Dr Péter Feldmájer: Bitter Restitution

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English

Dr. Péter Feldmájer
President of the Alliance of
Hungarian Jewish Communities

Bitter restitution

In the spring of 1945, the Allied troops liberated the concentration camps and the few surviving Jews began their life anew with the help of their liberators.

As soon as the fighting ended, delegations from various countries began the painful search for their citizens to take them home. The French, the Italian, the Dutch and other Jews had all left, but the Hungarian Jews waited in vain for someone to take them home. They set out alone, either back to Hungary, or to Eretz Yisroel or some other country, in search of a new homeland.

It was by then painfully clear to the Hungarian Jews that they were regarded differently, they would be treated differently by the Hungarian population and by Hungarian officials than the Jews in other countries and they also felt that world Jewry too viewed them with a strong measure of dislike. In spite of living in Hungary for several hundred years, in spite of speaking no other language but Hungarian, in spite of being devout Hungarian patriots, Hungarian Jews were not regarded as genuine Hungarians, while the Jews living in other countries considered them renegades, who had forsaken the faith, the language and the traditions of their ancestors, and had assimilated and become much too Hungarian.

There was still fighting in Hungary when the new Provisional Government repealed the anti-Jewish laws and attempted to restore,, at least on paper, the assets that had previously been confiscated or seized from the Jews. A series of decrees were issued which, however, were never implemented.

According to a contemporary joke, a Jew returns from the deportation and meets his neighbour. “How are you doing?”, asks the neighbour. “Don’t ask me, my friend”, replies the Jew, “I have nothing, except that shirt on your back.”

The Hungarian Jews suffered immense property damages during the deportations. All of their movable property was confiscated. The state created a number of central collection points. The less valuable, everyday articles were simply distributed among the Hungarians, while articles of precious metal, gemstones and artworks were carted off and stored in various places. People had moved into the empty houses and apartments of the deported Jews, and the officials did not take the risk of evicting them. Even the Communist Party strongly advised against disturbing the peace of mind of the workers.

Surviving members of the Jewish community requested and demanded the return of their possessions and properties and a compensation for their damages from the very beginning.

In late 1946, Hungarian Parliament enacted a law according to which any properties left after families of which no-one had survived would not devolve to the Hungarian state, but to the Jewish community, and so would any valuables brought back from abroad.

This law also stipulated the creation of a Fund to manage these assets. Time was running out since negotiations over the peace treaty between Hungary and the Allies were well underway and the Hungarian government wished to demonstrate that there was a break with the former anti-Jewish period and that it was willing to pay a restitution and compensate for the losses. A few buildings and other assets were in fact handed over to the Fund. In the meantime, the time of the Communist take-over was drawing close.

The debate over the gold, jewellery and other valuables found in the American-occupied zone of Germany which had earlier been confiscated from Hungarian Jews was hardly beneficial to the activity of the Fund. The then leaders of Hungarian Jewry repeatedly requested that these should be returned to Hungary. This request, however, fell on deaf ears. The American officials in Germany claimed that these valuables had been handed over to international Jewish relief organizations.

The president of the Fund was – formally – the president of the Jewish Community; in effect, the Fund was supervised by Communist government officials, who made the decision on how to use the funds and the Jewish community actually benefited very little from this.

The Fund never received the properties and assets it was entitled to, and the little it did receive was not used for reviving Jewish life in Hungary.

When Hungarian Jewry learned that Germany would pay a compensation to the survivors, the claims were immediately registered with assistance from the state since the Communist regime hoped that it could thus acquire a substantial sum of hard currency.

Negotiations over these compensation claims were conducted from the later 1950s. However, they did not have any tangible results since the West German government was not prepared to pay compensation to the countries behind the Iron Curtain. The Jews of Eastern Europe felt cheated since others, with whom they had suffered in the concentration camps and who happened to live in the West, received compensation while they did not.

Following the political détente, an agreement was reached in 1971, according to which the German state agreed to pay a compensation of 100 million DM for the personal belongings which deportees had taken to the concentration camps. This sum, however, was not distributed among the survivors: the state first defined an extremely unfavourable exchange rate – practically corresponding to the exchange rate of the East German mark – and each deportee received about 13,000 HUF which at the time corresponded to about six months’ pay in Hungary.

During the Communist period, possible restitution or compensation from the Hungarian state was not even considered since this would have amounted to admitting responsibility for what had happened.

A letter written by Mátyás Rákosi, leader of the Communist Party in the early 1950s to a former deportee who requested aid illustrates the official standpoint of the period: according to Rákosi’s letter, the living standard in the people’s republic is so high that there is no need for distributing extra aids.

Although the Communist officials in effect outlawed the activity of foreign relief organizations in Hungary, they nonetheless encouraged Jewish interest organs dependent on the state to attempt to negotiate further compensation from West Germany in the hope that the state would thus again acquire hard currency.

In the meantime, negotiations were begun behind the scenes between Hungary and Switzerland. These negotiations also touched on the issue of dormant accounts in Swiss banks, which had been opened by Jews during the Holocaust. The Swiss brought up the problem of former Swiss assets which had been nationalized and the two governments eventually reached a political – and rather cynical – agreement. The Swiss renounced their claim to compensation for the nationalized assets that had belonged to Swiss citizens and undertook to satisfy these claims, while the Hungarian government generously renounced any claims to the assets of the murdered Hungarian Jews.

In the late 1980s, the reform government led by Miklós Németh recognized, for the first time, that the state bears some responsibility for what had happened and the pension of former deportees was supplemented with a sum corresponding to a few dollars.

Following the political changes in 1990, Hungarian Jewry hoped that they would at last be treated as equals and would be eligible for the German compensation given to the victims. They were overjoyed to hear the reports that the Claims Conference had reached an agreement with the government of unified Germany over the distribution of a further, 970 million DM and they were thus understandably shocked to learn that although the Berlin Wall had collapsed and although democracy now reigned supreme, the fate of this compensation was to be decided by their Jewish brethren in New York and, also, that the Eastern European survivors would not receive anything. Survivors in Hungary also read the announcements that every survivor would receive a lump sum of 5000 DM and a regular monthly aid of 530 DM; what was not immediately clear was that only survivors living in the West would be entitled to this.

One of the first measures of the democratically elected Hungarian government was to offer compensation for the victims of persecution; however, the law was drafted in such a way as to exclude the victims of Fascism. Only after repeated rulings by the Constitutional Court did the Hungarian Parliament pass legislation which also included the victims of the Holocaust. About five to ten per cent of the confiscated assets were compensated for in the form of compensation coupons – which, however, were only worth about twenty per cent of their face value on the Stock Exchange –; this compensation, however, was only paid to former owners of landed properties or their descendants – but not to other relatives –, and only if they could substantiate their claims with the necessary documents (obviously, most people did not have such documents).

Another piece of legislation was enacted some time later. This offered compensation for the parents, the children and spouses of the deceased. This law, however, was formulated in such a manner as to exclude the deported Jews since only those were entitled to compensation who had been sentenced to death in court; the Jews, however, were simply rounded up, deported and murdered, without individual court sentences.

After several years, the Constitutional Court brought another ruling in favour of the MAZSIHISZ (the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities) and compelled the Hungarian government to new legislation. This ruling of the Constitutional Court was brought under the new, left-wing government – currently in office –, and it was hoped that the necessary legislation would soon be enacted. The new legislation, however, caused disappointment since it continued to exclude the relatives of the murdered Jews from the compensation by claiming that Hungarian authorities were not responsible for the deaths of the Jews who had been deported to and killed in concentration camps.

The Constitutional Court brought a new ruling, and finally a legislation devoid of any discrimination was enacted. However, Parliament failed to decree its implementation or to define the conditions and the actual amount of compensation to be paid after the victims.

Following the 1991 democratic elections in the MAZSIHISZ, the new leadership immediately began new negotiations with the Hungarian government concerning the activity of the Fund described in the above and over the conditions under which the Hungarian government would hand over the heirless assets to the Jewish community.

Following several rounds of negotiations, the WJRO (World Jewish Restitution Organization), dominated by the WJC (World Jewish Congress), also began to participate in these negotiations. An agreement was reached, according to which they would act jointly in all matters of restitution, with MAZSIHISZ representing the Hungarian claims and the WJRO all other claims.

The goal of this cooperation was to strengthen their position and to find a solution as quickly as possible. However, there was only partial success owing to the differences between the representatives on the Jewish side.

The leaders of Hungarian Jewry believed that the Hungarian Jewish community could be revived and therefore they insisted that this community restitution should be used in Hungary to aid the survivors and to promote a Jewish revival.

In contrast, representatives of the WJRO claimed that the days of Hungarian Jewry were numbered and that the Jewish future lay in Israel. They also argued that since most of the Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their relatives lived in Israel, there was no point in keeping or investing this money in Hungary.

The WJRO regarded Hungarian Jewry as virtually non-existent and they tried, as latter-day commissars, to force their decisions onto Hungarian Jewish leaders, using all forms of persuasion, from carrots to sticks.

In the meantime, a bitter dispute also erupted among the various Hungarian Jewish organizations: publicly, the WJRO acted as if it wanted to smooth this dispute, but as a matter of fact the WJRO often kindled the bickering behind the scenes. This was all the more easy because the dispute between the Hungarian Jewish organizations was not devoid of political undertones.

After the 1994 elections, negotiations were continued in 1995, and the first results achieved in 1996. By this time, representatives of the WJRO accepted that the Fund set up by the government should be used for revitalizing Jewish life in Hungary and, also, that their representatives would not dominate the board of curators.

As a result of the agreement reached in the summer of 1996, the Hungarian government set up the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Fund, appointed its curators and handed over nine buildings, a few paintings and compensation coupons to the sum of 200 million USD, the latter to be used for supplementing the pension of the roughly 20,000 Holocaust survivors by 25-70 USD per month, depending on age. The Fund has started the regular payment of this pension supplement. The assets handed over to the fund represents about 0.1 per cent of the assets to which the Fund would be entitle to in exchange for the unclaimed Jewish properties.

The issue of German compensation is still on the agenda. Jewish leaders have rightfully requested and demanded that Germany pay a compensation to the Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust, but their requests continue to be refused. The WJC has repeatedly promised to intercede with the German government, but no results have been achieved as yet.

In the meantime, the German government has created special funds for the other Eastern European countries, but not for Hungary. The demonstration organized by MAZSIHISZ and the National Alliance of Forced Labour Battalions in front of the Dohány street synagogue on the occasion of President Herzog’s visit brought a turn in this respect since the President promised that he would personally ensure that Hungarian Jews also receive a compensation.

Still, nothing seemed to happen until January, 1998, when we received news that the Jewish Claims Conference reached an agreement with the German government over the establishment of a 200 million USD fund, to be used for aiding Hungarian Holocaust survivors. However, from the little that has been publicly announced about the conditions for entitlement to payment from this fund it is clear that the majority of Hungarian survivors would, as so often before, not receive a single penny.

Representatives of the Claims Conference did not consult with the representatives of Hungarian Jewry and they negotiated about the Hungarian survivors without an inkling of the actual situation – this being the reason that they gave erroneous figures for the number of survivors and, also, that they agreed to virtually impracticable conditions. One of these is that only survivors who had spent at least eighteen months in a ghetto would be entitled to received payment from this fund. The fact is that in rural Hungary the ghettoes were only set up for a few weeks and that the inmates of these ghettoes were deported within a matter of weeks. The ghetto in Budapest, established in November, 1944, was liberated by the Red Army in January, 1945. Furthermore, many of the deportees spent less than six months in the concentration camps.

Very few people could rid themselves of the suspicion that the ultimate objective was to pay compensation to as few survivors as possible and as late as possible, rather than to as many survivors as possible.

The Swiss admission over the existence of the dormant accounts in 1996 resulted in the transference of about 8 million USD from the Humanitarian Fund – set up by Swiss banks and the Swiss state – to the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Fund, with the provision that each entitled person should receive a lump sum of 400 USD. This sum has by and large been paid out. As a matter of fact, this is the first larger sum received from a foreign government by Hungarian Holocaust survivors. It must here also be noted that this was the first occasion when representatives of the WJRO and the Hungarian Jewish community worked together in harmony, and this can definitely be regarded as a good omen for the future.

The Red Army troops liberated the Budapest ghetto fifty-three years ago. About as many years have passed since survivors of the concentration camps began to trickle back to Hungary after experiencing what the ‘final solution’ meant in practice. They continue to feel a discrimination against them and the lengthy process of compensation has done little to allay their uneasiness.

The Hungarian state has tried to draw a distinction between one survivor and the other, between one dead and the other; compensation on a community level has just begun. In the meantime, time is running out, and the number of survivors decreases with each year. Time and over again, Hungarian Jews watching this process are made to feel by the representatives of world Jewry that they are not regarded as equals, that their interests are left out of consideration by international Jewish organizations.

And even though this is not entirely the case, it remains a fact that instead of bringing joy, the long-awaited, received and promised compensation is causing a growing bitterness.