
a nation turns into a senseless mob.
In the course of the twentieth century, as a result of wars, revolutions,
mass repressions and genocide, a large part of personal and communal property
was destroyed, robbed, illegally confiscated and thus lost to its owners.
In this work, an attempt is made to touch upon and outline various aspects
of the subject of former Jewish property in Ukraine, as well as problems
of its restitution to individual Jews and Jewish communities in Ukraine.
All property that can be an object of restitution (return) can be classified
according to several characteristics:
Movables and real estate:
All real estate that used to belong to the Jews and that is now a potential
object of restitution includes not only residential houses, but first
and foremost synagogues, orphanages, Jewish hospitals, institutions of
learning, libraries, archives, theaters, clubs, rental homes, cemeteries,
land plots, etc.
The following objects must be named among the movables:
- Torah scrolls;
- Documents that used to be kept in communal buildings and archives, as
well as with individuals;
- Pieces of art, ritual objects, museum exhibits, musical instruments,
- Money, precious metals, precious and semiprecious stones;
- Stocks, shares and other securities, insurance policies;
- Books, newspapers, magazines and other library property.
Private and communal property:
Private property is the property that belonged to individual Jews and
their family members, that was purchased, made, inherited or presented
as a gift to them.
Under objects of communal property in this context we mean land plots,
buildings and structures that were legally purchased and/or built by Jewish
communities, inherited by them, received as a gift, or received for usage.
Religious objects, furniture and other property that was kept in communal
buildings, pieces of art, books and archival materials, as well as other
property that belonged to communities also relate to the Jewish communal
The purpose of this article is description, first of all, of the category
of communal property, because in Ukraine's condition, the restitution
of private property is a much more complicated task than restitution of
Property that has or has not heirs:
In this context, such division is not very important because it is envisaged
that the legal heir of any communal property is the Jewish community of
the state, including the Jews who came out of this country in the person
of associations and other organizations. Even more disputable is this
thesis in application to private property that has no direct heirs.
Property dropped in escape or illegally confiscated (including "legal
confiscation" through Soviet laws of confiscation and nationalization):
This division, in the light of the above-mentioned explanation, does not
seem important to us either.
General history of the Issue
Even before the end of the military actions in Europe, the World Jewish
Congress began work on restitution of Jewish property and published research
of Dr. N. Robinson on this subject. In November 1944, first president
of the Congress Nahum Goldman presented this edition at the conference
in Atlantic City.
In September 1951, after a series of negotiations between Jewish organizations,
the State of Israel and the German government, Chancellor Conrad Adenauer
turned to Bundestag with the proposal to set up a joint international
structure, whose tasks would include examination and solution of the problems
of compensations for the Jewish property that was lost during the Second
A month after Chancellor Adenauer's speech in Bundestag, Dr. Nahum Goldman
gathered representatives of 23 main Jewish national and inter-state organizations
for a meeting in New York. At this meeting, a decision was made to create
a Conference for Jewish material claims to Germany - the Claims Conference.
The founders of the Claims Conference were: Ahudat Isroel, the American
Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Distribution
Committee, the American Zionist Movement, the International Bnei-Brit,
the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Center of organizations that survived
Holocaust in Israel, the Executive Council of Australian Jews, the Jewish
Agency for Israel, the World Jewish Congress, the World Council of Progressive
Judaism, and other organizations.
Dr. Nahum Goldman was elected president of the new organization; Saul
Kagan was elected its executive secretary.
On September 10, 1952, protocol #1 was signed between the Claims Conference
and the German government on allocation of the first tranch of compensations
worth DM 450 million to the Jews who survived holocaust. The same year,
the Israeli government signed a separate, DM 3 billion agreement, with
the German government.
Over the 50 years of work, the Claims Conference received from Germany
more than DM 100 billion and distributed this money among individual Jews
and their family members, as well as among Jewish organizations. The distribution
of this money took a form of lump-sum compensations to around 300 thousand
people and monthly "pensions" to 130 Holocaust survivors.
The Soviet government decided to renounce any compensation in favor of
Eastern Germany. This decision of the Soviet government is still a barrier
in the way of paying lump-sum DM 5,000 compensations to the Jewish Holocaust
survivors who currently reside in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Jewish emigrants from post-Soviet countries receive these compensations
in the countries of their emigration.
The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and USSR enabled the
Jewish world with the support of international community to resume their
claims for restitution of Jewish property.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization was set up at the Conference
of Jewish Material Claims to Germany in 1992. The goal of this organization
is coordination of Jewish restitution claims on behalf of the international
Jewry and local Jewish communities in different countries, as well as
negotiations with the authorities. The founders (and members) of this
new body were the leading Jewish organizations of the world: the Jewish
Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress,
the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the International Bnei-Brit,
the American Society of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and the Center of
organizations that survived Holocaust in Israel. WJRO was registered in
Israel as a non-profit organization and started its official activities
in April 1993. It is very important to emphasize the presence of East-European
organizations among its founders, because it is they, along with the local
community, who possess the conditional right to receive the property and
President of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, was elected WJRO
Chairman. Later, in 1997, Dr. Abraham Burg was also elected Chairman.
At that time he was also Board Chairman of the World Jewish Agency - Sohnut.
In November 1992, Edgar Bronfman signed a memorandum with Finance Minister
of Israel Abraham Shochat. The memorandum stressed Israel's interest in
restitution of the both communal and private Jewish property in Central
and East Europe. This document totally ignored present-day local Jewish
communities (direct heirs of the property). Despite all this, WJRO also
signed agreements with the local Jewish communities in order to coordinate
efforts in restitution.
Efforts taken to move the restitution process won official support of
the governments of the United States of America and Israel, which was
officially declared by Secretary of State of the US Department of State
W. M. Christopher at the meeting with the leadership of the World Jewish
Congress on February 7, 1994, and in the resolution adopted by Knesset
on December 21, 1994.
In April 1995, leaders of the US Congress called upon the governments
of the East-European states to consider demands of Jewish communities.
Eight senators wrote a letter to W.M. Christopher on April 10, 1995, noting
that the US policy requires that these countries should introduce a law
that would provide for restitution of the property confiscated by the
Nazi or Communistic regimes, or for compensations. "It must be explained
for the countries involved that their response to this question will be
viewed as a test of their attitude to the basic human rights and the leading
role of the law; it can also have practical consequences for their relations
with our country".
Even prior to this appeal, some countries of East Europe adopted legal
acts that concerned the restitution of the lost property. In 1991, a law
on restitution of private property was adopted in the Czech Republic (in
1994 amendments were made to it).
In 1992, the Bulgarian government signed a resolution (adopted with three
laws during the period between December 1991 and February 1992).
In 1993, the Constitutional Court made a provision for compensations for
confiscated property in Hungary, and a law on restitution of Jewish and
other religious communal property was adopted in Slovakia.
The laws of Latvia and Lithuania envisage restitution of religious structures
A barrier in meeting the demands for restitution of private property in
some countries was the citizenship of some claimers. The law allows to
meet demands for restitution only to people who are citizens of these
countries or at least reside in them.
A peculiar situation shaped in Poland due to a huge number of objects
subject to restitution. After long debates, with the participation of
international associations of Jewish emigrants from Poland and WJRO, a
law of restitution was finally adopted in 1999.
In the process of restitution, complicated relations form between WJRO
and communities of East Europe. WJRO has developed (and offered to communities
of post-Communist countries) a model of interaction in the process of
negotiations with the authorities on issues of restitution. A fund should
be set up on parity basis by the local community in the person of a "roof"
organization on the one hand, and WJRO on the other, since this organization
represents the Jewish world, in particular, emigrants from the above-mentioned
countries, in issues concerning restitution. This fund should start negotiations
with the government of a specific country, lobby the adoption of the law
on restitution, sign agreements and schedules of property restitution,
finance work on preparation and later - repairs and renovation of the
property restituted. Money comes from the funds of international organizations.
Not all communities of East-European countries have signed the agreement
with WJRO. For instance, the Czech community did not sign the agreement,
refused to adopt a law on restitution of communal property, but made an
agreement with the Czech government on restitution of 200 buildings that
used to belong to Jewish communities. The conflict between the Czech community
and WJRO still carries on, in a mild form, because the Czech government
has not met its obligations over the ten years, while WJRO, having no
signed agreement with the local community, cannot put full pressure upon
the Czech authorities in this issue. Even after signing an agreement with
WJRO the sides often have differences, since the issue of property restitution
is a hard one.
In September 1995, Edgar Bronfman, WJRO Chairman, got a letter from President
of the United States Bill Clinton, which showed the great importance the
US government attaches to the process of restitution of the Jewish property.
In the letter this process is interpreted as the restoration of justice.
The letter also says that Ambassador Stuart Aizenshtadt was given special
instructions to act in correspondence with this task.
At the Tenth Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem
in January 1996, Ambassador Stuart Aizenshtadt delivered a report on the
results of his mission to the countries of East Europe. During this trip
he had meetings with officials of the governments of these countries.
Mr. Aizenshtadt also visited Ukraine during that time and held a number
of meetings, including with the author of this article.
Main attention in his report was drawn to communal property where he noted
some success. The most difficult question was the one on private property.
On December 11, 1995, the European Parliament adopted resolution Â4-1493/95
on restitution of the Jewish property to Jewish communities with the call
"to all countries of Central and East Europe that have not done it
so far to adopt adequate laws on restitution of property that was stolen
by Communists or the Nazi and their allies to its legal owners".
The resolution was sent to the Council of Europe, governments and parliaments
of member countries of the Council of Europe, as well as to countries
that applied to join the European Community.
On September 1, 1997, a resolution was adopted at the meeting of the General
Council of the European Jewish Congress in Basel in support of the decision
of the European Parliament.
ASPECT IN UKRAINE
In summer 1993, during the meeting in Kiev between President Leonid Kravchuk
of Ukraine and President Edgar Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress,
a preliminary agreement was reached on the beginning of the process of
restitution in exchange for investments into Ukraine. The sides failed
to keep the agreement.
At the same time, in July 1993, a Memorandum agreement was signed between
WJRO and representatives of Jewish organizations and communities of Ukraine
on joint effort in restitution. The Memorandum was signed by Israel Zinger
and Avi Beker on behalf of WJRO and Ilya Levitas and Josef Zisels on behalf
While this agreement was still in effect, early in 1994, an agreement
was signed between WJRO and the Vaad of Ukraine on joint activities on
description and restitution of Jewish communal property, which is still
in effect. Concerning restitution of property the agreement said that
a special fund would be set up for the restitution of property, and in
the board of this fund the Jewish community of Ukraine would have the
right of veto in solving the problems the fate of Jewish property.
In 1995 and in the beginning of , negotiations were underway on the restitution
of Jewish communal property between Ukrainian vice prime minister Ivan
Kuras and WJRO representative, Ambassador Naftali Lavi. In January 1996,
at the Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem, Ivan Kuras
was going to declare Ukraine's preparedness for restitution, but at the
last moment he refused to speak for health reasons.
In the course of the last eight years, the Vaad of Ukraine and other organizations
repeatedly wrote on restitution issues to the Presidential Administration
of Ukraine, commissions of the Ukrainian Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers
of Ukraine, the State Property Fund of Ukraine, and the Culture and Arts
Ministry of Ukraine. Replies to these inquiries were either negative or
In May 1997 and in autumn of the same year, during personal meetings,
President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine promised to representatives of Jewish
organizations of the United States (Israel Zinger and others) to set up
a joint commission between the government of Ukraine and the Jewish community
of Ukraine to study the problem of restitutions. The promise remains unmet
This is a list of legal acts of Ukraine pertaining to the restitution
of various kinds of property to private persons and religious organizations
- Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist
Republic ¹ 83 dated April 5, 1991, "On the List of Architectural
Monuments That Are Not Subject To Restitution For Permanent Use Of Religious
Organizations" (with addenda and amendments) - lost effect on February
- The Law of Ukraine "On Rehabilitation Of Victims Of Political Repressions"
(adopted on 04.17.91 with amendments and addenda);
- The Law of Ukraine "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations"
(adopted on 04.23.91 with amendments and addenda) (Article 17);
- Decree of the President of Ukraine ¹ 125 dated 03.04.92 "On Measures
to Restitute Religious Objects to Religious Organizations";
- "The Rule of the Order Of Compensation Payments, Restitution Of
Property Or Payment Of Compensations For Its Cost To Those Rehabilitated"
in the wording adopted by Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine
¹ 112 dated 02.18.93;
- Order of the President of Ukraine ¹ 53/94-rp "On Restitution of
Religious Property to Religious Organizations" dated 06.22.94;
- Order of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine ¹ 357-r dated 06.16.95
"On Transfer of Religious Structure Where State Archives Are Located
To Religious Organizations";
- Order of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine ¹ 290-r dated 05.07.98
"Providing Stage-By-Stage Restitution Of Religious Objects That Are
Misused Or Remain Idle To Religious Organizations";
- Order of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine ¹ 137 dated 02.14.02 "On
Conditions Of Transfer Of Religious Structures - Outstanding Monuments
Of Architecture - To Religious Organizations".
In March 1992, President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk issued the Decree
on Restitution of Religious Property that is being misused. The local
authorities that owned or used such property were supposed to return it
to religious communities before December 31, 1997. The restituted property
could be used only according to its purpose, that is, for religious purposes.
The Decree was prolonged twice and is in effect up till now, since the
local authorities had paid practically no attention to its content and
direction, failed to provide restitution of religious property that is
being misused to religious communities, and even made no lists of religious
buildings and structures misused that the Decree required.
Over the ten years of the effect of these legal acts, the religious Jewish
communities of Ukraine got only around 40 buildings of former synagogues
out of several hundreds that are known today, that is, around 10%. Together
with the synagogues that functioned during the Soviet rule, this figure
makes around 50 buildings of synagogues. At the same time, in keeping
with the Law of Ukraine "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations",
more than 140 religious Jewish organizations have been registered in this
country, which means that around 100 communities own or use no adequate
When the Law of Ukraine "On Privatization" entered into force
in 1995, potential danger appeared that the buildings that used to belong
to Jewish communities, including synagogues, would be privatized. Since
various local enterprises, establishments, sports halls, etc. had been
functioning in the buildings of synagogues during the Soviet rule, when
privatization of these organizations began, their buildings were also
to be privatized. Local councils or executive bodies that gave permission
for privatization of this or that object did not bother go to archives
and find out that some of these buildings used to belong to the Jewish
We know around 10 objects of former Jewish communal property (for instance,
the building of the oldest synagogue at Barbyusa Street, Chernovtsy) that
have been privatized. Now we face serious problems in attempts at restituting
them to Jewish communities. Despite the fact that these illegal privatizations
were in conflict with the above-mentioned legal acts, we assume that court
proceedings on changing the form of property will be quite a complicated
In our opinion, the legal acts in effect make no provision at this stage
for raising the question of free restitution of privatized religious constructions
to religious communities. The adoption of an act to this effect would
contradict the Constitution of Ukraine, the Law of Ukraine "On Property",
the Civil Code of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and to a number
of international agreements that have been ratified by the Ukrainian parliament
and are part of the national legislation because their new owners had
purchased them in a legal way.
Bills currently registered at the Ukrainian Parliament also make no direct
provision for restitution of property that had been illegally taken from
religious communities (confiscated or nationalized) during the Soviet
rule. No amendments are to be made in the order of property restitution
to the once repressed citizens.
Certain amendments could be made in the order of restitution of religious
property to religious organizations. Thus, the Ukrainian parliament has
registered four bills "On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine "On
Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations"". In reality
however they all are absolutely new wordings of the same law and differ,
in particular, in the procedure of restitution of religious property to
The situation is even worse with nonreligious communal property whose
restitution is not regulated by any legal acts ,while in Western Ukraine
there are hundreds of buildings and structures, leave alone land plots,
cemeteries, etc., that cannot be categorized as religious property.
In 1998, on the initiative of the Vaad of Ukraine, a group of leader of
17 ethnic communities of Ukraine turned to President of Ukraine Leonid
Kuchma and Chairman of the Parliament Commission on Human Rights, Ethnic
Minorities and Ethnic Relations, Gennady Udovenko, with the request to
develop and introduce a moratorium on privatization of property that had
belonged to ethnic communities. As a result, a document to this effect
was drawn up only in 2000; it only prohibits privatization of religious
Thus, neither legal acts in effect nor registered bills provide for full-fledged
guarantees for the just right of an ethnic community for restitution of
its lost property. With this purpose in mind, a separate general bill
should be developed; it should be aimed at the restitution of all confiscated
(nationalized) property no matter what its present-day status is. As examples
it is expedient to take the bills adopted within the past decade in other
countries of East Europe. In order to coordinate the necessary procedure
with the Constitution of Ukraine and the principels of justice, we suggest
that the following two key points should be introduced in them:
1. Objects that are currently in state or municipal property should be
restituted free of charge.
2. The state must purchase the property that had been privatized from
its current owners and pay the price that would be acceptable by both
sides (or the price that existed during privatization) and transfer it
to the community for free because it is the state that is responsible
for the lawlessness that took place in the past (at the same time it is
objectively practically impossible for all citizens or communities to
get compensation for the destroyed property from the state).
In general, provided political pressure from international structures
is applied and lobbying possibilities inside the Parliament, adoption
of such a legal act is very possible.
of the restitution question into the circle of questions pertaining to
In the past 10 years the concept of human rights has been greatly enriched.
Originally it was formulated in the General Declaration of Human Rights
adopted at the UN Assembly General in 1948. This Declaration was built
upon the concept of individual human rights and did not touch upon corporate
rights, in particular, the rights of religious and ethnic groups.
After the collapse of the communistic regimes and the Soviet empire, the
concept of human rights was essentially enriched. In 1990-s, a number
of international documents were adopted to regulate the rights of ethnic
and religious groups. Naturally, creators of the new amended concept of
human rights could not help paying attention to such a great factor as
the right of ethnic and religious groups for property. It is not an accident
that the above-quoted documents of American senators, US President and
European Parliament, in their calls and resolutions addressed to the countries
of East Europe and former USSR on restitution of property, are based upon
the new concept of human rights, including on the right of communities
for restitution of illegally confiscated property.
In application to the countries of the former Soviet Union, in recent
years this problem concentrated around the well-known but little understood
Jackson-Veinik Amendment. This amendment was adopted by the US Congress
in 1975. Its essence at that time was that the countries of the Communist
bloc were deprived of their status of most favored regime in trade with
the USA due to numerous violations of human rights, in particular, the
right to the freedom of travel, or in application to the USSR - the freedom
of emigration and repatriation. It is clear that to a greater degree it
related to the Jews although the amendment was of a wider and more universal
nature then. Over the more than 20 years that passed, many diplomats and
international lawyers (mostly in post-Soviet countries) developed a stable
and a widely spread stereotype that this amendment relates exclusively
to Jewish emigration, which is wrong in its definition.
Since this amendment linked the granting of the status of the most favored
trade regime with the keeping with human rights in a number of countries,
it is quite logical to assume that in expansion of the human rights concept
this amendment relates to a larger range of human rights than those listed
27 years ago.
Since the beginning of the 1990-s, this amendment has lost its effect
for most of the former USSR countries, but has not been cancelled. A yearly
moratorium on its use is in effect, that is why every year the authorities
of post-Soviet countries have to turn to the American authorities every
year with the request to prolong the action of the moratorium for another
The desire to get rid of the amendment is not an end in itself but a means
to join the International Trade Organization, which leads to a whole number
of tax and customs breaks. That is why every country strives to it, including
It thus becomes clear to every unbiased person that the cancellation of
the Jackson-Veinik Amendment is not directly linked with the right to
the freedom of travel. Praise G-d, this right has not been limited in
any way in recent years in post-Soviet countries, which has led to a 2-3-times
reduction in the population of the Jewish communities in these countries
over the past 13 years. The White House, the US Department of State, and
the Congress are now linking the cancellation of the amendment solely
with the restitution of the communal property. It is clear that this modern
interpretation of the cancellation of the amendment first of all irritates
those countries where former Jewish property is concentrated. And Ukraine
has finally ranked first in something - she ranks first among such countries
as regards Jewish communal and religious property that has not yet been
In the light of everything said above, it is surprising to see the stance
of some Jewish public and religious leaders in CIS countries, who either
for ignorance or out of excess zeal to please the authorities turn to
the American authorities with appeals to cancel this amendment. One of
the famous but nominal Jewish leaders who signed such an appeal, tried
to assure the author of this article that the effect of this amendment
towards Ukraine would be cancelled before the end of year 2001.
It should be noted that after September 11, the American president, as
it often happens to him, rushed and promised that the amendment would
be soon cancelled for those countries that supported his antiterrorist
policy. It seems that the issue of canceling the amendment turned out
to be too hard even fore Russia, but as far as Ukraine was concerned,
the problems she has to settle before the amendment can be cancelled are
immeasurably harder than in Russia, because Russia has practically no
Jewish communal property.
The Jewish community is certainly very interested in speedy cancellation
of the Jackson-Veinik Amendment for Ukraine but it is no less interested
in restitution of the communal property. Restitution of communal property
is not only an act of historical justice, but also a path to community's
independence and sovereignty in the widest sense of this term. On the
examples of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, we can see how a
community that has received at least part of its property is literally
blossoming. The community stops being a "beggar" with international
Jewish organizations, which finance, and thus control, up to 90% of community
activities in the post-Soviet countries, including such important aspects
of the community's life as education, social protection, work with the
youth, scientific research, etc. Our Jewish leaders cannot even imagine
that both Joint nor Sohnut are already practically out of business in
East Europe, while all the necessary work is being done by the community
itself and with its own funds.
Restitution of property leads to recreation of the moral climate in the
community, gives birth to a new generation of leaders, who are active
and independent managers with the sense of dignity rather than beggars
Which is more important, restitution of property leads to recreation of
the moral climate in the state and society, returning to the natural and
universal system of common human values.
And finally, restitution of property restores the trust of the world to
the country that shares the attitude of the modern world to property and
thus shoulders responsibility to continue to keep the sacred right of
inviobility of property. Only in this case the investment climate improves
radically in a country and the country begins to take active part in international
economic activities. Examples of our neighbors in East Europe, where international
investments per capita are much higher than in our country, show unambiguously
favorable influence of property restitution upon the economy and the moral
climate in the society.
From the strictly legal point of view, we believe the principle of inheritance
by modern religious and ethnic communities is disputable in examination
of restitution of illegally taken (confiscated, nationalized) property
or property lost in the process of evacuation or escape. Doubtless exclusions
in the legal sense are quite rare cases of direct kinship between today's
claimers and those physical persons who used to own this property. But
even in such absolutely obvious cases a lot of technical, documentary,
and moral problems crop up.
On the other hand, it is clear that such events as revolutions or the
Second World War, repressions of the totalitarian regime and genocide
during the Holocaust can be envisaged by no state legal system, and in
such cases humankind should seek solution of many sudden problems, including
legal ones, on the basis of human values and civil consensus.
Only in those rare cases, mostly in Western Ukraine, the revived religious
communities included members that had used the same religious property
in the same religious community in the past, before it was disbanded by
force by the Soviet power. If the new community preserves sub-denominational
direction of its religious activities, we can speak about communal inheritance.
In most cases however, synagogues were restituted to new communities,
which had no linkage to their former owners. For instance, it is a known
fact that reformist communities existed only in the territory of Western
Ukraine before the beginning of the Second World War. Today however a
number of reformist communities in Ukraine have received from the local
authorities buildings of former synagogues (for instance, in Kerch and
Yevpatoria), even though documents from archives show nothing about this
synagogue ever housing a reformist community. Similarly, the problem of
communal inheritance gets revealed when instead of a misnagdim community
a Chassidic one appears, leave alone that the Chassidic movement alone
numbers at least 50 different denominations.
In a number of cases one building is claimed by different communities,
none of which has strong relation to the former one. In such cases conflicts
break out in communities (for instance, in Yevpatoria), to resolve which
we lack the legal base. Everything gets solved on the basis of the factor
of "friendship" with the local authorities, and this goes only
one way really due to corruptness of officials.
We know that the problem of inheritance also emerged in the case of a
fund that was created by Swiss banks and the Swiss government under the
pressure from the Jewish and world public. When it came face to face with
similar problems, the New York court that looked into the claims of 500
thousand Holocaust survivors followed the path of the previous claim.
It means that the court does not look into individual claims (which would
be impossible), but all claimers for compensation are divided into a limited
number of groups, and each group receives a certain kind of individual
compensation. In the case with the Second Swiss Fund there were four Jewish
1. Heirs of "sleeping accounts" in the Swiss banks (more than
50 thousand possible accounts);
2. Those who were deprived of the opportunity to escape to Switzerland
during the fascist rule because of the Swiss authorities' position, and
3. Ghetto and concentration camps prisoners;
4. Those who lost their property in escape from the advancing German army
or the armies of Germany's allies.
Despite the fact that there were a lot of people displeased with the judgment
of the New York court, this solution seems to be the only possible one
in spite of its "questionable" legal nature, especially in the
light of the limited amount of the fund's resources. It should be noted
that the problem of distribution of the resources of the Swiss fund was
transferred to New York because the US legislation has the possibility
of examination of such claims.
Thus, the decision of the New York court created an international precedent
(by far not every country has the precedent law) "regarding inheritance"
when there is no direct relations between people who lost their property,
the property itself, and those people who make claims for this property
or for adequate compensations.
Similarly, but not that obviously the Claims Conference has been acting
for the past 50 years. It allocates money not only to Holocaust survivors
but also to different Jewish organizations that work on research or educational
projects directly or indirectly linked with the Holocaust.
Here is another example of "relative inheritance", which is
much closer to us: more than 100 million dollars that Joint received from
the Claims Conference for creation and support of the "Khesed"
system had been allocated by the government of Germany as compensation
for exploitation of the Jewish communal property in Easter Germany. More
than 200 thousand clients of the "Khesed" system have neither
past nor present connection to the above-mentioned property in Eastern
Germany, nevertheless they enjoy this kind of compensation.
From everything said above it follows that despite the mentioned complex
of problems of the inheritance of the lost property, the main receiver
of the restituted property and compensations is the Jewish world in the
person of several interstate organizations. And these organizations distribute
these funds practically without any public control but with the lobbying
of other organizations that operate even greater resources. It is no surprise
then that in recent years the Jewish press began to publish a number of
articles criticizing general and specific aspects of such distribution
and spending of resources.
ASPECTS AND PROBLEMS OF RESTITUTION
While in mid-1990-s we saw an interest in and high activities of WJRO
and other organizations regarding the issue of restitutions in post-Soviet
countries, both the interest and the activities have somewhat reduced
in recent years. First of all, it is related to the fact that the Jewish
world has concentrated its efforts on the Swiss banks, but there are some
other reasons as well.
As it turned out, post-Soviet countries were not prepared to the dialogue
with the civilized world on problems of property restitution. Moral human
categories, including the category of property, had been under the process
of destruction for too long in these countries. New owners of somebody
else's property could not enjoy the thought that their property was not
theirs, that it had been confiscated from their legal owners during repressions
and genocide, and that according to every civilized norm, owning stolen
property is as criminal as stealing, etc. And we are now talking not about
some marginal strata of the society, but about the dominating psychology
of the whole society, including the political "elite".
Our colleagues from WJRO are not even confused by the fact that unlike
East Europe, where the main property of the Jewish community was confiscated
during the Holocaust, and where today's governments are by no means heirs
of the governments that had been Hitler's allies, in post-Soviet countries
most of the communal property had been confiscated by the Soviet power
in the 20-30-s (in Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, Baltic countries,
and Moldova - in the 40-s). Since neither the Communist regime nor the
Soviet empire system, unlike Germany, have gone through the purifying
flames of the Nuremberg procedures, our society, unlike the German one,
has not experienced such a catharsis of rejection of its inhumane past,
and thus today's power and society are direct heirs of their Soviet predecessors.
The property should be demanded not from the new power but from the heirs
of the previous power, when many of those who faithfully served the Soviet
system, or their direct heirs, are still in power. It is clear that this
circumstance can confuse even those who have won victory over the Swiss
While thinking on the peculiarities of the fate of communal property in
the territory of the former USSR, it is hard to fight the temptation to
set the following thesis as a working hypothesis. In the light of the
fact that many international documents operate the term "property
lost in the period of Holocaust", putting the blame for the lost
property on the Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War,
it is necessary to remember that the Ribbentroppe-Molotov Pact and secret
protocols to it have documentarily registered ally relations between Germany
and the USSR during the period between August 1939 and June 22, 1941.
There is hardly anyone who doubts that had there been no such a document
and adequate relations and agreements, the whole history of this period
would have looked absolutely different, including the Holocaust. History,
as many like to repeat, does not know conditional mood, but the fact of
collaboration of the two totalitarian empires during the above-mentioned
period of time is doubtless. The rest is the matter of international legal
theory and practice. In our opinion, part of responsibility for the fate
of the Jewish communal property that was lost during the period of Holocaust
can be put on the USSR without questions.
Another aspect of this complicated problem is the non-official position
of the Israeli establishment, which plays a significant role in WJRO.
This point of view is absurd but nevertheless it exists and impacts the
activities of WJRO. This community believes that the restitution process
in post-Soviet countries can significantly limit, if not stop at all,
repatriation of Jews from these countries to Israel. It may happen not
so much because after the Jews receive their property back they reconsider
their decision to emigrate, but because attempts at restitution of the
lost property, in Israelis' opinion, may cause outbursts of anti-Semitism,
including with the authorities, and they may limit the right to emigration.
It is hard to argue with any absurd viewpoint, because it is based upon
emotions rather than upon logic. Now, when repatriation to Israel is three-four
times less due to intifada, when not only marginal Ukrainian newspapers
but even a "respectable" magazine "Personal", backed
up by a weighty part of the Ukrainian political and economic elite, are
printing dozens of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli articles, the absurdity
of such an assumption is extremely obvious. The author of this article
inclines to another point view: anti-Semitism, just like emigration, depend
upon more general and systematic factors in the state and society. Anti-Semitism
was, is and will be there always while Jews exist, but the choice should
be made between two possible realities: anti-Semitism without restitution
of property or anti-Semitism and restitution of property. The example
of the East-European countries shows that even under more civilized conditions,
the restitution process is accompanied by some invigoration of anti-Semitism,
but the state and a strong community (by the way, a community that owns
property is a strong one) are fully able to cope with these problems.
The next aspect that complicates the process of restitution of the communal
property is the fact that the Soviet power has illegally confiscated property
not only from Jews and Jewish communities. In Ukraine, according to preliminary
research, property was confiscated from 16 communities. The most dramatic
situation with restitution is shaping in Western Ukraine where most of
the property has Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Romanian, and Slovak roots,
along with the Jewish roots. This circumstance leaves an essential impact
on the solution of the restitution problem but it should by no means discourage
us. An adequate restitution tactics should be developed and applied to
specific circumstances. We have already mentioned the coordinated action
of lobbying the moratorium on privatization of communal property, which
has partly succeeded. The next action of lobbying of a similar moratorium
on privatization of land plots that used to belong to ethnic and religious
communities is coming next.
In the process of restitution we should also consider the fact that the
heirs of communal property that is subject to restitution are not only
the communities that have been revived in the territory of Ukraine, but
also those Jews who have emigrated from Ukraine, in the person of associations
and organizations. Jewish communities of East Europe faced the same problems
in the 1990-s, and in every case a no-simple compromise has been found.
For instance, in Poland, after the adoption of the law of restitution
of communal property, an agreement was signed between the small local
community and organizations that united Jewish emigrants from Poland who
number up to a million people worldwide.
COMMUNAL PROPERTY IN UKRAINE
Before the Revolution
Out of 6 million Jews who lived in the Russian Empire in the beginning
of the 20th century, around one third, that is, around 2 million, lived
in the territories of today's Ukraine. According to some estimations,
communal property in the form of real estate numbered from 12 to 15 objects
before the revolution. As a result of wars and revolutions, as well as
the fight against religion and working-class enemies, most of the property
was destroyed or stolen. Currently, we have information on 2,000 objects
of Jewish communal property in Ukraine, not mentioning land plots under
destroyed objects, on which nothing or new buildings stand today.
The modern territory of Ukraine is part of the former Russian empire with
parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Polish Kingdom and Romania:
Galitsia, Trans-Carpathians, Bukovina, and Besarabia adjoined to it as
a result of world and civil wars. These territories were richly populated
with Jews in the end of the 18h - beginning of the 19th centuries.
This circumstance confuses even more the no-simple question of legal inheritance
of both private and communal property.
After the Revolution
The main expropriation and nationalization of private and communal property
in the territory of Ukraine took place in the 1920-30-s. It was then that
most of the objects of Jewish communal property were expropriated. Very
few archival documents have been preserved on this property. It is much
harder to collect information on the contents of former Jewish museums,
archives, and libraries than on real estate.
Between two wars
Many cultural values that were in the property of the Jews and Jewish
communities were confiscated by the Soviet power in the western regions
of Ukraine between September 1939 and June 1941. Thousands of rich Jewish
families were sent into exile to the eastern parts of the USSR. At the
same time, their enterprises, houses, bank accounts, values (golden and
silver articles), various pieces of art were confiscated. Illegal nationalization
of a large number of Jewish religious structures, as well as educational
and public buildings also relates to this period of time.
Holocaust and its financial aspect
After June 22, 1941, the Nazi army continued the robbery of the Jewish
population of Ukraine. Out of three million Jews residing in Ukraine (in
her modern boundaries), more than 1.5 million were killed and their property
confiscated before the beginning of the Second World War. Those who were
evacuated, who hid or fled, also lost practically all their property.
The objects that remained in communities' property - a few synagogues
and other public buildings - were robbed, desecrated, and partly ruined.
Jewish property that had been kept in store-rooms of museums and archives,
and in private collections was confiscated by the Soviet power and was
partly moved to Russia, while the rest was stolen by the German occupants.
A separate tragic aspect of this topic is articles and decorations of
gold that were confiscated by the fascists and their allies during genocide.
According to Mr. Wolker's commission that looked into the composition
of the golden resources that the Nazi Germany sold during the Second World
War to neutral countries, including Switzerland, when an analysis was
made of the samples of golden ingots of those times, they found up to
30% of non-monetary gold in them. This gold could have belonged to our
countrymen killed in Babiy Yar or in any other place out of 1,200 places
of mass destruction of the Jews in the territory of Ukraine, for every
fourth Jewish person killed in the Holocaust, had been born and raised
After the Second World War, part of the values was returned to museums
and archives of Ukraine. Most of the values however have not been found
up till now.
The minimal evaluation of Ukrainian experts of the cost of the Jewish
property that was stolen during the time of the Holocaust in Ukraine is
around 400 million dollars in the present-day prices.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the avant-garde movement was
born in the arts of Ukraine. In less than ten years, practically everything
created by the foreign avant-garde artists got assimilated here. At the
same time, works of Ukrainian artists penetrated into the European arts.
Jewish artists that grouped in Kiev in the 1910-20-s turned to the sources
of ethnic traditions. They mastered and reevaluated the stylistics of
Jewish shtetls of Ukraine, studied Oriental applied arts and miniatures,
Assyrian and Babylonian relieves, Egyptian sculpture, and Greek archaics
in an attempt to melt the findings in the furnace of the modern arts.
They sought for the systems of images and formal techniques to create
a Jewish style. Such famous masters as Abraham Manevich, El Lisitsky,
Anton and Nahum Pevzners, Louisa Nevelson (Liza Berlyavskaya), Alexander
Tyshler, Isaac Rabinovich, Mark Epstein, Lazar Volovik, Zinoviy Tolkachev,
Nathan Altman, Nison Shifrin, Solomon Nikritin, Isachar Rybak, Josef Chaikov,
Emmanuel Shekhtman, Nadezhda Khazina-Mandelstam and many others worked
in Kiev at that time. Their works left a wonderful palette that combined
ancient Jewish ethnic traditions and avant-garde achievements and forms;
this combination became part and parcel of the world's culture. Their
works are kept at arts museums of Ukraine, and it is very difficult to
establish the origin of different sculptures or pictures. Evidently, the
Jewish museums of Ukraine have also preserved works of art by other authors
that communities and museums had purchased with communal money.
A unique collection of Jewish silver is kept at the Museum of Historical
Jewelry of Ukraine in Kiev. In the territory of today's Ukraine, in 19-20th
centuries, centers for the manufacture of religious Jewish objects were
Zhitomir, Lvov, Odessa, and Kiev. Stamps of these cities can be found
most often on Jewish religious objects from the Museum's collection.
A collection of Torah crowns occupies a special place in the Museum. The
Torah crown made by Zhitomir masters in 1875 stands out with its solemnity,
rich ornaments, and high level of technical skill. This is the largest
Torah crown of the Museum that has been preserved up till now. Most of
the crowns (there are 39 crowns in the collection) were made by the Jewish
masters of the 18th - beginning of the 20th century. They are decorated
with rich plant ornaments, which are typical for the articles made in
Zhitomir, Kiev, and Odessa.
Wonderful pieces of arts are fifty rimonim. The Museum has numerous torah-shields
(around 100) that were made in different periods and places, in different
styles and with different techniques, with inscriptions that make it possible
to find out their origin quite clearly. The Museum has around fifty pointers
for Torah reading - "yadim". Most of them were made in Ukraine.
The Museum has five Chanukah lamps, as well as five- and seven-candle
lamps for oil and candles, more than sixty bsamim or godes - miniature
boxes for keeping incenses. Boxes for mezuzahs, ritual wedding cups and
rings, glasses, boxes for scrolls and tfillins are of outstanding beauty,
elegance, and technical perfection. Special bowls and washstands were
used for the ritual of hand washing. A few of these sets are also kept
at the Museum.
Of great value is the Torah printed in the 18th century. It is wrapped
in a silver framework with set-in engraved straps in the form of flower
vases, with lions and birds, and the whole background is filled with an
ornament of interweaving stalks and leaves.
Not every knows that the ritual silver collection was founded on the objects
from the former Odessa Jewish Museum. It is even harder to find out the
traces of the expositions and resources of the Chernovtsy and Lvov Jewish
museums that have been lost.
Museums and archives of Ukraine have more than a thousand scrolls and
fragments of the Torah scrolls (Appendix 10), which were once illegally
confiscated from synagogues. Despite numerous appeals to the bodies of
power and the existing Decree of the President of Ukraine on restitution
of religious property, the scrolls are not being returned to religious
communities. At the same time, we know that museums lose many Torah scrolls
by selling them abroad, which means that state museums and archives do
not guarantee the safety of the scrolls. Eighteen Torah scrolls have been
transferred to the community of the Brodsky synagogue in Kiev after the
community "financed" the renovation of the shelving system in
a certain archive. The refusal of the Culture and Arts Ministry of Ukraine,
as well as the Department of Archives contradict the decree of the President
of Ukraine on restitution of religious property that is being misused.
In spite of repeated appeals of religious communities to the archives
and museums, Torah scrolls remain to be outside of synagogues.
Attempts of illegal export abroad of museum and archival Jewish values
continue. The State Committee for Border Defense and the State Customs
Committee of Ukraine in 2000 alone confiscated 27 articles, including
Torah scrolls and unique books.
Jewish museums and archives
Most of expositions of many Jewish museums, as well as archival collections
that before the Revolution (in Western Ukraine - before the Second World
War) used to belong to Jewish communities were stolen and lost without
trace. Nevertheless, significant museum and archival collections are currently
kept at museums and archives of Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Vinnitsa, Lvov,
and other cities of Ukraine.
Hundreds of Jewish communal libraries used to number millions of books,
including thousands of unique ones.
This can be seen from unique, wonderfully decorated, hand-written Pinkasim
- protocols of communities - and high-quality printed editions of Talmud,
tracts, and other religious texts.
Until 1936, thirty-six Jewish printing shops functioned in the territory
of Ukraine alone; the most well-known among them were in Slavuta, Zhitomir,
Berdichev, Dubno, Korets, and Sudilkov.
A collection of Jewish books of the National Vernadsky Library of Ukraine
numbers more than 150 thousand copies. It contains books from practically
every printing shop of the Jewish Diaspora of the 16th-20th centuries.
Extremely interesting are editions printed in Yiddish, especially children's
books with illustrations.
A collection of editions in Yiddish of the Soviet period (until 1950,
when publishers and Jewish centers of culture were closed down), kept
in the National Library, is practically unparalleled in the libraries
of the world. Especially good is the collection of children's books, illustrations
to which were made by the most famous Jewish artists El Lisitsky, Nathan
Rybak, Sarah Shor, Mark Shagal, and others. Most of this collection came
to the National Library from the Specialized Children's Jewish Library
that worked in Kiev until 1939.
The collection of Jewish manuscripts and printed editions of the National
Vernadsky Library of Ukraine includes a unique collection of notebooks
(protocols) of the Jewish communities of Ukraine - pinkasim that numbers
98 copies. As far as we know, this collection, in its composition and
homogeneity of the documents presented that come from the same region,
is one of the largest in the world (the largest one is kept at the National
Library of Israel and numbers 150 copies). Documents from the funds of
the National Library of Ukraine are dated by the end of the 18th - beginning
of the 20th centuries and contain originals and copies of documents.
This collection was based upon the materials that were collected by the
Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society and one of its most active members,
organizer and permanent leader of ethnographic expeditions Semen An-sky.
On the basis of the documents collection, in 1918 he prepared an "Album
of the Jewish Artistic Antics" published only in 1994.
The collection of pinkasim can be of interest to researchers of Jewish
history and culture as one of the fullest sources of the history of communities
of Ukraine; it can also be of use as a source of genealogical information.
The National Library of Ukraine also has 20 decorative manuscripts - pinkasim
of the end of the 18th - beginning of the 20th centuries. Their cover
pages illuminated by folk artists, captions, vignettes and sometimes complicated
ornamental compositions make it possible to categorize these materials
as the true monuments of Jewish decorative applied arts of Ukraine. In
their stylistics and ornament character, pinkasim relate to the same group
of works as silver Torah-shields, bronze Chanukah lamps, carved tombstones,
and decorations of wooden synagogues that have become well known to the
public due to exhibitions and publications in recent years.
Most of the ancient books are stored in inadequate conditions; books practically
remain unregistered; and judging from the statements of the State Border
Protection Committee and the State Customs Committee, attempts are not
rare of exporting the most valuable books outside Ukraine. A few years
ago a scandal broke out because of the "loss" and export to
Israel or some valuable books from the resources of the National Library
of Ukraine. So, it is clear why some directors and workers of archives
and libraries categorically oppose possible return of the objects of Jewish
property that they keep to the Jewish communities. They say they are extremely
concerned with the fact that communities have no adequate storing conditions.
It is clear that systematic restitution will redeem the funds that can
be spent on creation of adequate storerooms for the books, manuscripts
and Torah scrolls.
After the agreement with WJRO was signed in 1994, the Vaad of Ukraine
started implementation of a program to its effect and creation of a professional
structure. Under Vaad's roof, along with other professional structures,
the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Heritage (CPJH-1) was set up.
It was headed by famous Kiev architect, Professor Henrich Filvarov. Later,
in keeping with the agreement with the Association of Jewish Religious
Organizations of Ukraine (AJROU), the CPJH program was expanded through
unification with the AJROU CPJH-2 program (leader - Alexander Zevelev),
which began to describe Jewish cemeteries in 1995.
The methodology of description of the buildings that used to belong to
Jewish communities was developed during the first year of work on this
project. Apart from a group of architects that worked in Kiev, a network
of regional coordinators was created. The coordinators were responsible
for collecting primary information about Jewish objects, including archival
search, photographing of objects, and filing in forms. The form was transferred
to us from WJRO. It contained a group of questions on every object in
communal property. Primary information was transferred to Kiev for analysis.
As a result, a package of documents was collected on every object, including
the form, archival and historical information, archival and present-day
photographs of the object, and an architectural plan of the land on which
the object is located. Over eight years of implementation of the project,
information was collected and more than 1,300 objects of Jewish communal
property were described out of 2,000 objects known to us from the preliminary
list. In a number of regions of Ukraine we could not find efficient coordinators,
that is why the map of the Jewish property of Ukraine has significant
With the creation of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and one of its main
programs - Euro-Asian Committee for Restitution, an attempt was made to
expand the program of description of Jewish property to other countries
on the basis of the Ukrainian experience. In June 2002, a seminar was
organized in Kiev for coordinators of this program from Ukraine, Belarus,
and Moldova. Representatives of the communities of Russia, Azerbaijan,
and Georgia were also invited to the seminar, but it seems that the problem
of restitution is not very topical for these communities - none of their
The main problem in describing property is insufficient professionalism
of coordinators and difficulties in retrieving from the archives of Ukraine
information on who the particular object belonged to before its nationalization
ASPECT OF RESTITUTION PROBLEM
As was mentioned above, over the years of Ukraine's independence, modern
Jewish communities received around 40 buildings that had belonged to the
Jewish communities before. Some buildings were given by the local authorities
to religious communities instead of the synagogues that have been destroyed
(in Belaya Tserkov, Cherkassy, Ovruch, Chernigov, and Novograd-Volynsky).
Problems of restitution of religious Jewish property in Ukraine, despite
existence of legal acts to this effect, start with the main problem -
a weak vertical of power. Since most of the communal property is now owned
by the local authorities, it chiefly depends on them whether a certain
community will receive a building that legally belongs to it or not. In
places where Jewish communities get along well with the local authorities,
the process of property restitution goes a bit easier. In other places,
even in some regional centers and major district centers, no buildings
have been restituted so far (in Lutsk, Lugansk, Chernigov, Skvira, Sumy,
Kremenchug, and Kerch).
Restitution of the Brodsky synagogue in Kiev successfully ended after
six years of fight only due to a "ransom" worth $100 thousand
that was paid to the city for finding new premises for the puppet theater.
Some city officials, "inspired" by this example, are simply
waiting now for somebody to come and pay for the buildings they occupy.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, not every community, especially small
ones, has a "benefactor" who would be willing to pay even 10%
of the above-mentioned sum for a building that is supposed to be restituted
according to the law.
After buildings are restituted, communities' problems do not disappear
- they change. The restituted buildings are usually in a very bad technical
shape and cannot be used for religious events. Poor communities cannot
afford repairs and renovation of the buildings, as well as its further
maintenance, utilities, services, and other expenses. The American Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee has very limited financial resources for
such communal goals, especially in recent years, and that is why it concentrates
on the "promising" communities with a large number of the Jews.
Besides, Joint is interested in having a charity fund or a community center
in the restored buildings, that is, the structures that are financed and
ruled by Joint, which does not always coincide with the desires of the
The Decree of the President of Ukraine on restitution of religious structures
also has limited power to this effect. It allows the community to use
the restituted property solely for religious needs, thus prohibiting the
renting out, selling or misusing the buildings, for instance, through
placing charitable organizations or community centers in them.
Practically all Jewish cemeteries of Ukraine are in an extremely poor
shape. Despite the agreement with the United States and a Decree of the
Cabinet of Ministers, the state does not work on this problem, while communities
have no resources to take care of the cemeteries.
Everything said above shows that any limited restitution does not solve
the system of problems that the Jews of Ukraine are facing, but partly
meets the needs of some communities that have a rabbi with financial "covering",
support of businessmen or of Joint.
A general and systematic law of restitution alone can let communities
partly meet their financial problems through selling or renting out part
of communal property and maintain other buildings and structures, as well
as a whole number of community programs, including social ones, with this
There are currently around 100 thousand Jewish Holocaust survivors in
Ukraine, including around 4 thousand ghetto and concentration camp prisoners,
as well as those who was in hiding in the occupied territory. The rest
found themselves to be refugees in the first weeks of the Second World
War and as a result of their escape lost practically all of their property.
None of the Holocaust survivors has received any compensation so far.
Only in the past five years, the above-mentioned small group of former
prisoners received compensations from the "Mutual Understanding and
Reconciliation" Fund and from the Swiss Humanitarian fund ($1,400
each). Despite the three-year-long process of registration, only around
one thousand former prisoners receive monthly benefits from Germany. Larger
compensations for ghetto and camp prisoners are now envisaged from the
funds of compensations for the use of forced and slave labor.
Thus, more than 95 thousand Jews of Ukraine who survived in the Holocaust
and lost their property as a result of fleeing eastward have so far received
practically no compensation. The proposed plan of distribution of the
large Swiss fund and the new German funds also offer practically no money
compensations to the above-mentioned group of Jews from Ukraine.
Pensions of the Jewish Holocaust survivors are $12-15 a month with the
minimum cost of living in Ukraine being $50.
The moral aspect of the restitution problem seems extremely important
to us because the point at issue is not just people and history but first
and foremost the duty of memory of 1.5 million Jews and members of their
families that were killed during the Holocaust. Both private and communal
property that we examine belonged to the victims of the Holocaust, their
relatives, colleagues and friends. Talking about the problems of Jewish
property and discussing these issues with WJRO or the Ukrainian authorities
we should not forget one important fact: we speak in the best interests
of Holocaust victims and their heirs, and in a sense - on their behalf.
According to the Yad Vashem Institute, the character of the Holocaust
was so global that only one of every four victims had relatives that survived
and who could become their direct heirs. All of us who are members of
the Jewish community of Ukraine can and should identify with the legal
heirs of the generation that was mostly killed in the Holocaust and partly
- during the mass Soviet repressions. It does not mean that we have the
right to Jewish property but that we have the moral duty of memory and
everything that stems from it.
In the light of everything said above we consider very strange the attempts
of some Jewish public and religious leaders to endow themselves with powers
for separate negotiations with the authorities concerning the fate of
Jewish property. The community has not yet discussed this problem fully,
considering the whole variety of its interpretation, and consequently
there is no common opinion of the Jewish community of Ukraine on this
matter. As has been repeatedly mentioned above, by Jewish community of
Ukraine in the context of property we mean not only the Jews of Ukraine
and their communal structures but also the Jews who emigrated from Ukraine
in the 20th century and around this time, in the person of different groups,
alliances, and other organizations of Jewish emigrations from Ukraine.
We can easily grant legitimate rights to a certain community leader to
hold negotiations with the local authorities on restitution or transfer
of a certain building to the community. But we believe it is obvious that
no Jewish leader has the legal or moral right to refuse from general restitution
of a part of property, to talk with the authorities about limited restitution,
emphasizing uselessness of some objects. We don't need to go far for examples
of this at the level of city communities. Buildings of former synagogues
get transferred to representatives of other religions sometimes by oral
or even written approbation of the chairman of the local religious community.
It happened in Chernovtsy in the beginning of the 1990-s, when the city
administration transferred a half-destroyed building of the synagogue
of Vizhnitsa Chassidim to a local sect after getting a written approval
of Oleg Frukhter, chairman of the functioning religious community. It
is clear that after such an "approval" no claims can be placed
against the city authorities.
Early in the 1990's another situation took place. It is known, however,
only at the level of rumors. Rumors have it that in Chernovtsy a local
museum of lore tried to transfer Torah scrolls to the local religious
community. All attempts to find these scrolls failed because the chairman
of the community emigrated, while neither scrolls nor documents on their
transfer could be found in the archive of the synagogue.
The Jewish world in the person of its representative organizations that
specialize in Jewish property has developed a general point of view, which
remains practically unknown in our communities. No one, on behalf of his
community or on his own behalf, has the right to limit the number of objects
of restitution that are under discussion. The sides can discuss only the
whole property that is know to have belonged to the Jews and their communities.
That is why the Jewish world is usually aiming at negotiations about all
of the Jewish property. This striving does not exclude the possibility
of stage-by-stage drawing closer to the goal, when only parts of property
are on the agenda but remarks are made that the rest of the property is
sure to be discussed later.
Thus, for example, we know that the problem of restitution of private
property in a number of countries have a much more difficult solution
than the problem of restitution of communal property. But this circumstance
does not mean that somebody has the right to declare, moreover - to sign
- a document refusing to claim private property of the Jews who used to
live in that territory.
As we have already shown on the example of the Jackson-Veinik Amendment,
moral relativism of a number of Jewish leaders result in them ignoring
the moral norms of the Jewish world out of the desire to appear comfortable
and useful to the authorities. It is by no means a consequence of totalitarianism,
since these qualities can be found in foreign citizens too, who have never
lived under totalitarian regimes; but it is well known that in many cases,
civilization is a mere thin layer of polish that covers raw and coarse
desires and needs of a person. Many nominal representatives of the western
democratic civilization turn out to be the same as "homo soveticus"
not only in extreme situations but even in a simple transition to the
so-called "third world".
We must note separately the position of businessmen who have come closer
to the Jewish communities of Ukraine in recent years and who began not
only to finance some community programs but also to take active part in
discussing community problems and decision making. In some cases, businessmen
have even led Jewish organizations, which places upon them a certain responsibility
and often forces them to make a hard choice between the interest of the
community and the interests of their own businesses.
Since we live in a country where the largest part of public relations,
especially between the power and the business, have stuck at the level
of "early feudalism", we should not blame the businessmen who
owe their businesses, their wellbeing and even their person freedom to
power. And the point at issue is not only that many businesses have been
distributed and are still distributed by the authorities like a king would
distribute provinces to his vassals for their personal commitment to him;
the point at issue is that punishment for numerous violations and evasions
does not fall on every head, but only on the heads of those who caused
the king's dissatisfaction with their actions, thoughts or statements,
that is, with their independent position.
In the light of all this, it should come as no surprise that some Jewish
businessmen, having no community experience and not knowing the position
of the Jewish world at large sometimes speak against restitution of the
communal property, that is, against the interests of the community.
Understanding the motives and actions of some community leaders, including
businessmen, on the whole, we still believe such explanations to be just
excuses. If a leader is not ready to pursue the interests of his community
at all times, he should quit the leading position and let it be taken
by somebody who can afford a position that would be independent from the
authorities and thus - a sense of dignity. We did not have such opportunities
in the Soviet time, when independence in views automatically led to server
punishments. We are not saying that today life is a piece of cake, but
it makes no sense to revive community life with the feudal psychology
dominating in it.
In reality, over the ten years of Ukraine's independence, around 40 synagogues
have been restituted to the Jewish communities, which together with those
functioning before make not more than 50, while according to the Religious
Committee of Ukraine, there are more than 140 Jewish religious communities
in this country. The other 100 communities have either no premises at
all or are using inadequate premises.
All our attempts at organizing a dialogue with the authorities to discuss
the restitution problem have so far faced a lack of desire to understand
the necessity of a serious talk. The promise of President Leonid Kuchma
of Ukraine to instruct the government to organize a joint commission for
studying the restitution problem is still only a promise. A moratorium
on privatization of communal objects has been developed only concerning
religious property and does not concern other objects of real estate.
Currently, we see no real possibility to make the authorities of Ukraine
pay at least minimum attention to the problem of restitution of the Jewish
communal property on our own. Only together with the Jewish world at large,
with the support of the international community we can reach historical
justice, return the lost communal property, and make our communities independent.
August 2001 - August 2002
The author is sincerely grateful to Olga and Sofia Yakovlevas, as well
as to Anna Lenchovska, for assistance in gathering and categorizing the
materials; to Vyacheslav Yakubenko for writing the "Legal Aspect"
chapter and for Appendices to it; to the Jewish Studies Institute for
chapters: "Works of Art", "Ritual Silver", "Libraries",
and "Manuscripts"; to Yevgeny Ziskind for providing information
on the synagogues that have been already restituted.