31 July 2011

Heirless Jewish property and treasure hunting in the Czech Republic

Ever since the end of the Second World War, politicians, diplomats, officials and bureaucrats in leading international Jewish organizations, non-governmental organizations, scholars, and historians alike have butted heads on what to do with so-called “heirless” property, or property for which no rightful owner can be found because, for the most part, the family line was extinguished by genocide and war.

There still is no resolution as to how to treat this problem that spreads discomfort and awkwardness across continents, especially among cultural institutions that are the custodians or owners of objects that can be described as “heirless.” What to do? Do we leave them where they are in display cases or on shelves in museum or gallery warehouses as mute witnesses to the horrors of a recent genocidal past? What if they can be connected to a specific geographic location? Do we then return them to the place from which they might have been collected before their owners were wiped off the face of the earth?

Or do we sell them and use the proceeds of the sales to help needy survivors and their families? A solution that has long been advocated by many Jewish groups and Israeli officials.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch—so to speak—treasure hunters are busy searching for the fruits of plunder abandoned or left behind in secret hideaways by fleeing and highly-resourceful Nazi officers and officials in the waning hours of the Second World War. One set of enterprising Nazis presumably buried over 500 crates filled with treasure and documents inside shafts and underground galleries near Štěchovice, about 30 miles from Prague (Praha). A Florida-based treasure-hunting firm, Assets Restitution International (ARI), has struck a deal with the Czech government to acquire “20% of the value of assets recovered...” This agreement includes a right of first refusal “on all heirless assets.”

While the Czech government makes it nearly impossible for the heirs of Jewish victims to recover property that was stolen by the Nazis and their sympathizers between March 1939 and May 1945, it sees fit to allow treasure hunters to garner their pockets with recovered Jewish property, whether identifiable or not. According to ARI, the potential value of recoverable property might exceed one billion dollars.

Perhaps, the Czech government should steer clear of these fun projects and abide by its international commitments to aid the remaining group of Holocaust survivors recover their property instead of harassing them by erecting countless legal and political roadblocks to prevent them from recovering anything under the sham pretext that the State has superior rights to all of those assets.

To be continued...