“One day I want to walk on the same land on which my mother and my grandmother walked,” says Hania Rosenberg. “My decision to carry on fighting is not based primarily on the value these assets may represent. It was, and still is, about my family roots.”
Last week, Rosenberg, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, went to the European Parliament to appeal for the return of her grandparents’ farm and their three-storey house, seized when the family was deported by the Nazis to the Sosnowiec Ghetto in Poland in World War II.
Her grandfather and uncle disappeared during the Holocaust, and her father was murdered. When her mother finally returned, having survived years of hard labor at Auschwitz and a death march to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp in Germany, it was impossible for her to recover their cherished properties in Ledziny. Rosenberg’s mother did not live long enough to see justice, passing away in 2003, and it has fallen to Rosenberg to continue the struggle she describes as akin to “passing through the eye of a needle.”
More than 70 years after the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, these historical wrongs have still not been corrected. Only a small fraction of the private and communal, immovable and movable property illegitimately seized from Jewish victims has been returned or compensated to its rightful owners, heirs, or to the Jewish people at large. Today, a significant number of Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, without adequate social care.
On Wednesday, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors, a body made up of Members of the European Parliament, joined Rosenberg at the ”Unfinished Justice: Restitution and Remembrance” conference at in Brussels. We urged governments to complete the unfinished work still to be done around restitution and compensation of looted property, and to support the growing needs of Holocaust survivors.
Few of us can imagine the pain and despair of people who were stripped of everything they cherished and faced death while their neighbors divided up their land, looted their houses and picked over their belongings. In such circumstances, the process for returning what was stolen from them should be fair, comprehensive and expeditious. Sadly, as Rosenberg’s experience illustrates, it is too often the opposite.
After the war, Rosenberg’s mother, like most survivors, left Poland looking to rebuild her life. She was reunited with Rosenberg, who had been placed in an orphanage in Sweden after the war, and contacted the authorities in Poland as early as 1947 to register her claim to her parents’ property. Decades later, she learned that the Communist government had expropriated some of her land and sold other parts of it.
“The demands required of us currently in order to attempt to retrieve our legacies is too great,” Rosenberg told the European Parliament conference. “Most survivors, who are in their 80s and 90s as well, do not have the strength, patience and, most importantly, the time left to fight this fight.”
Indeed, the chances of Holocaust survivors seeing the return of what is rightly theirs are fading each day. Each year more and more survivors are dying, which is why it’s crucial that we accelerate the quest for justice, compassion and restitution.
Part of a declaration MEPs presented at the European Parliament called for member states of the European Union to reaffirm their commitment to the principles of the Terezin Declaration, and to appoint special envoys for post-Holocaust related Issues, including restitution. This recognition is crucial to urgently advance the cases of tens of thousands of survivors and their heirs seeking property restitution, and to ensure it stays as a high priority for all member states.
We cannot bring back the families of survivors, and we cannot enable them to forget the horrors inflicted on them during the Holocaust. But we can fight to ensure a small recognition and a symbolic measure of justice for those who lost so much.
Gunnar Hökmark is a member of the European Parliament from Sweden and chair of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors.
Gideon Taylor is Chair of Operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella body of 14 major international organizations representing Jews worldwide regarding Holocaust-era restitution issues.