Latvia Parliament Approves Holocaust Reimbursement for Jewish Community

Latvia Parliament Approves Holocaust Reimbursement for Jewish Community

The 19th-century synagogue in the southern Latvian town of Akniste has become a firefighting depot. An older synagogue, with wooden vaulted ceilings, is now a community center. One has been turned into a church.

After the Latvian Jews who owned, managed and frequented the buildings were killed during the Holocaust, the state took them over.

Now, 80 years later, the Latvian Jewish community will be reimbursed for hundreds of buildings that were expropriated during the war and never returned.

On Thursday, the Latvian Parliament gave its final approval to a law that awards 40 million euros, about $46 million, to the Latvian Jewish community “to eliminate the historical unjust consequences” resulting from the Holocaust and activities under Soviet rule, according to a news release after the bill was approved.

“This law cannot bring back a destroyed community or a destroyed synagogue,” said Gideon Taylor, a chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, one of the main promoters of the bill. “But what it can do is recognize what happened, and this is why it is important.”

In 1940, the Soviets invaded Latvia and nationalized Latvians’ properties. Shortly after, Nazi Germany occupied the country and killed 90 percent of its 93,000 Jews — 25,000 of them in a two-day mass shooting in the Rumbula forest in 1941.

When the Republic of Latvia became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, property was denationalized and Latvians reclaimed it. But most Jewish owners had been killed in the Holocaust, and many of their homes, baths, slaughterhouses, orphanages and synagogues became state property.

“It was very painful,” said Dmitry Krupnikov, whose grandfather was killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula forest. “Now we can finally turn the page.”

Mr. Krupnikov, who heads the Latvian Jewish Community Restitution Fund, which will receive the money, said the bill was a belated victory after years of efforts and negotiations. Opponents of the legislation had argued that if Jews received compensation, it should also be given to all of the other communities affected.

But to the supporters of the legislation, which included the American and the Israeli governments, the bill was not a statement about their suffering but a reimbursement for property that belonged to them.

When the bill landed in Parliament in September, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken referred to it on Twitter as “a measure of justice for Holocaust victims and their families by addressing property stolen during that dark period.”

Mr. Krupnikov said the funds would be given to Holocaust survivors, as well as used to refurbish and maintain community buildings and to promote memorial and educational activities.

The repayment amount was calculated based on the current assessed value of about 250 buildings and lands that once were communal property of the Jewish community or that lacked an heir.

Among them are an elegant building in the capital, Riga — once home to a famous rabbi and the headquarters of the local Jewish intelligentsia, now an office building; a Jewish doctor’s villa by the forest, now divided into apartments; and a four-story nursing home now in a state of disrepair that was recently sold to private investors.

Most European Union nations have established formal procedures to return property seized during the Holocaust. Latvia gave back most private properties that were claimed by owners or heirs, and in 2016 it returned to the Jewish community two synagogues, two schools and a hospital. But the country had so far not provided reimbursement for many communal buildings that were expropriated.

Elie Valk managed to recover his grandparents’ house in Latvia, but buildings like the school where his grandfather taught Hebrew and religion, before the Nazis took him to a forest and shot him, were destroyed or lost.

Mr. Valk, who is the chairman of the Association for Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel and has campaigned for the legislation for years, said he was happy that part of the funds would be used to commemorate the Latvian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

“It’s our memories and our roots,” he said, but added that the funds would not be used to build new Jewish schools, because the Latvian Jewish population has shrunk to about 10,000 people.

“There is nobody for whom to recreate,” he said.

Inna Michelson, a Latvian Holocaust survivor, still remembers her synagogue in Riga, which the Nazis burned down. She recalls the medical equipment the Nazis confiscated from her grandfather’s clinic, and her family’s Schroeder grand piano that a soldier started playing as the Gestapo escorted her out of bed and arrested her.

But after rebuilding her life in Israel, she said, she does not see why reimbursement for that, or any property, should be focused on the Jewish community in Latvia.

“The Jewish story there has ended, it’s over,” she said, adding that the law came much too late. “Now, so many years after the war, why are they dealing with it now?”

But local politicians say that confronting the country’s past is essential for Latvia to look ahead.

“It was a moral obligation,” said Martiņs Bondars, the chairman of the Latvian Parliament’s budget committee, who presented the law before the government body. “Only a country that is able to deal with its past has a future.”

Mr. Bondars said that the fund was “good-will reimbursement” because Latvia was not responsible for the atrocities committed in the country by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Latvian Republic, he said, did not exist then.

Some Israeli newspapers have picked up on this language, which reflects the terminology used in the legislation, pointing out that the Latvian police were known to have helped the Nazis perpetrate the genocide.

But to the Jewish groups that promoted the law, taking responsibility for the Holocaust 80 years later was not the central issue.

“It’s just a restoration of historical justice because the buildings belonged to the Jewish community,” Mr. Valk said. “We don’t want to say the Latvians are guilty.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Ganei Tikva.

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