Lack of evidence snags
restitution efforts in Belgium
By Joel Clark BRUSSELS, June 20 (JTA) – Nine years after the Belgian
government began to address Holocaust restitution, many survivors feel
cheated.
There is a restitution fund of $138 million, paid by the Belgian
government, banks and insurance companies in 2002. The distribution of
that money is running into snags, however, such as the pace of the
government-appointed commission and its demands for documentation that
many survivors cannot provide.
The Buysse Commission has spent four years going through more than 6,000
claims brought by Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims. The
commission expects to complete its work by the end of 2007.
Nearly $25 million has been paid out, but survivors who are unable to
prove what they owned during the war – either because records do not
exist or because they were too young to know the full extent of their
families holdings – do not receive full compensation.
Before the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, 65,000 Jews lived there; by
the end of the war, 28,000 had been deported and killed.
Joseph Novak was born in Brussels in 1935. During the war, he was hidden
in a nearby convent for more than two years. His mother was deported in
1942 and his father had died before the war.
Having rebuilt his life in Belgium, Novak, 71, now seeks compensation
for his parents’ apartment and possessions. Since he was just five years
old when he went into hiding, however, Novak lacks the evidence and the
memory to satisfy the Buysse Commission.
The result is that he received $3,100 in restitution. The amount is
based on his mother’s business and a deposit account his parents had
created in his name, the only two elements of his family’s pre-war
belongings for which records survive.
“I have behaved very well toward Belgium all my life, but have been
denied everything I have ever asked for,” Novak told JTA.
Novak’s case and others like it have received sympathy from the
Fondation du Judaisme de Belgique, an organization that originally
lobbied the government to address restitution and is now looking into
the best ways to use the remnants of the restitution fund to ensure
Jewish continuity in Belgium.
“At the foundation, our first and most important duty is to the
survivors,” said Philippe Markiewicz, a foundation board member and
president of the Coordination Committee of Jewish Organizations in
Belgium.
Markiewicz last year helped to set up Solidarity 3000, a framework by
which survivors who lived in Belgium during the Nazi occupation can
receive a minimal amount, regardless of documented evidence.
Solidarity 3000 is funded by interest earned from the restitution fund
and enables any survivor who has received compensation of less than
3,000 euros, or some $3,800, to claim the difference from the
foundation.
“Only when we have made sure that every survivor has received this
amount will we look at putting restitution money into Jewish
institutions,” Markiewicz said.
But that’s small comfort to a survivor like Novak, who says he can’t
face the emotional upheaval of applying to another organization to
bridge the gap from what he has already received.
“In the end, I just gave the 2,506 euros ($3,100) to my son as the
inheritance from his grandmother,” he said. “It’s not that I’m short of
money to support my family, but it’s what that small amount of money
symbolizes – all that my parents lost.”
Other survivors feel equally cheated by Belgium’s restitution system.
Betty Schaffel, born in Brussels in 1937 and hidden during the war,
claimed compensation for a pre-war family business that included five
valuable textile machines.
Schaffel was unable to prove pre-war ownership and received $1,900 from
the Buysse Commission, despite contesting the decision in court.
“It’s an injustice that a lack of proof from so long ago can mean such
small amounts being paid out,” she said.
Even those who originally fought to get restitution on the agenda feel
disillusioned. Belgian politician Viviane Teitelbaum Hirsch, former
president of the Belgian section of the World Jewish Restitution
Organization, is disappointed that despite years of government-sponsored
research and the large amount of money that was invested, survivors
still aren’t being fully recompensed.
“I really regret that Holocaust survivors, even those who were too young
to know what their families owned, are receiving so little in
compensation,” she said.